Turn Down the Temperature in the Room (and other leadership communication advice from Ash Carter)

Ash Carter, former United States Secretary of Defense and current Director of Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, has a new book called Inside the Five-Sided Box that shares lessons from leading the largest institution in America – the Department of Defense. While the strategy is intriguing, I most appreciated the leadership communication advice this respected leader gave, including communicating in a crisis, being vigilant with the press, bringing out the best in others, and using repetition to be memorable. Here are four favorite concepts and quotes from Ash Carter’s book.

 

Turn Down the Temperature in the Room

When dealing with a crisis, the first job of a leader is to determine when a decision needs to be made and why.  Often leaders make that mistake of  “getting caught speeding”— a phrase attributed to Air Force Secretary Mike Donley. Rushing because everyone is hot under the collar due to the crisis often means that decisions are made on false or incomplete information and without considering all the options.

“Once you turn down the temperature in the room, you’ll find that, quite often, what your team members really need from you is not an immediate decision but simply a sense of clarity and an orderly process.”

Better to take a few hours or a few days to gather information and examine possible solutions. In the meantime, communicate to your team that you are doing so and will make a decision when a decision is needed. It is also helpful to give team members tasks that are relevant to the situation while awaiting your decision.

 

Be Vigilant in Interactions with Press

With budget cuts that limit fact checking, shortened new cycles that limit balancing fairness, and a negativity bias that seeks scandals, today’s journalism limits high-integrity news reporting. 

“The changes we’ve see in the world of the media have made it harder for journalists to ply their craft at a consistently high level of excellence. That means a SecDef – like other leaders in the public eye – must be more vigilant than ever about his interactions with press and public.” (in the book the author switches between use of his and hers as pronouns)

While there are still excellent, principled journalists out there, spokespeople are wise to be conscious and careful when speaking with the media.

 

Bring Out Followers’ Best with Reinforcement

Communicating an organization’s values, historical knowledge, and culture can be the less glamourous, and therefore undervalued, part of leadership.  But without this focus on the underpinnings of success, there can be chaos and continual conflict.  Sometimes it is better to build upon a strong foundation rather than move in a novel direction. 

“Reinforcement means bringing out the best in your subordinates — not by leading them in a new direction, but by clarifying and supporting skills and behaviors they may not have fully understood, recognized, or felt free to practice.”

Both leading in a new direction and strengthening existing structures and process are important for leadership, and the wise leader knows when each is needed and most valuable.

 

Communicate with Repetition to Be Memorable

Because leaders are smart and keep current, there can be a tendency towards recency bias – talking about the newest thing.  While this builds a personal reputation of being sharp and up-to-date, it does not reinforce a brand nor help people remember what is most important about an organization or a project. 

“I came to respect the power of repetition to ensure that a message is heard, understood, and believed. I worked hard to define key concepts in a few words that were precise and memorable, and then to use those phrases on every possible occasion.”

While it may get boring to repeat the same phrase over and over, it really works to clarify messages and communicate priorities for audiences.  It works within a given speech and it works over a period of time. 

 

With 36 years of leadership experience at the Department of Defense under presidents of both political parties, Ash Carter has demonstrated an artful push for innovation utilizing effective leadership communication. One final piece of his leadership advice that behooves us all to follow:

“When in doubt, act if somebody’s mom may be watching.”

 

Top-5 Tips for Spokespeople

Excellent leaders are fantastic spokespeople. We see it all the time—leaders who seem to always have the right thing to say and deliver messages so naturally. While it takes practice, we all have the capacity to be great spokespeople for our organizations. Here are five tips to get you on your way with in-real-life (IRL) examples from my decades of experience working with leaders:    

  1. Leverage Personal Strengths
  2. Know Your Topic
  3. Listen Before Speaking
  4. Answer with Key Messages
  5. Always Represent
#1 Leverage Personal Strengths

People who put on an act for the press are perceived as insincere, so we always want to be ourselves and let our strengths come through in our interactions. Some of us are super organized in our content, some of us are passionate lively speakers, some of us are great story tellers.  When we know and leverage our communication strengths, we are better spokespeople.

IRL: A client in the financial industry is a great story teller, which meant he would tell one enthralling tale after another, but not in the most organized fashion. We worked together to create an organized frame of key messages and then tied stories to each of the key points. By previewing the key messages and then diving into stories—his personal strength—his interactions became both super engaging and easy to follow.

#2 Know Your Topic

While knowing the subject matter well might seem obvious, the point is that we need to know way more than what we think the media will ask. Imagine that the information to be shared with the audience is the 20 percent of an iceberg visible above the water and our knowledge base is the entire iceberg. For any topic, we need deep knowledge even when we are only expected to speak on the tip of the iceberg. This deep knowledge gives us confidence and credibility. A reporter may only ask one question that reveals the hidden 80 percent, but our answer to that one deep question will give us greater credibility for the other 20 percent of the topic.  If the topic is new to us, it is important to take the time to gain that deep knowledge before speaking.

IRL: Working with a client on a news radio interview, she created three full pages of notes on the topic, including key points and supporting evidence. From those three pages we were able to cull the best key messages and catchphrases for her to give a compelling interview. She felt confident that she could answer anything the reporter threw at her.

#3 Listen Before Speaking

By listening, we gain so much information that allows us to customize our communication. If we jump right in with our organization’s message, we may miss the opportunity to highlight something of great interest to this particular reporter. During the ice-breaker portion of the conversation when we may be talking weather and sports, also ask questions about current interests. ‘What is striking you in the news this week?’ is one way to inquire. When it is our turn to speak, we can use the information we just learned from listening to make our content more relevant.

IRL: During a mock interview where I was playing the reporter, a client was listening carefully as we connected with chit chat in the beginning. When I started asking interview questions, he brought forth customer examples from the geographical region I was pretending to be from, asking if I was aware of the company’s success in my hometown. The interview was so much more relevant because he listened carefully and customized his content.

#4 Answer with Key Messages

When we really know our organization and topic, we are able to communicate key messages in many different ways—through facts, statistics, and stories. No matter the question, there is always a way to bring in a key message. This technique just takes a bit of preparation and practice. If we are asked about a recent promotion in the company, for example, we can start by talking about the specific person and then segue into talking about a key message about company growth.

IRL: A client created a message map with a customer story for each key point that we had generated. With these stories, she was able to sprinkle in interesting vignettes throughout conversations and then always ended these stories by reiterating a key message.

#5 Always Represent

Any time we are in public, we are representing our organization. This is an advantage if we have the right mindset because we can always be building the brand whether we are chatting with someone on the airplane, giving an interview, or socializing at a party. It is a disadvantage if we don’t have the ‘always represent’ mindset.  The organization’s reputation can be harmed if we misbehave at a party or are rude to a fellow passenger on the plane. Keeping in mind that every time is the right time to make a good impression, we can represent our organization well.

IRL: I heard a story from a client that she was at a friend’s birthday party and just chatting with a friend of a friend who asked her what she did. Having practiced her firm’s pitch in a one of my workshops, she made the firm sound super interesting.  Turns out this person was looking for an investor and engaged with the firm. Because she was ‘always representing’ both she and the firm benefited.

Building on our strengths, knowing our subject matter, listening well, including key messages, and always representing—these are my top five tips for spokespeople. Putting these tips into practice will improve skills and help build a positive reputation.

Mindful Communication Meditation

The purpose of this meditation is to prepare for a difficult communication interaction – leading a meeting, tough conversation with a colleague, or presenting to important people in small or large audience.

 

Manage Power Dynamics with Communication

“Like energy is the basic medium in physics, power is the basic medium of human relationships,” Dacher Keltner, PhD as heard on the WorkWell podcast.

It is easy to be blind to power dynamics because of our democratic-society culture.  We want to believe that all people are equal, but that delusion puts us at a disadvantage in being able to actively manage power dynamics.   

Power in a macro sense is our ability to make a difference in the world, and in a micro sense power is our ability to influence those immediately in our presence.  All relationships, all human interactions, inherently have a power dynamic. Awareness of that dynamic gives us the advantage of intentionally managing it. We may not be able to instantly change positional power, but we can change referential or earned power with the people in our presence through communication. We can use both verbal and nonverbal communication to both give and take power.

In sharing this advice, I am assuming that your intentions are to use power for good, to enhance the lives of others, and to lead compassionately.

Giving Power through Communication

To ‘empower’ someone is to shift some of the power in any given dynamic to another person in that dynamic.  There are many times when we want to give power to others for the betterment of teams, organizations, and even for ourselves. We may want to give others power when delivering constructive criticism on a team, seeking multiple solutions for issues in an organization, or working to gain a broader perspective personally.  For example, in a group meeting where one person has less advantage – perhaps because of race or gender – another person with greater advantage can give that person power by mentioning their contribution to a successful project or directly asking for their input.  These verbal means to give power include kind words, acknowledgement of difficulties, compliments, and asking open-ended questions. 

We also give power through nonverbal communication, helping others feel heard.  Nonverbal means to give power include:

  • shifting body weight to one foot while standing
  • crossing legs (sitting or standing)
  • leaning elbows on table when sitting
  • clasping or putting hands together
  • tilting head to one side
  • consistently smiling
  • speaking quietly
  • speaking at a quick pace

Taking Power through Communication

While the thought of taking power may initially seem selfish, there are many benevolent reasons to take power in an interaction.  When we see situations as unjust for ourselves or others, when important information is being ignored, or when respect is not being given, that is the time to take power. In some organizations and some situations, the power dynamic needs to shift in our favor so that we can benefit others and lead compassionately.  We can verbally take power by raising our voice, asking for a turn to speak, or interrupting others. Interrupting with short phrases, such as ‘time out’ or ‘hold up’, is a way to grab attention so our voices can be heard.

Verbally taking power is often perceived as confrontational, so nonverbal means may be more effective in some situations. Nonverbal ways to take power are:

  • standing up when others are sitting (going to draw on a white board is effective)
  • standing square-shouldered with weight on both feet directly facing another person
  • shaking hands firmly
  • making direct eye contact
  • sitting at the top end of a conference table
  • leaning far back in a chair with arms wide
  • using grand hand motions (even when sitting)
  • speaking slowly (after garnering attention)

It might feel strange to intentionally give and take power as described above, because we’ve been enculturated to believe that we naturally share power evenly. But, if we find ourselves in situations where the outcomes are not what we wish, it will benefit us to learn and use power-shifting communication skills. The most important takeaway is to be aware of power dynamics.  Once aware of the dynamics, we may be able to trust our natural instincts to adjust the power balance using the strategies described above. 

 

 

Paradise to Public Speaking Meditation

The purpose of this meditation is to recollect the calm and invigoration of paradise before speaking in public in order to increase confidence. 

 

A 5-Minute Primer on Compassion in Leadership

Compassion in leadership is an emerging concept in corporate management, brought to the forefront by LinkedIn in CEO, Jeff Weiner.  But for most of us, the concept may be a bit fuzzy and theoretical. I was interested in learning more because I teach Leadership Communication at San Francisco State University.  At the recent Compassion in Leadership Summit at the Computer History Museum, I gained a much clearer understanding, so here I have captured 10 hours of content for you to read in the next 5 minutes.  The key takeaway is that leaders need to develop three core compassion skills and organizations need to develop systems that foster compassion.

Compassion = Empathy + Action

Put simply, compassion is where empathy meets action.  Empathy is feeling what another person is feeling, while compassion is putting yourself in the shoes of another for the purpose of alleviating suffering.  As Jeff Weiner explains, if you see somebody being crushed by a boulder, empathy is feeling the crushing feeling in your chest as they suffer. Compassion is understanding their suffering based on a past painful experience you had and then finding a way to get the boulder off them. 

The 3 Skills of a Compassionate Leader: Awareness, Mindset, Action

Scott Shute, Head of Mindfulness and Compassion, LinkedIn defines compassionate leaders as having the capacity for awareness of others, a mindset of wishing the best for others, and the courage to take action.  Lori Schwanbeck, Co-founder of Mindfulness Therapy Associates, reminds us that humans are wired for compassion, but the environment in which we are raised activates different levels of capacity. The good news is that we can all expand our capacity for compassion. In each of the three leadership skill areas, there are items that limit or expand our capacity for compassion.

3 Skills of the Compassionate Leader

Awareness of others means being present to what is happening for the other people in our environment. Capacity for awareness can be limited by our propensity as humans to orient to ourselves as a matter of survival and by the overactivity of our sympathetic nervous system.  We may incorrectly perceive what is happening around us as a ‘flight or fight’ situation, activating the sympathetic nervous system and limiting our brain’s executive functioning.  Capacity for awareness can be expanded by self-regulation of emotions, a sense of curiosity, and through the practice of noticing others. 

Our mindset affects how we act and how we treat other people.  Because as humans we are always pattern matching and connecting new information to what is already in our brains, we tend to relate to people as if they are actually the story that we’ve created about them in our head.  If they are wearing a business suit our story may be that they are ambitious. If they are in tattered clothes, our story may be that they are disadvantaged.  Depending our story, we will treat that person more or less compassionately. Therefore, a mindset of wishing well for others is an important skill for compassion in leadership.  The mindset of wishing well for others can be limited by fear, competition, lack of trust, and differencing through ‘not-like-me’ thoughts. Our capacity for wishing well for others can be expanded by seeing others as ‘like-me’ with common humanity, through gratitude, and by celebrating other’s success and happiness. 

The courage to take action means being willing to be uncomfortable, to step into another’s shoes, see things from a different perspective, and possibly acknowledge our own weaknesses.  This courage can be limited by overwhelm, apathy, self-promotion, and time pressures. We’ve all been in situations where we see a coworker who might need help but are in too much of a hurry to meet our own project deadline to stop and help. That is time pressure limiting the courage to take compassionate action.  The courage to take action can be expanded by setting intentions, taking small steps, and connecting with an accountability buddy.  An example is setting the intention to ask a coworker how they are doing and then deeply listen to their answer.  With that intention we will gain the courage to take that action, even when we are rushed. 

During the conference we practiced exercises in noticing, connecting, and thinking of actions to take as a means of building up our Compassion Quotient (CQ).  As Scott Shute said, “A few breaths put us in the performance zone and opens our aperture to other people.”

Organizational Systems can Foster Compassion

“Smart companies know that doing well and doing good go hand and hand, and as our CEO says, ‘the business of business is to improve the state of the world’,” Ebony Beckwith, EVP & Chief Philanthropy Officer, Salesforce

“Investing in others’ success is investing in your success and the organization’s success,” Jeff Weiner, CEO, LinkedIn.

A business that is both doing well and doing good, and also highlighting the importance of individual success for overall organizational success, is likely to have systems in place that foster compassion. Christina Hall, SVP and Chief People Officer at LinkedIn commented that it is not just the typical Silicon Valley perks that are part of the company’s effort to treat employees compassionately.  It also includes things like long leave times with counseling and building inter-work relationships. LinkedIn uses Glint to survey employees and hear directly what they want and don’t want. The answer to a question about what people wanted to see in the manager one-on-one meetings was phones off and laptops closed. That led to a new system for meetings, a system that increased compassion and employee engagement and supported one of LinkedIn’s codified values: Relationships Matter. 

Ebony Beckwith of Salesforce also mentioned the significance of relationships, particularly the importance of leaders being clear with people – clear about goals, expectation, what is working and what is not.  “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.  Being a compassionate leader is having the courage to be clear with people,” she commented.  Open communication is a common theme of many systems that foster compassion in organizations.  “When you share, it opens up others to share,” Ebony added.

Another interesting organizational system, that we might not associate with building compassion, is business success measurement.  Mohak Shroff, SVP of Engineering at LinkedIn told a story about a change in the system of success measurement.  The original measurement system tracked and maximized productivity. Productivity went up, but people complained.  The new system of measurement maximized for happiness.  Happiness, productivity, retention, and recruiting all went up and complaining went down.

Other system ideas shared included starting meetings with team members sharing one thing they appreciated about each other and having a section of all-hands meetings focused on recognizing compassionate actions of leaders and employees.

Hopefully this short summary of the Compassion in Leadership Summit made the concept clear and sparked ideas for implementation.  As the conference host Soren Gordhamer said, “Wisdom and compassion are two wings of one bird.”

 

Shifting Focus Meditation

The purpose of this meditation is to increase the ease of stepping into somebody else’s shoes and taking their perspective to gain understanding.
 

The Art of Giving and Accepting Feedback: Correcting Mistakes Respectfully

“What were you thinking sending out that document without letting me review it first?”   Judgmental, emotional, imprecise, and not actionable, this type of feedback is ineffective.

“I see that the document was submitted without me seeing it.  I need to review all material prior to submission to ensure consistency and accuracy.  I understand you were working against a tight deadline and appreciate your effort to submit things on time. In the future, please send me documents first and indicate the exact deadline so I can be appropriately responsive. Moving forward, how do you plan to handle documents due in tight deadlines?”    Observant, objective, respectful, and actionable, this type of feedback is effective.

We know that feedback is an important part of work and learning from mistakes, but we tend to resist giving it and we mostly don’t like getting it either. As the Harvard Business Review article The Feedback Fallacy outlines, feedback often becomes a sort of punishment that people dread. The trends of ‘radical transparency’ and ‘real-time 360 reviews’ can create a culture of harsh criticism that is unhelpful. The article states that using feedback to tell people what we think of their performance hinders rather than promotes excellence. The purpose of feedback as described in this blog, though, is for changing a specific behavior, not for giving an evaluation of overall work performance. 

Some leaders with whom I’ve worked tell me that they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, even though they want a behavior to change.  On the flip side, I hear from professionals that they feel bad when getting feedback, as if that they have let somebody down or shouldn’t make mistakes.  When we fall into these traps, we miss out on an important opportunity to communicate clearly.  Delivered and received properly, feedback is a fantastic mechanism for mistake correction. It can also improve interpersonal work relationships by making it clear that it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them, and that people are important enough to spend the time to communicate openly and directly.

The art of feedback is in being objective and respectful, both when giving and receiving.  We need to keep impulsive emotional reactions out of the process, despite what we feel in the moment and what we presume may be the reason for the mistake.

Giving Feedback

When we give feedback, we need to focus on the problem and not the person.  Judgement, evaluation, and analysis are not helpful because they are subjective and open to multiple interpretations. What ishelpful is feedback that includes four key components:

  1. Address the specific behavior
  2. Describe objectively what was observed
  3. Make an explicit actionable request
  4. Confirm that the other person has heard what we said

It is also helpful to acknowledge something good about the person’s efforts, intentions, or something they did well in the situation.  We know we have provided feedback in a respectful and effective way if the person is able to hear our request without getting defensive; they hear that we want a change in action not a change in person.

Accepting Feedback

When we get feedback, our job is to accept it. Easier said than done, because we tend to feel attacked and defensive.  The benefit of accepting feedback is we learn from our mistakes and are less likely to repeat them. The art of accepting feedback is to listen carefully and not take things personally.  We can:

  1. Listen without interrupting
  2. Receive the information objectively
  3. Ask clarifying questions
  4. State our intentions to consider the request

Even if the message is delivered in a judgmental way, with practice we can hear just the request for change in behavior. We can filter an unskillful delivery of feedback with our listening and react gracefully and respectfully using the four steps outlined.

Mastering the art of feedback requires keeping our emotions in check—when giving and receiving—and that can be challenging. But integrating effective feedback into work relationships drives value by creating an environment where mistakes can be made and fixed, with people still feeling valued.

Calm in Conflict Meditation

The purpose of this meditation is to gain the skills of equanimity and managing emotions during interpersonal conflicts.

 

Where Attention Goes, Energy Flows: Be Attuned in Conversations

Where attention goes, energy flows.  That is the name of a meditation in my current rotation on Insight Timer.  This concept applies to most things in life, including communication.  When we are interacting with others, we have the choice of where we place our attention. In conversation we have the option of focusing on ourselves or on the other person.  Mostly we shift back and forth absent-mindedly.  We can focus on ourselves without even realizing it. Have you ever found yourself tuning out the person talking to craft your own point or response?  I know I have. But, when we make a conscious choice about where to place attention, we become better communicators.  By intentionally focusing attention, we direct where our energy flows. Those with whom we are interacting perceive this through our nonverbal communication.  Although it is hard to put into words, we all intuitively know when somebody else is really paying attention to us or not.  

We become better communicators when we are intentional about where we place our attention; when we are attuned we gather more information about our environment, which leads to greater understanding and more options of how we respond.  We notice what is going on internally for ourselves and what may be going on for others by reading their body language and listening carefully to what they are saying.  It makes it easier for us to craft thoughtful and inquisitive responses to what they say because, by deliberately maintaining our attention on the person talking, we pick up more than just their words.  This skill takes practice; it does not happen when we absent-mindedly shift. 

We can practice this shifting of attention on inanimate objects or sounds in order for us to improve at intentionally shifting while in conversation.  Airports are a great place to practice while waiting for a flight. We can listen to the activities around us, bringing one into focus and ignoring the rest, and then switching to another and bringing that into focus.  For example, listen to the announcements about flights over the public address system for a minute, and then shift to listening to the airline attendants helping passengers check in.  We can shift our attention visually too, looking from one passenger to another in the waiting area, noticing something we see as positive about each of them.  In addition to being great practice in deciding where our attention and energy flows, this can also be quite entertaining.

We can also practice in everyday conversations with family and friends.  When others are talking, notice where your attention is focused. Where are you looking?  What are you hearing? Are you hearing every word said, or just some of the words and also the response you are planning in your head? Are you picking up what is being communicated through tone of voice or facial expressions? It is not beneficial for us to judge ourselve in this practice, just to notice and then set the intention of how to focus attention so energy flows in the desired direction. Practicing on a daily basis in low-stakes situations makes it easier to do in high-stakes conversations.

My clients that practice this intentional attention tell me that it becomes easier to really listen, that conversations flow much more naturally, and that they are surprised at how much more information they are able to learn from others.  In addition, they build a reputation for being thoughtful and attentive with the people in their company and industry, a key component for effective leadership.  

Leadership Wisdom: Learnings on the Intersection of Mindfulness & Technology

The Wisdom 2.0 conference just celebrated its 10thyear, seven of which I have attended and come away from inspired.  Listening to leaders in a wide range of fields who practice mindfulness for pursuing excellence is an awesome learning experience.  This year, hot topics included social media as society’s mirror, reducing biases in the tech industry, therapeutic psychedelics, and eliminating ‘us-them’ thinking. Here are bits of wisdom from mindful leaders that inspired me.

Social media amplifies what is inside us already; it is a magnifying glass for human nature.

Envy and competition have always been there, but so have compassion and community.  Jay Shetty of Making Wisdom Go Viral emphasized that there are actually more wonderful shares on social media than we think.  A recent Inc. article highlighted a study that looked at 777 million Facebook posts to see which were shared the most; not only were most of the shares positive, but the top 10 were all positive.  Jay’s motto is SHARE GOOD, FOLLOW GOOD, CREATE GOOD – definitely wise words.  Diego Perez, the real-life Instagram famous Yung Pueblo, seconded that sentiment with his perspective that social media is a means for humanity to have a conversation with itself.  The worthy goal of that conversation is to master the skill of kindness to others as a human collective. In terms of moderating social media use so that is healthy for overall wellbeing, Jay reminded us that, like in all of life, self-discipline, habits, and practice are what make the difference.

We all have biases; change starts with seeing them.

Improving diversity and inclusion in the technology industry is not an easy task.  While it is hard to notice the lens through which we see the world, practicing mindfulness helps us see more clearly.  Candice Morgan at Pinterest, Jules Walter at Slack, Nancy Douyon at Uber (and previously Google, IBM, and others), and Bradley Horowitz at Google are all focused on progress for diversity and inclusion in the technology industry.  Candice had a learning moment when a young black man told her he felt like he always had to have his work badge visible so people knew he belonged in the building.  Jules reminded us that when you are the ‘only one’ it is hard to be vocal, and that it’s helpful if people don’t assume but rather ask and try to understand different approaches and perspectives.  Nancy helps companies have a global-first perspective, such as Uber taking cash in India. Candice spoke of an internal study that revealed that the most effective managers were those who sought input on how best to communicate with others and showed humility by talking about mistakes. 

Shortcuts to enlightenment have limited but valuable use.

We’ve been hearing more about psychedelics in the news since Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” book came out.  Science is demonstrating that therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs can have similar effects on the brain as meditation does.  However, as Dan Siegel put it, for most people drugs aren’t needed because we can reach that same brain state and get many more benefits with mindful awareness.  The real value of psychedelics seems to be in the treatment of PTSD and in end-of-life care.  Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) is leading Phase 3 human trials for MDMA therapy to address PTSD in veterans, with promising initial results.  Researchers at John Hopkins are doing psilocybin research for terminally ill cancer patients, again with promising initial results.  Every leader speaking on this subject emphasized the important difference between recreational and therapeutic use of these brain-changing substances.  While science is demonstrating valuable therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs, most of us can stick to changing our brains through mindful meditation.

The moment we separate ‘us’ and ‘them’ we’ve lost the cause

Paul Hawken, well-known environmentalist and editor of “Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming,” has been advocating for the earth for decades without making enemies.  From the outset, “Drawdown” was designed to share possibilities for solutions without passing judgement so that everyone can be involved.  When asked a question about big oil companies, Hawken immediately pointed out placing blame on those companies was an ‘us-them’ perspective and not helpful for implementing solutions to the existential threat we all face.  

Challenge Your Worldview

Each of us has a unique worldview.  It is human nature to form constructs and have predispositions as it helps us navigate the world, but the flip side of that coin is that our worldview can limit us.  When we hold tight to our worldview, we automatically shut out valuable information that could be of benefit.  

After we step off the curb in Chicago and see somebody else who did the same get hit by a car, ‘don’t jaywalk in Chicago’ becomes part of our worldview.  It is imperative we learn from our experiences.  Particularly when we are growing up, we establish all sorts of rules based on our interactions with others that create the worldview we now use to navigate life.  The rub is that often our worldview is operating in the background, influencing our interactions with others without our knowledge.  It limits our perspective by coloring the lens through which we see the world, like how wearing sunglasses distorts true colors.  It inhibits our ability to learn new things, and to understand and relate well with others.  

We can’t undo our worldview; it is a core part of each and every one of us.  But we can become aware of how it influences our relations with others and make deliberate choices of when and how we use it.

What Color are Your Glasses?

The voice inside our head is constant.  It tends to be repetitive and typically represents long-held beliefs that we are not consciously choosing in the moment.  The first step in challenging our worldview is being able to recognize its influence.  To do so, turn inward in real-time and listen to what the voice inside your head is saying. For example, many of the hugely successful leaders with whom I work have a ‘not good enough’ voice that speaks about the inadequacies of others and themselves.  This critical filter of high standards is a core element to being successful, but it also limits the ability to hear new and innovative ideas from others. Once we see this worldview in action, it no longer has automatic control over our interactions.

Fact Check Yourself

The ability to monitor ourselves gives rise to choice in our words and actions. As outlined in the book Factfulness, we tend to operate on instincts instead of current research-based information.  Once we hear what the inner voice says, we can challenge it.  We can be the investigative reporter fact checking what is being said.  We ask, what is the factual basis? What are the assumptions and how did they come to be? We check if the assumptions are applicable in this moment and in this instance.  One worldview I held that was recently debunked by reading Factfulness is that people vary primarily by culture.  “Country stereotypes simply fall apart when you look at the huge differences within countries and the equally huge similarities between countries on the same income level, independent of culture or religion.”  Now that my worldview has been fact checked to include the information that people are more similar based on income level than based on culture, my listening filter has been updated.

Step Into Other’s Shoes

After we see our worldview in play, the next step is to intentionally take other’s perspective as a matter of practice. We can choose a receptive listening filter to deliberately expand what we already know and see if there is something new we can learn.  We can ask genuine questions that help us really understand others’ points of view, seeking information about their assumptions.  We can be the investigative reporter with others in the same way we are with ourselves.  In particular, we can seek to uncover their underlying assumptions and research-based facts they may have to support what they are opining.  With this type of listening comes a new level of understanding that can expand our worldview.

Acknowledging that our worldview influences our interactions without our consent, we can make a shift to challenge it.  Noticing the color of our glasses and acting as the investigative reporter for ourselves and others, we unlock the opportunity of seeing the world from different perspectives.  We open up the possibility of constantly learning and relating with others much more effectively.

Start with Intentions

All communication starts with an intention, whether we know it or not. Being aware and deliberately setting our intention improves our interactions with others.  

Imagine this: you walk into the office and your coworker stops you on the way to your desk to tell you a funny story about a client interaction. Instead of laughing, you brush them off and hurry to your desk. Most likely your intention was not to hurt the feelings of your coworker. More likely your intention was to quickly get to work and respond to urgent deadlines. The intention was subconscious, not deliberate. If it was deliberate, right when you saw your coworker you may have said, “Hey I’m up against a deadline, can we chat later today?” This simple example shows the benefit of being aware and deliberate about our intentions.

It only takes a second.

Setting intentions is not like setting goals. We don’t need to spend a lot of time figuring out exactly what we are trying to achieve. We just need to pause, turn inward for a moment, and notice. We can ask ourselves the question, “What are my intentions here?“ and trust whatever arises as the answer. All of this can happen in just one moment.

We have relationship and content intentions.

In communication we have intentions around relationships with others and around content. In our individualistic American culture we tend focus more on the content than on the relationship elements of communication.  An example of content intention is getting others to understand information we are sharing so that we can reach a project goal. An example of a relationship intention is to make others feel respected so that every member of a team contributes to a project. In a meeting, these two different types of intentions will lead to different styles of communication. If we have the ‘others feel respected’ intention, we will not talk very much and most of our speech will be confirming language in response to what others are saying. If our intention is to have others understand the information we are sharing, we will likely talk more and periodically pause to ensure understanding.

Balance is Required.

In many circumstances, conflicting intentions exist and we need to find a balance. I see this often with clients during media training. The spokesperson has the intention to ensure the reporter understands key messages, and also has the intention to make a personal connection with them to build a relationship.  In this case, spokespeople need to balance their content and relationship intentions. I recommend dealing with this dichotomy of intentions by kicking off the interview with a concise preview of key messages and then letting the conversation flow, asking questions of the reporter as much as answering questions with evidence and stories.

There is danger in subconscious intentions.

Sometimes we get ourselves in trouble when we are not aware of our intentions. Because intentions drive our communication style, without awareness we can offend others and hinder our interactions. One creative way to avoid this danger is to write our own ‘User Guide’ that makes our overall intentions explicitly clear to others.  I read about this idea from Jay Desai, CEO of PatientPing, a First Round Capital portfolio company. Desai has seen “ . . . too many immensely talented and productive teams stall because of a subtle misunderstanding of how to best work with each other.” The ‘User Guide’ specifies exactly how we operate and when we might malfunction in order to mitigate the danger of miscommunication. In Desai’s example, preferred methods of communication are ranked, priorities of time spent together with him are set, and implicit biases are stated. This candid written communication can help optimize our working relationships with others by informing them of our general intentions. Creating a ‘User Guide’ does not preclude the need for us to be aware of our intentions at the beginning of every interaction.

Start at the very beginning.  

As Julie Andrews sings in the Sound of Music, ‘Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start’. We will communicate more effectively if we start at the very beginning and deliberately set our intentions the moment before interacting with others.