Reading out loud the names of fallen soldiers this Memorial Day as I walk through the cemetery, I hear the bravery of those who gave their lives for our freedom and the sorrow of those who lost their loved ones. They no longer speak, but we can still hear the meaning of their sacrifice as we live our privileged lives of freedom. Strength can be found in acknowledging all those who came before us and especially those who died defending our country. Those with medals of honor and those unknown soldiers all deserve to be heard on this day of remembrance.
Dum Tacet Clamat – Though Silent, He Speaks
In times of great personal and community suffering, we can ease others’ pain through listening, through bearing witness to their experience. We encounter others’ distress through social media, but we also encounter it at work as we hear stories of our colleagues going through hard times. This blog was motivated by my personal encounters of suffering this week including stories of war, the continued pandemic suffering, and the death of a dear friend’s mother. I was also inspired by a conversation with a client who provides palliative care. Sometimes the pain around us gets to be so much we are at a loss of what to do. In these times we can remember the power of bearing witness, of validating the existence of something simply by being present.
My client Dr. Cheng provides palliative care to patients at UCSF’s Cancer Center. In preparing to speak on the topic of palliative care and integrative medicine, Dr. Cheng commented, “Palliative care welcomes grief into the room and allows it. Given the times – pandemic and war – we need to let grief and pain in the room.” I asked how we actually do that and the response was, “Inviting people to share whatever they are experiencing and bearing witness and deep listening and letting go of other agendas. As you and I know, the caregiver and facilitator need to first do that for themselves.”
What a powerful reminder.
Inviting People to Share
Asking open-ended questions is the best way to invite people to share. These questions allow for expression of whatever is occurring for the person at the time. We make room for what arises by being open to anything people choose to say. Open ended questions often start with the word ‘what’ as these examples below show.
- What would be most helpful for you to share about your experience?
- What is most present for you at this moment?
- What are you experiencing right now?
- What was that like for you?
Bearing Witness with Deep Listening
Verifying that something exists can be done through deep listening. Listening is a gift and can be demonstrated by being fully present, setting intentions, and giving appropriate cues. We can intend to hear everything others are expressing with voice and body and we can avoid thinking of other things while they speak. If we start to plan our response while someone is speaking, we can just acknowledge but not follow that train of thought and return to deep listening. The nonverbal listening cues of head tilting and nodding help the speaker feel heard and are likely to come naturally when we are listening deeply.
Letting Go of Other Agendas
When we are being mindful, we might notice that we actually have something we want out of supporting others. We might want them to perceive us as being helpful. We might want to make things better by offering our hard-earned advice. We want might to demonstrate that we understand by sharing an experience of our own. These are our agendas. It is instinctive to have agendas, but when we are bearing witness, our agendas are not helpful. We can let go of our agendas by naming them in our heads as they arise and then visualizing them passing on, like a leaf floating down a river. We can focus entirely on bearing witness. The kindness of letting go of our agendas gives more space for others, more room for grief to be present.
Building Our Strength First
Bearing witness is emotional work. It might sound simple through the steps just outlined, but simple is not easy. We feel others’ pain when we hear their stories. To be in a place to offer this deep listening, we need to first take care of ourselves. That means making space for our own pain or grief and listening to ourselves without any self-criticism about how things ‘should’ be at any given time.
We all encounter others’ suffering on a regular basis at work, in our personal lives, and through world news in various forms of media. While we don’t have the power to stop war or solve a colleague’s woes, we do have the power to bear witness to others’ experience and, being resolutely present, ease the pain.
Teamwork is helpful but hard – and virtual teamwork is even harder. In an increasingly distributed work environment, more explicit communication is required in virtual teams to make up for the missing subtle communication that automatically occurs when in person.
When teams are effective, the outcomes are impressive. Research shows effective teams generate better solutions to problems with multiple possible outcomes, which is just about every 21st century problem we face. The key word here is “effective.” An effective team achieves their tasks, has high satisfaction among team members, and has viability for the future. It also has a high level of team virtuousness, or adoption of norms and moral commitment, which leads to team cohesiveness. On the flip side, ineffective teams can slow things down and create interpersonal conflict.
As we know from experience, so much of success and satisfaction with teamwork happens through communication. In person, this includes all the subtly of nonverbal communication. We notice our teammate is having a bad day by the way they sit at their desk, a bit slumped with their head hanging, so we save our critical feedback on their part of the project until tomorrow. We can tell by their upright and leaning forward posture when we discuss one element of an issue that it is of great interest to that team member, so we suggest they take it on. In person, we take in myriads of signals that guide how we relate to team members to help us be part of an effective team. When we lack all those signals, it gets more challenging.
Virtual teams have a harder time communicating the subtleties of interpersonal relationships, requiring different tactics. Of course, there are benefits of virtual teams, including being able to tap experts regardless of geography and being able to build a team of diverse members. Innovative technologies, such as video and chat and so many collaboration applications, have made it logistically easier for virtual teams to share content and interact. But even video does not provide the richness of interaction that benefits in-person teams. Since we know virtual teams are here to stay and communication is more difficult without in-person nonverbal cues, we can compensate with more explicit communication processes and techniques.
Explicit communication processes and techniques that are helpful for virtual teams include consistent structured and unstructured team meetings, reflecting back to indicate we listened, and metacommunication to adjust for effectiveness.
Consistent Team Meetings
Because virtual teams lose much of the ability to have “water cooler” talk, consistent meetings become more important. Having calendared time that team members can depend upon for working through strategy and task execution increases effectiveness and satisfaction. Both structured and unstructured meetings are important because they serve different purposes. Structured meetings with set agendas move things forward for the team and give team members a way to share and discuss items in a timely fashion. Unstructured meetings serve the purpose of letting team members communicate issues and ideas that are not specifically task related. Even in unstructured meetings, there still needs to be mechanisms to ensure everyone gets a chance to speak their minds, such as round-robin shares prior to open discussion. But the agendas can be open and fluid with any team member bringing up something that is top of their mind.
At a micro level, interpersonal communication on virtual teams can improve just by making the practice of reflecting back a team norm. Reflecting back, sometimes called replay, is when one team member shares what they perceive they heard from another team member. For example, when a team member says, “I don’t know why everyone has to edit each document before it gets posted. I don’t have time for that much editing and other team members just need to trust that I am an expert in my area.” Another team member could reflect back, “I hear you are feeling time pressure and want to be respected for your level of expertise, and that makes total sense. Is that an accurate depiction?” Notice that there was no judgment nor any recommended action or solution in that reflect-back statement. Reflecting back is purely a technique for making team members feel heard. It occurs before the problem-solving step. It replaces the subtle nonverbal communication of the empathetic head nod and facial expressions we would give in person to make somebody feel heard.
Metacommunication is the discussion of how interactions are occurring. Just like metadata, it is pulling up a level to get a new perspective. This technique is helpful in many situations where there is a misunderstanding, but it is imperative for virtual teams to meet the third element of effectiveness: viability for the future. No matter how much team members are committed, the very nature of being human means there will be miscommunication. When the team norm is to apply metacommunication when things are not running smoothly, problems can be efficiently addressed. Miscommunications are often about differing perceptions of the same thing. For example, one team member perceives moving quickly through a portion of the agenda as indictive as that part not being important, while another perceives it as a means to keeping the meeting on topic and on time. The first team member might feel disrespected if that section was about content that they felt was important. By pulling up a level and having metacommunication about the incident, the second team member could make it abundantly clear that they highly respect that person and their work and they were just working to keep the meeting on time.
Since we know that virtual teams will be part of the workforce in the foreseeable future, adjusting our communication to make our teams effective is critical. Meeting consistently, replaying content to make people feel heard, and using metacommunication to resolve issues are techniques that help make up for the missing nonverbal cues we get with in-person teams.
Our world needs kind leaders who create progress, and John J. Kelly was one such leader helping people improve their lives. The recently published book, The Quintessential Good Samaritan, tells of John Kelly’s life work in making a difference in the lives of so many people. Through many engaging stories we learn of his compassionate leadership style. What stood out in his leadership is humble connections with others, good story telling, and persistent pursuit of his ideals no matter the pushback. Over the course of his life, he did this as a priest, and educator, an advocate for the poor, a mentor for troubled youth, and an inspiration to the incarcerated.
Time and time again, people recount how John Kelly met them as they were as an equal. He was able to erase the power gap of his position in society and truly connect human-to-human with others. One example of this connection was how at risk-youth went from making no eye contact and not speaking to calling John ‘abuelo’ (grandfather) and teasing him about his common expression ‘oh stop it’ as they laughed with him. A San Quentin inmate who built a strong relationship with John Kelly in his progress of turning his life from prisoner to positive community contributor in society, told of John’s connections to other as recounted in the book. “ . . . he was in his mid-seventies, yet he engaged nineteen and twenty-year old gang bangers – Noreños, Sereños, Black folks from the East Bay. You could look at him as a friend . . . He always came as an equal which attracted people to him.”
An important note is that John Kelly, because of his humble nature, would not take credit for all that I am attributing to him here or of the achievements listed in the book. He would attribute the success to the individuals changing their own lives and to the many citizens who contributed to building community and helping others. While all of this is true, his leadership did strongly influence change and progress in countless lives.
Stories for Wisdom
Storytelling was integral to John’s leadership. He told stories to illustrate life and he facilitated others to tell their stories both as a means of self-healing and as a means of sharing wisdom with others. He told stories as a priest to bring religion into the reality of people’s lives, as a teacher to demonstrate life lessons, and as a mentor to at-risk youth and the incarcerated to inspire. When John was mentoring at-risk youth, he had inmates from San Quentin write letters to the teens he was coaching and had them read the letters out loud to each other. They told stories of how they were once in the same place as these teens, thinking that the gangs were their families, only to realize that they would be abandoned when something went wrong and they too would end up in prison. The stories from people who walked the same path were so much more effective than a school guidance counselor lecturing a student about the hazards of gangs. And through the Kairos program at San Quentin, Kelly helped inmates change their lives with the important first step of writing their own stories to acknowledge both the tragedies of their childhoods and the responsibility of their own actions.
Persistent pursuit of equal kindness and opportunity for all people did not make Kelly popular among some in power, but it did allow him to make the change he wanted to see in the world. As a priest, John Kelly pushed against what he believed was ill-guided in the establishment. He supported striking lay (non-priest) teachers who were not receiving commensurate pay to public school teachers, he permitted non-Catholics to participate in taking communion, and he deviated from traditional mass. All of these acts of defiance were motivated by compassion for people and the community. These acts had consequence both positive and negative. He made incredible human connections and life-time friendships and he also was chastised by the religious establishment and eventually left the priesthood. Yet his persistent pursuit of fairness continued through his work at Samaritan House and at San Quentin Prison. Many times, he bumped up against other leaders who believed he went too far in giving the disadvantaged second chances, even when they continued a life of crime. But those who managed to break the cycle would say that this unconditional love provided by Kelly was exactly what they needed to go against all odd to change their lives.
I was lucky enough to have met John Kelly on a few occasions, including when he spoke at San Francisco State University to a group of students interested in leadership and restorative justice. I saw firsthand his unrelenting passionate pursuit of ideals, his use of stories, and the human connection he so quickly created with the students. This student engagement was one more example of so many throughout John Kelly’s life where he instigated change for individuals and society.
We are embarking on a new year – what kinds of goals have you set for yourself? Setting big audacious goals and expecting quick results is tempting but can cause us to fail with inaction because we become overwhelmed by the enormity of them. Breaking those goals into smaller increments – and setting the expectation of progress in the same way – we see that it is not too much to take on. I recently added a new exercise to my morning routine and it has certainly given me practice in heeding my own advice on progress. The first day I was barely able to do one and now, after 25 days, I can do eight. My goal is 22 and it may take the better part of the year for me to get there – incremental progress.
Communication habits take time and incremental progress to change. Habits are automatic behaviors that we’ve learned from an original motivation which now occur without a conscious motivation. Changing unwanted habits requires consciously replacing that action with a new one, until the new action can occur without conscious motivation. Research shows that habits take time and repetition to build.
Take one of the most common communication habits that people want to change: audible pauses (um, uh, so, er). We can make a goal of having silent pauses and come up with strategies, such as pressing the roof of our mouth with our tongue, but we will still use audible pauses in our speech for some time because they are a habit. They occur without conscious effort. Our original motivation that formed the habit was likely to hold our spot in a conversation so that somebody else doesn’t interrupt. We need to replace the audible pause with something else that holds our spot – such as executive presence through bold posture. Then, over time, we achieve the same goal of holding the conversation with a different action. We consciously and repeatedly replace audible pauses with bold posture and the tongue on the roof of our mouth so no sound comes out. We build a new habit – incremental progress.
Setting realistic habit-change expectations and tracking incremental progress will reduce frustration and the tendency to be self-critical, which only sets us back. In the reducing audible pauses example, it is better to start by picking one meeting a week in which fewer than five audible pauses are used. Then, the next week, pick that same meeting and one other, gradually increasing the number and types of communication interactions in which we utilize our new habit. Gentle persistence applied relentlessly.
In this first month of the year, join me in taking on new challenges, applying persistence in small increments over time, and making progress. From Benjamin Franklin’s idiom, “Little strokes fell great oaks,” we get the reminder that small everyday efforts make change happen.
Oh, the joy of having somebody fully in the moment with us, hanging on every word, entirely focused. This year, we can give the ultimate gift – our time and full presence.
I am lucky to have had the most wonderful mom in the world, and one thing she is remembered for is how she would greet people who came to visit. It was if every time was the first time she had seen you in a very long while. She would exclaim loudly, “Jennifer is here!” and rush toward me in grand embrace – even if it had only been two days since I saw her. She was so interested in every little detail of my life and would ask questions to demonstrate interest, even in the mundane. If I told her I fed the kids pasta, she would ask what type of sauce.
That feeling of being so strongly emotionally embraced was an incredible gift. What she gave was her time, attention, and interest. What it felt like was confirmation of my importance as a human being.
We are fortunate when we encounter humans who naturally give in such a generous manner. We all can be one of these humans who spread joy through the gift of presence. What it takes is mindfulness and curiosity. Being aware and uncertain about who this person in front of us is and what will happen next. You read correctly – uncertainty is key to this gift of presence.
Our minds naturally project what will happen next based on our past experience. It is a practical skill that helps us move through the world without having to relearn things all the time. But in the art of gifting presence, it is not helpful. When we set aside the predictions and the certainty, what arises is curiosity and wonder. That is what makes us see the other person with fresh eyes and ask questions we never thought of asking. And that is what feels wonderful for others: our undivided attention and our fascination with this very moment and this very person.
This giving season, consider presence for presents because nothing is more valuable than our time and attention.
Often we think of expressing our gratitude in heartfelt prose, but small bites of appreciation shared frequently helps strengthen relationships and improve morale. During this time of the Great Resignation we hear stories of people leaving their jobs because they are not happy. While pay and working conditions are at play, a sense of purpose, aligned values, and being appreciated are also stated reasons for seeking other opportunities. Sharing our appreciate for others around us is one thing we can do to keep our teams and organizations strong. Through small doses of affirmations, we can help create a culture of gratitude.
Here are a few ways we can concisely express appreciation.
- Your hard work is valued
- I notice you really care about this
- Clearly you put in significant effort
- You obviously worked hard on this
- I see you have your teammate’s back
- Way to nail that one
- Nice work
- You knocked that out of the park
- Well done
Just One Word: Wow! Excellent. Superb. Kudos. Fantastic. Terrific. Impressive.
Small efforts to show appreciation can have a big impact on others around us. When we see or hear something that is impressive, let the person know and help contribute to their sense of being valued. While it might feel a bit corny to say these short phrases and one-word expressions, a little can go a long way.
We have all had the experience of reading or hearing something and having no idea what it means, making us either feel stupid or stop paying attention or both. Good communicators use simple language to help others understand their message, especially when communicating complex or technical topics.
Just yesterday I read on my Twitter feed, “In response to today’s coronal mass ejection (CME) from Region 2887 associated with the X1 flare a G2 (moderate) watch is in effect . . .”
What do I do with that information?
Climate change advocates are explaining carbon neutral as, “. . . when anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period.”
When was the last time you used anthropogenic in a sentence?
At a conference I heard a speaker say, “Create the environment without conspicuously otherizing people with the difference.”
How many times do I have to repeat that back to myself to figure out what it means?
Here are simplified examples of the above statements that are easier to understand.
- We might see gorgeous lights in the sky called an Arora because of an electrical storm.
- Balancing out the carbon dioxide we put in the air with the carbon dioxide we take out is called carbon neutral.
- Make everyone feel included without pointing out differences.
Keeping our communication simple helps people understand better and it does not offend those who may already have an understanding. Here are the top three tricks for keeping it simple.
Top Three Tricks to Keep it Simple
- Use Everyday Language
Think of explaining something to a recent high school graduate with no job experience. Using words and phrases they would understand is everyday language. We can write out our message and then edit it to reword anything that requires a dictionary or an internet search.
- Avoid Jargon and Acronyms
People outside of a specific industry are totally lost with jargon and acronyms. Take for example the acronym EMT; it can mean ‘emergency medical technician’ or ‘electrical mechanical tubing’ depending on the industry. Both ‘exercise induced asthma’ and ‘environmental impact assessment’ are abbreviated as EIA. Even people within a specific industry need to spend more time figuring out what something means when jargon and acronyms are used.
- Explain with Stories
Stories bring ideas to life. When we share situations where something relevant happened, people are more likely to understand our ideas. When I tried to explain to a friend how my AeroPress was not working, I failed to gain understanding until I told a story of coffee spurting out in all directions as I tried to make my morning caffeine fix.
Wise words taken from a symposium on science communication remind us, “We cannot afford to assume that the public, or even sometimes our colleagues, will understand our science without investing some effort into the manner of its delivery.”
We want to communicate in a way that makes our audience easily understand our ideas, and most definitely not feel stupid. Using the top three tricks of everyday language, no jargon, and story explanations keeps our communication simple and our audiences engaged.
Fear of public speaking, conflict avoidance, dread of delivering bad new – many communication interactions can lead us to a sense of discomfort. Handling these tough interactions skillfully requires us practicing in order to get more comfortable with the discomfort. What typically happens is that emotions arise that throw us out of our prefrontal cortex of executive function and into our amygdala reptile brain of flight/fight/freeze. In that moment, we need the skills to reverse that phenomenon quickly so we have the wherewithal to cope. The skills required are awareness to notice what has happened and calming techniques to quickly reduce the adrenalin and restore equanimity. Let’s look at some of the situations that tend to get us riled and explore ways to practice with discomfort.
We’ve all heard that fear of public speaking is the number one phobia, so it is not surprising that it causes discomfort. Giving a speech puts us in a vulnerable position of being judged by others, which can trigger emotions of fear and unworthiness. While it is true that many people feel significant discomfort when they are giving a speech, in my experience it is not the most common creator of discomfort in communication. The more frequent complaints I hear working with professionals as a communication coach are about the discomfort from dealing with conflict, giving criticism, and delivering bad news. These items have in common that they are confronting others one-on-one with the risk of hurting or insulting another person. Because we as humans have such a strong need to feel a sense of belonging, we to strive to create connection. Confrontation risks breaking connection and therefore triggers discomfort.
Practice with Discomfort
Engaging in interactions that create discomfort is one way to practice, but that is high risk until we have mastered the awareness and emotional regulation. It is better to first practice being with discomfort outside of situations that generate discomfort. This requires imagining the situation with detailed visualization engaging all senses, then feeling the subsequent emotions arise and processing those emotions with a technique. Ways to practice listed here are all mindfulness techniques and can be used both in visualizations and in real life communication interactions that trigger discomfort.
Use the Breath to Calm the Body – Breathe in 4 counts, hold 4 counts, exhale 8 counts
“Breathing in, I know the feeling of despair is in me. Breathing out I know this is only one feeling and I am much more than one feeling.” Thich Nhat Hanh
IRL: Before going on stage to speak, pause, turn focus inward, and practice this breathing technique. As you are breathing out for the long period, silently say to yourself that you are much more than what you are feeling at this moment. Doing just three of these types of breath will calm your fight/flight/freeze physiological reactions and get you ready to do your best public speaking.
Approach with Curiosity – What might happen? How can I be with that?
“When you see the beginnings of a healthy conflict, you should lean into it. Say, ‘That’s interesting, this feels productive. Let’s talk about it.’ It signals that you are intentionally fostering ideas.” Jack Altman, CEO of Lattice from First Round Review article, The Ultimate Guide to Running Executive Meetings.
IRL: When somebody disagrees with your idea in a meeting, pause and notice the initial reaction, take a breath, and then intentionally shift to being curious. The first thing that comes out of your mouth should be a genuine question. For example, “Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way before, can you explain your thought process so I can fully understand?”
RAIN – Recognize what is happening; Allow it to be; Investigate with kindness; Nurture it
“The RAIN technique is a simple, yet highly effective way of tuning into our inner world and creating a pause between the stimulus of the outside world and our reaction.” Tara Brach
IRL: Delivering bad news, such as letting an employee go or telling a client the goal was not met, is a good time to use the RAIN technique. When developing talking points, pay attention to feelings without pushing them away. Let the emotions guide what you are going to say. Then in the moment, honor your feelings and those that are likely to arise in the other person, in order to be with the discomfort of the situation without any pretense that things should be otherwise.
The purpose of practicing outside of the moment is to experience the reaction and repeat the process over and over until we feel more comfortable with it. We practice until we feel comfortable with the rising of emotions and the mechanisms of calming the emotions so we can interact skillfully. Think of it like practicing a tennis serve or a basketball show – repetition is what makes our bodies build muscle memory and it give us a level of comfort.
Over time, practicing being with discomfort will increase our comfort with the human process of having strong emotions arise and modulating those emotions so that we can make clear decisions and communicate skillfully. Then in the moment, being comfortable with discomfort, we can stand strong and grounded on stage and belt out our opinions on a subject, we can approach conflict with the true desire to understand another’s perspective, we can share criticism in a way it can be heard as caring, and we can deliver bad news with the presence that allows space for all emotions.
Full participation makes for better meetings – and we all want better meetings. As leaders we gain full participation by adhering to basic meeting best practices and through inclusive communication techniques; as participants we contribute more with preparation.
To make meetings better as leaders we need to apply discipline in the basics of good meeting management: getting the right people there and prepared, setting and following agendas, and managing time. These basics form the structure of effective meetings, but full participation is the key ingredient that makes for high-productivity meetings. There are several communication techniques that increase participation, including explicit expectations, warmups, round-robin sharing, write-first, and polls or surveys. Each of these participation-increasing communication strategies serves a different purpose and they can be mixed and matched to meet objectives.
- Warmups: Warmups are a tool to set the tone of the gathering and get everyone comfortable speaking up. Warmups can be as simple as asking everyone the same easy question or playing a simple game. Favorite-Questions and Would-You-Rather game are examples of warmups. What is your favorite movie/book/podcast? Would you rather swim/wade in a lake, a river, or the ocean?
- Expectations: Setting explicit expectations at the beginning increases participation by letting everyone know the rules. For example, “Everyone here will have the opportunity to share their opinions. We are setting the ground rules of waiting until each person finishes and says they are complete before the next person speaks.”
- Round Robin: Round robin is simply the technique of speaking in turns one right after the other without interruption until everyone has had a chance to contribute. This tool is really helpful to gather different ideas for a brainstorm or capture varying opinions about an issue. Round robin is particularly effective in a meeting of people that span the power structure of an organization.
- Write First: Having all participants write their thoughts on a topic first before discussion is a means of increasing participation. Writing first allows people to better formulate and subsequently articulate their thoughts. This technique is excellent for complex problem solving and deeper analysis. Though it can be used for any topic to increase participation.
- Polls: People find responding to surveys and voting on things to be a fun way to participate. With technology, this can be done anonymously and give immediate gratification of results. In person it can be done with hands/thumbs up or down and direct verbal responses. Polls engage people, get the pulse of the group, and are helpful in making final decisions after discussions.
As participants, often we are asked to ‘just speak up’ but are not given an obvious way to do so. The first line of action is to ask meeting leaders to step up and use inclusive strategies, but there are also many things we can do on our own. Identifying where we add value is key. Preparing in advance – comments, questions, places in the agenda we can contribute – makes it easier to speak up. And once we have established a presence, we can lend that social capital to somebody else in the room who needs space for their voice.
- Value Add: Everyone is invited to a meeting for a reason and knowing why we are there is extremely helpful in determining how we can add value in participating. If we really don’t know, we should find out with a simple email to the organizer, “I see that I am on the invite for the xx meeting and I am wondering what how you would like me to participate.” This may also get us out of unnecessary meetings if we were invited just as a courtesy.
- Preparing: Just a few minutes of preparation time can substantially increase our confidence in being an active contributor. Reviewing the agenda, we can formulate our thoughts on topics and come up with questions we can ask. Question can be for the purpose of gathering more information, but they can also be means of instigating deeper conversation or including others. For example, we could ask “What was the thought process behind the current conclusion?” to instigate more evaluation. We could also ask “What does engineering/marketing/Jane/Joe think of this topic?” to give voice to somebody else and expand inclusion. More than anything else, preparing makes us sure of ourselves and, therefore, makes it easier to participate.
With just a bit of forethought and effort, we can gain full participation and improve our meetings both as leaders and as participants.
We subconsciously adjust our communication styles to match the people we are around; shifting that to a conscious effort is a communication skill that improves interactions but can raise the fear of being phony. Understanding the communication tactic and being clear on our purpose helps us to match others’ styles without losing our own.
Consider this common conversation I have with clients:
Me: Perhaps you could adjust your speaking style to fit your audience, reflecting their style.
Client: That would be phony, putting on a act; I want to be my true self.
Me: Do you talk to your grandparents the same way you talk to your friends?
Client: Of course not.
Me: How do you change the way you speak for your grandparents as compared to your friends?
Client: Well, I show respect to my grandparents, I don’t curse, I say yes ma’am and yes sir. Around my friends I am much more casual. We finish each others’ sentences and say whatever is on our minds.
Me: So, which of those is your true self?
Client: Both are, I mean I love my grandparents and like to spend time with them, it is just different than being around my friends, that’s all.
Me: So, actually you are already adjusting your speaking style to fit your audience, switching how you speak to your grandparents and your friends. Now you can just apply this skill to your professional life, consciously adjusting how you speak based on the audience.
Mirroring and Code Switching
Many times, we are mirroring and code switching in our communication without being aware that is what we are doing. The two academic terms, mirroring and code switching, refer to our tendency to adjust the way we communicate depending on the people and the situation. Mirroring is matching another’s nonverbal style by displaying similar gestures and using the same vocal qualities, which activates a part of the brain that increases connection. The term code switching originally described bilinguals switching between languages and then expanded to include people switching dialects or styles within a language, depending on the context, in order to improve communication. There are many studies that show both the natural human propensity for mirroring and code switching and their respective communication benefits. Mirroring has been shown to facilitate collaboration and code switching to increase a sense of belonging. One entertaining article shares personal stories on the reasons we code switch. Understanding that matching our styles to others’ styles is natural for humans, we can see the intentional effort of adjusting styles as a maturation of that inherent skill.
In the client scenario I shared, the person had a very clear purpose for speaking differently to their grandparents — showing respect. Being clear on the purpose for adjusting our style (in addition to communicating in general) helps motivate us to make the effort and know how we can adjust. In more extreme cases, such as when a friend is in crisis, we are clear that our purpose is to be supportive and will match their serious demeanor and likely mirror their actions, such as sitting if they sit. In a work setting, the purpose may be less obvious, but often is about relationships – building trust, and earning or showing respect. It can also be about content; learning or sharing information requires open listening and a good connection on the part of the communicators.
As soon as we have identified our purpose, we are motivated to communicate in a manner that supports that purpose, including intentionally mirroring and code switching. That might look like leaning back in a chair when others lean back, or speaking more quickly if another’s pace is fast, or even adding a curse word if the others use profanity as a regular part of their speech. The caveat is that the range of style variation needs to fit within the scope of what feels comfortable and real for us. If we never talk fast and then try to speed up to match a New Yorker, we might feel phony or defeat our own purpose if we trip over our words. If we never curse and then drop an f-bomb because others are, we are likely to feel awkward and thereby hinder instead of increase connection. With the purpose of improving relationships and increasing mutual understanding, we can mirror and code switch within the realm of our own communication repertoire.
It is natural human tendency to adjust our communication according to the people with whom we are interacting. Learning to do that intentionally is a powerful skill. Consciously paying attention to the person(s) we are with, noticing their mood and communication style, and then adjusting our own style accordingly helps us be effective communicators able to fulfill our purpose. Understanding the phenomena and being clear on purpose helps us develop that skill while remaining genuine.
Move. Look up. Focus. Acknowledge Effort. Vary Medium.
Research on videoconference is rolling in from academics now that a year has passed since it became our primary means of communicating. While we’ve all learned the skills needed to do Zoom right, we now need to learn how to keep it from making us crazy. The latest research out of Stanford and San Francisco State University clearly shows that the fatigue we are feeling is real, with distinct causes, but also that there are ways to mitigate the problem. To tell just how much we are affected, we can take the ZEF Scale survey and contribute to Stanford’s research efforts.
Why the Fatigue?
Based on the current research, the reasons we are feeling this Zoom fatigue – which is not specific to Zoom itself but to any videoconference platform – are both physical and psychological. Physically, we are not moving our bodies and our eyes as we typically do when we are meeting in person or talking on the phone. Psychologically, we are dealing with watching ourselves in action and with having to process nonverbal communication that is more difficult to catch and interpret.
When we don’t move our bodies, we fall into sitting-and-watching-mode where we become conditioned not to act and we have reduced subjective energy. When our eyes are fixed on one thing (the screen) for a long time, certain eye muscles stay in a tight position. This is in contrast to when we look at different things, as we do when meeting in person, and different muscles in the eyes contract and then relax.
Psychologically, when we look at ourselves, we tend to be critical and that puts us into negative emotional states. There has never been a historical time when humans watch themselves while communicating the way we tend to do on videoconference right now. Another historical change is interpreting nonverbal communication when it is mediated through videoconference. In person, we are constantly picking up cues subconsciously decoding messages and making meaning from them. Not only is it harder to give and receiving nonverbal cues, but we are getting false cues that we need to interpret. This places a higher cognitive load on us. So, while we sit still, look in one place, see ourselves constantly, and work to send and interpret nonverbal cues, we are getting exhausted!
That is the bad news. The good news is that the research also gives us relatively easy fixes to these problems. We can move our bodies and our eyes, stop looking at ourselves, focus our attention, increase nonverbal cues given and interpreted, and utilize multiple communication media.
Move it or lose it. Sitting all day is bad for us physically and psychologically, so we just need to move our bodies more. We can shift positions from a chair to a stool to standing for different videoconferences throughout the day. We can take short breaks by scheduling the start of meetings at five minutes past the hour; do burpees or dance to energetic music for three minutes in between meetings.
Avoid staring at one spot of the screen for a long period of time to eliminate eye fatigue. First take the opportunity to shift from looking at the speaker to the presentation materials, which are ideally on a separate monitor. We can position our computers in front of a window and look up right over the edge of camera to something far in the distance outside the window and then back again to move our eyes without appearing to be distracted. We can avoid watching ourselves and triggering negative emotional states by checking our frame when we start and then turning off our self-view.
To avoid the drop in energy from falling into sitting and watching mode, stay with the flow of the meeting and avoid attempting to multitask (which is usually just task switching). Taking notes on paper (or even doodling) and responding in chat or with emoji reactions helps sustain on-topic attention. Setting the corporate culture to eliminate unnecessary meetings and making sure only those essential to the purpose attend helps to avoid people sitting on videoconference while doing other work.
Nonverbal communication mediated through videoconference simply takes more energy. We need to exaggerate our facial expressions and nod more in order for others to be able to read our nonverbal cues. We also carry a heavier cognitive load to interpret others’ cues. Did they glance to the side because they don’t understand or don’t believe us? Or did someone just enter the room on that side? We can ask more questions and engage people through chat, turn taking, and requests for reactions so that we are getting more feedback – but all that takes effort too. Acknowledging that effort helps us plan our workload more effectively. We can also specify when video is needed for a meeting, or at what points during a meeting, and when it is not. This works well for my students when online learning; we are on video when interacting and then off video when I present material and ask for written responses.
All Zoom all the time just doesn’t work. It is like sitting in the conference room all day in meetings and never going back to your desk to get work done. Before the pandemic videoconference craze, we were more varied in communication mediums. As we come out of the pandemic, we will make choices about how we communicate from a wider variety of options. The best time to use videoconference will be when we cannot be physically in one place, but definitely need to see others.
With many of us still working from home, and with conversations starting about what post-pandemic office life will look like, it is helpful to have new research to guide us in using videoconference as an integral part of our daily work life. With making a few adjustments, we can keep being effective collaborators and communicators without exhausting ourselves.
In meetings we can set time limits and agendas, but in casual conversations it is much harder to know when enough is enough. Recent research is shows that we are not that good of a judge.
Those who are good meeting managers know that setting an agenda in advance, having a time manager assigned, and tabling items when things run long are effective means to ending conversations in meetings. But when it comes to more casual conversations, we are generally not taught how to end them and we are even taught it is impolite to end them. This lack of training and discomfort leads to conversations running longer than we would like.
Of 126 conversations, only 2% ended when both participants wanted them to, according to research by Adam Mastroianni, Ph.D. student in psychology at Harvard University, as reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some extraverted souls had wanted to chat longer, but 69% of the participants said they wanted the conversation to end before it did.
Mastroianni and his colleagues also surveyed 806 people on the online crowdsourcing platform Mechanical Turk, asking them to describe a recent in-person conversation—and how long they actually wished it had lasted. Similar to the lab results, 67% of people reported they wanted out before the conversation was done.
Ending Conversations is Risky Business
The nature of conversation is back-and-forth turn taking that has social rules of politeness embedded. When we engage in a conversation, we are showing interest in another person. To end a conversation, we are taking risks. We risk that whoever takes the last turn is indicating more power. We risk implying that the other person is not that interesting or no longer interesting. The rules of politeness or face-saving come into play and make it difficult.
While Mastroianni’s study shows that we may not be that good at ending conversations, there are certainly communication skills we can apply to this conundrum. As usual, the first step is moving our communication from subconscious and automatic to intentional. With that intentionality, we can be more aware of signs or cues from the other person and can use graceful, but direct means to end conversations.
Picking Up Cues
People are constantly giving nonverbal cues on how much they are interested; we can be attuned to the signs. Nonverbal indications of diminished interest – or desire to end the conversation – can include:
- Eyes to something else
- Body weight shift side to side
- Body turning slightly another direction
- One foot stepping out
- Increase in repetition of sounds like ‘uhuh’ or ‘mhm’
When we are ready to move on, we can give nonverbal cues that we are less interested as described above or, better yet, we can use wrap-up phrases that express gratitude or refer to the future. Expressing gratitude mitigates the risk of implying the person is not interesting and referring to the future implies continued interest. We can use phrases like:
- It was so nice catching up
- Thanks for sharing
- I really appreciate your insight
- When can we chat again?
- What is on your plate for the rest of the day?
- What are you hoping to garner from this conference today?
We can also use more direct phrases that indicate clear endings and put the onus on an external factor as a means of being polite, such as:
- I am sure you are busy, so I will let you go
- I wish I could keep chatting, but I need to get back to work
Given the recent research that clearly indicates conversations are lasting longer than we wish, it seems we could all employ intentional, direct, and polite strategies to wrap things up for the benefit of our professional relationships.
Two black women just got promoted to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies – THAT is making history! They follow the first ever black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company Ursula Burns who was CEO of Xerox from 2009-2016.
The 2020 Fortune 500 list of companies has only five black men as CEOs and only 38 women as CEOs. Historically women and people of color in the United States have faced great challenges and a much harder path toward leading a large company than the white men who dominate those positions. Now in 2021 we get to celebrate the appointment of two black women CEOs to Fortune 500 companies: Rosalind ‘Roz’ Brewer and Thasunda ‘T’ Brown Duckett. Thasunda Brown Duckett will take the helm at financial firm TIAA and Rosalind Brewer will take the helm at Walgreens. Given my work coaching and teaching leadership communication, I love exploring examples of pioneering leaders.
Both of these women came from humble upbringings and have worked tirelessly to build strong careers helping companies gain success. In addition to helping their companies succeed, they both have been advocates for gender and racial equity.
While stories of these two black women have been all over the press in the recent past, I am compelled to celebrate their success by highlighting their perspectives on leadership. In a country struggling with systematic racism and in need of strong leaders, I am so grateful for Duckett and Brewer for pioneering new paths to the top spots in American industry.
Rosalind Brewer on Leadership
Rosalind Brewer describes herself as a servant leader with the purpose of serving the people on her team. In an interview at the Aspen Institute titled Race, Reckoning, and Leadership in Tough Times Brewer explained how personally impactful the Starbucks crisis caused by employees calling the police on two black men in a store back in 2018 was for her. She felt both responsible in her leadership position and pained because her son was the same age as the black men. She helped the company to significantly shift in response to that crisis – starting with closing all stores and immediately doing training. When asked what three traits makes a perfect leader, Brewer responded:
- High Integrity
- Selfless Servant
She mentioned that high integrity is important because there will always be times of pressure and it is in those moment that it is ‘all about the decisions you make’. She sees herself as a selfless servant there to help people on her team succeed. She sees authenticity in someone who ‘knows themselves more than anyone else’ and it is a critical element to leading others.
In describing in greater detail her role as a servant leader during a Stanford Graduate School of Business View from the Top interview, Brewer said, “They got to know I have their back every day.” She explained that she still remembered what it was like to work in some of the unfortunate jobs. She mentioned that early in her career, “I had to do some of the toughest, dirtiest jobs, but it gave me a chance to learn; I put that to work every day and look at is as a blessing.” Remembering that, she intentionally takes the perspectives of the people who work at all levels of her organization.
Thusunda Brown Duckett on Leadership
Thusunda Brown Duckett sees her purpose in life to inspire others and her passion is to help everyone achieve financial security. She often says that she stands on the shoulders of giants and expresses gratitude for all those who have supported her in her pursuit of the American dream. She helped foster the development of careers for black people and women through the Black Pathways Program and Women on the Move programs at Chase. And she started the Otis and Rosie Brown Foundation in Arlington, TX for supporting students of all backgrounds.
When asked about the many awards she received, Duckett commented, “When I can represent being a powerful woman in banking or being a top African American, I think it just gives a nod to possibility for other women or people who may share a similar story.”
Given the financial hardships she experienced as a child, prosperity as a means to address racial equity is important to Duckett. She addresses that topic head on in a recent LinkedIn post: The bridge to racial equity starts with financial health The first step is taking a hard look at the wealth disparities for black Americans created by systematic racism. “That requires moving beyond the ingrained perception that talking about money and race is taboo, and that financial hardship results simply from bad personal decisions. It also requires moving beyond a culture with the prevailing ideology that success comes simply from individual responsibility.”
In an interview with Operation Hope, Duckett shared her perspective on leadership. She stated, “I rent my title, I own my character.” She explained that she understands that titles are owned by companies, but people have ownable assets – character, purpose, passion. When you show up with your ownable assets you can be authentic and make a real sustainable difference.
Leadership Communication Skills
In addition to being incredible leaders, both of these people are also incredible communicators. Three excellent leadership communication techniques I notice both women use:
- Repetition of key messages through multiple media outlets and mediums
- Strong posture and powerful nonverbal communication, such as sitting with legs square and uncrossed and using hand motions at chest level
- Commanding verbal communication with wide vocal variance of tone and volume
These are truly inspirational black women making history. I look forward to watching them thrive and lead others to do the same in the next decade.
President-elect Joe Biden’s acceptance speech used language to unite this country. We each can hone our #ListenFirst skills and use the same unifying communication to strengthen and expand our communities.
Biden started with a pledge to unify:
I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify.
Who doesn’t see red and blue states, but a United States.
And who will work with all my heart to win the confidence of the whole people.
For that is what America is about: the people.
Midway through the speech, he acknowledged all of the people from so many walks of life that supported him and then he acknowledged those who did not support him and he called for cooperation:
And to those who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of elections myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance.
To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.
The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make. And if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate. And I believe that this is part of the mandate from the American people. They want us to cooperate.
Biden concluded with the benefits of being unified:
This is a great nation. And we are a good people. This is the United States of America. And there has never been anything we haven’t been able to do when we’ve done it together.
This intentional language of unification is an example we can all follow. We too can set the intention of communicating with inclusive language. We too can acknowledge and show respect to both those who agree with us and those who do not. We too can gently point out to those around us that we all have a choice to cooperate. We too can remind ourselves and others that we all are stronger and more content when we are unified as a community and as a country.
We all have somebody who inspires us – to work harder, to stand up for what we believe in, to be the best versions of ourselves. This post reveals such leaders. This October, my students in Leadership Communication at San Francisco State University created artwork to convey leaders who inspire them. The leaders were poets, politicians, educators, families, entertainers, athletes, healthcare workers, and executives. In the hopes that the students’ selection of leaders and artwork brings you as much positivity as it brought me, here are some examples (shared with students’ permission).
One silver lining to our work-from-home situation is that we often hear more about the human side of our colleagues. Taking a step back to realize that the person on video is also dealing with everything 2020 has brought helps us to see their humanity.
Instead of the typical sports and weather topics that we often chat about face-to-face before diving into a meeting, now we often get to hear about family members and pets and emotional states as we share common struggles. People are making more self-disclosures and revealing their humanity. This human-first communication makes finding commonalities and building strong relationships easier, and that is a good thing.
Communication research shows that when people make emotional self-disclosures there are benefits to themselves and the relationship.
- Greater Self Affirmation – We feel more supported and confident after we share with others. Recent study participants demonstrated this empirically by being less defensive toward threatening information, which is correlated to greater self-affirmation.
- Higher Perception of Relationship Quality – We believe that we have a stronger relationship with the person to whom we self-disclose. Study participants reported that their conversation partner was warmer, that they enjoyed the interaction, and they even tended to like the partner more.
We receive these benefits because we feel others understand us and because we do something scholars call ‘cognitive reappraisal’ wherein we think of situations in a new light and gain a broader perspective. Connecting on this human level is mutually beneficial.
Hopefully these improved relationships are lasting, and we can see them as a positive aspect of our otherwise tough situation. That seems to be a trend as we round into the third quarter of this year. According to a recent poll, two-thirds of Americans believe the troubles of 2020 have made them a better person and 38% indicate they want to create more meaningful personal relationships.
We can embrace the greater human connection and foster stronger relationships for the future. We can even “take your colleagues to the proverbial watercooler with you as you move around your home” expanding our shared environment and opening up greater creativity that is usually found away from desks at work.
When we slow down and remember that the person on our screen is human, we can appreciate the house tours and family interruptions that occur on video meetings. Instead of seeing them as disruptions to work, we can see them as opportunities for building stronger professional relationships.
We are masked most of the time these days, but we are still communicating with people we encounter in public, and being intentional about that makes for clearer communication and can create a sense of belonging. Even though we have masks over our noses and mouths, we are still communicating with our upper face and our body language, in addition to what we choose to say and how we say it. But, many of the verbal and nonverbal social cues we use to make meaning have literally been muted.
You may notice when you are on an outing and you encounter others with masks, some seem to pretend that you are not even there. It is as if covering noses and mouths prohibits communication. It reminds me of toddlers who cover their eyes and then think you can’t see them.
I don’t know about you, but when I encounter such people, it is off-putting, raises my already-elevated sense of COVID-19 anxiousness, and reduces my sense of belonging in community.
Yet, I have been that person! Focused on task at hand in a store or on a walk and pretending that nobody else exists. It seems easy for us to fall into these silos in public these days. Adding a hat and sunglasses makes it even easier to socially disappear.
The opposite also happens. I am on a walk and smile underneath my mask and say hello and the other masked people smile, nod their heads, and/or say hello back. Sometimes I even get a ‘what a cute dog’ or a ‘have a good day’ response. Then I feel the world is still a friendly place and my mood brightens. That experience has given me reason to consider more intentional communication.
I have been coaching leaders all summer on how to communicate more effectively on Zoom, and I realize that just as there are techniques to counter reduced human interaction on video, there are also techniques to compensate for communicating while wearing a mask.
We can use other forms of nonverbal communication and adapt our verbal communication to compensate for having our mouths and noses covered.
Nonverbal communication techniques we can employ while masked include:
- Head movement – taking a page from the book of the India head hobble, we can tilt our heads to show listening and nod or shake our heads to communicate if we agree
- Eyes – we can make direct eye contact to show that we want someone to listen and that we care, and we can smile underneath the mask, which makes our eyes visibly smile too
- Foreheads – we can raise or lower or furrow our eyebrows in a more dramatic way than usual to express our emotions
- Shoulders – we can raise them up when we don’t understand, and we can move them toward or away from a person as a means of connection or distancing
- Wave – the popular way to finish Zoom calls, the wave is also an effective form of masked communication to indicate friendliness when passing by or signal completion of an interaction at a store or restaurant
Adjusting our verbal communication while wearing a mask also improves interactions and creates more of a human connection.
- Slow down and enunciate – to be understood even though our mouths are covered, we need to speak at a slower pace and consciously enunciate our words
- Speak louder – it is just harder to hear with a mask on and sometimes a shield in between, but it is worth the effort to raise our volume in order to converse
- Say hello – just a short greeting will increase the sense of connectedness when a lengthy conversation is too much effort
- Be respectful – ‘yes please’, ‘no thank you’, ‘have a good day’ — these short salutations are easy and foster friendliness
All of these masked communication techniques, while seemingly minor in consequence, can actually go a long way in helping with clear communication. They also may alleviate pandemic anxiety and increase our sense of human connection in a time when we all could use a little more understanding.
Leadership titles line our bookshelf, but recently my husband, John Kammeyer, insisted that I immediately read Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal just as he finished it because the book was so insightful for him. After I read the book, our internal conversation inspired me to share John’s leadership perspective.
Why did you insist I read McChrystal’s Team of Teams right when you finished it?
I have read so many leadership books that focus on productivity or ‘hacks’ to accomplish more in less time. What I like about this book is that it explains why the processes we have been using for the last hundred years — originating from Taylor’s 1911 principles of scientific management — don’t currently serve organizations well. It recommends that instead of striving for efficiency, organizations shift to adaptively solving complex problems.
What is the core concept of Team of Teams?
McChrystal proposes a new way to solve problems by breaking down silos and unifying different parts of an organization through extremely transparent communication and decentralized decision making. For McChrystal, this method shifted the way the United States addressed the dynamic threat in Iraq by unifying different elements from special operation forces to the CIA. The core concept is that in our information-heavy, ever-changing world, being adaptive must be valued at the same level as being proficient for organizations. To be adaptive, all teams must understand and be working toward the larger organizational goal and communicate with every other team. This makes a Team of Teams.
You have an academic understanding of leadership with a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership, leadership experience as a Fire Chief, and now lead Training in a humanitarian rescue organization. Why is this Team of Team concept appealing to you?
It addresses a problem I see of leaders, including myself, struggling to apply traditional methods in a world becoming increasingly complex. Complex is different from complicated. Complicated can be difficult, but also predictable, so the Taylorism organizational principles of the 20thcentury worked well to solve the problems in the industrial and early informational ages.
“Things that are complicated may have many parts, but those parts are joined, one to the next, in relatively simple ways…they ultimately can be broken down into a series of neat and tidy deterministic relationships… Complexity, on the other hand, occurs when the number of interactions between components increases dramatically; this is where things quickly become unpredictable.”
The information revolution and current speed of technological innovation has moved the world from complicated to complex. Access to information has changed not only what we know, but how the whole world acts, increasing dependencies between moving parts and making prediction near impossible.
That is why there is a need to change the functioning of organizations away from optimizing process to being adaptable. I saw this increasingly in the fire service and now in humanitarian aid. Being adaptable means that every individual needs autonomous decision making at some level, and the only way that works is if they have the right information to make a decision that best serves the organization. The Team of Teams’ leadership facilitates both the distribution of information and a sense of camaraderie among members in an organization so that every function is working toward the same broad goal and can quickly adapt as unpredictable environmental elements change. These environmental elements change more quickly in organizations that are focused on crisis, such as the military and emergency services, but they are changing quickly in most organizations. And recently the pandemic and civil unrest in the U.S. has created unpredictable factors for every organization.
‘Shared consciousness for empowered execution’ is a key Team of Teams concept. What does that mean in practice?
In a word it means trust, organizational trust. Most of us are wired to be competitive or accomplishment-based and, because those two terms are usually measured against other people, it can create an unhealthy environment or organization. ‘Shared consciousness and empowered execution’ in practice mean that organizational objectives are known throughout and everyone feels they are contributing to those objectives.
One of my favorite stories in the book is about the janitor who works at NASA who, when asked what his job is, said, “to put a man on the moon.” I think that kind of shared consciousness and empowered execution requires a lot of trust throughout the organization and acceptance that everybody has their unique role within it. The idea is to be competitive to the problem not each other. What McChrystal makes clear is that shared consciousness must come before empowered execution. Prematurely giving autonomous decision-making power can lead to undesirable results where people and teams are doing things in their own best interest and not the interest of the full organization.
As you know, my greatest area of interest in all subjects is communication. What is the communication role of a leader in this method and why does it matter?
First and foremost it’s important to understand how change happens within an organization and how communication plays such a critical role. It’s easy to read a book likeTeam of Teams and want to go and change the world or maybe just your own small piece of the world, but change takes time and consistency. Communication is really the key to this change. Of particular importance is communication in the form of widespread sharing of organizational objectives and clear setting of individual and small group expectations. The responsibility for all of this falls on leaders at every level, and my experience has been that good communication about objectives and expectations decreases anxiety among teams.
To put a fine point on it, people often confuse leadership communication with talking but really, it’s more about listening. In my last few years as fire chief I knew a meeting with my staff was successful when I emerged from the meeting having said very little and learned a lot through listening. In the Team of Teams method, leaders of all teams and the top leader need to actively listen to others in order to gain the information needed to make strategic decisions about what to do next.
What benefits are derived from this organizational leadership method?
A key benefit from this method is looking at problems differently, bringing in more information from many different areas of the organization to get a bigger picture and gauge all of the influencing factors. This has become more common with increased access to more data, but data in itself isn’t actionable. What is also needed is the connections within the organization to understand multiple changing factors of influence and potential outcomes in an uncertain environment. The term ‘mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE)’ is one McChrystal uses to describe the old way of using information when things were complicated, but gathering enough information allowed predictable outcomes. Those days are no longer, so the massive amount of information gathered needs to be paired with this intense interorganizational connection – shared consciousness.
Why is micromanaging counterproductive?
Often people think of leadership in an egocentric perspective of how their own leadership qualities or abilities affect the organization, rather than how the whole organization is functioning with many different leadership elements. Micromanaging is a top-down leadership problem that occurs in the leader who doesn’t feel confident or doesn’t understand their purpose of motivating and enabling others. Ultimately, micromanagement is counterproductive because people in the organization become disenfranchised when they don’t see how they are contributing unique value.
“ …containing my desire to micromanage, I flipped a switch in my subordinates …they acquired gravitas that they had not had before . . . Empowerment did not always take the form of overt delegation; more often, my self-confident subordinates would make decisions, many far above their pay grade, and simply inform me.”
Top of mind for so many leaders is greater organizational inclusivity. How do you see Team of Teams helping with inclusivity?
The Team of Team concept is designed to have everyone contribute value, so in that way it is inclusive. As I mentioned earlier, everyone in the organization should understand the overall objectives and I think it’s important to be able to talk through a problem involving a wide range of solutions. When many different voices and perspectives are heard, more options become available. Part of inclusivity is also transparency of information so that everyone has what they need to benefit the organization.
When should leaders consider using Team of Teams for their organization?
When an organization has complex problems with multiple disciplines, it would be wise to implement a Team of Teams approach in which you start to bring disparate disciplines together and shared perspectives begin to occur. I’ll go back to the difference between complex and complicated; a complex problem is non-linear and multi-modal. When you’re chasing down solutions to nonlinear problems and you have multiple disciplines across your organization, these are your Team of Teams. In the fire service this may mean fire fighting crews and emergency rescue crews; in business, product development and sales; and in humanitarian aid, rescue and resilience teams. In each case the success of the full organization is dependent on the interconnectedness of teams functioning in an ever-changing environment.
How can leaders get started in implementing this method?
Understanding the needs of your organization requires you to listen, gather information, distill that information, feed it back to your teams, and collaboratively determine a productive way forward. Then repeat, and repeat again.
“I needed to shift my focus from moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem.”
A word of caution, though: There is a natural tendency to learn a new method of leadership and look at it as an easy fix. That attitude is what McChrystal calls a LIMFAC or limiting factor. This isn’t easy! It requires you as a leader to step out of the way of your teams, breaking old habits of controlling what happens, and it takes patience in difficult times. This attitude of leadership requires using your head for business and your heart for people – and always keeping the organizational mission as top priority. When organizational values are properly established and everyone is collectively cared for and understands their contribution, then each person and function can participate as a Team of Teams.
John Kammeyer was Fire Chief at Central County Fire Department for the last five of his thirty-year career in public service. He also served in the United States Coast Guard as a Rescue Swimmer, receiving the Presidential Commendation Award for a harrowing rescue. John is currently leading the training effort at a rapid-response humanitarian organization and continues his competitive athletic pursuits.
Adding the step of structuring your content after you create it and before you communicate it makes it much easier for the audience to understand and boosts your confidence, increasing the effectiveness of an interaction.
Most of us learned the five-paragraph essay in school. When we are writing an academic paper or article we know to first preview what we are going to tell people. Then we share each point starting with a header sentence and give proof through concepts, numbers, and examples. After sharing our ideas, we know to summarize in a closing paragraph. But not many of us are taught to speak that way.
Often, we speak whatever comes to mind, in the order it comes to mind. We may start with one interesting detail and then another unrelated detail and then tie the two together in a relevant concept. Or we may just share a stream of data and let the listeners connect the dots.
Because the brain assimilates information better when it knows what is coming, structuring our communication first is much more effective. In education we call it ‘anticipatory set.’ Think of the process as creating buckets for the brain so it knows where to put the information it receives.
I was recently coaching a young professional who caught on to this structuring-before-communicating concept very quickly and demonstrated it well while giving a speech to a few hundred people. Instead of jumping into the details of a slide, this professional first described what the audience was seeing and contextualized the information. I could actually see the audience following along closely and nodding their heads as they assimilated the relatively complex information shared.
Including the preparation of structuring content between ideate and communicate is even more important when on video conference because the higher level of distraction inhibits focus. The audience has distractions in their own environment and also on screen. The more you guide their focus the more effective the communication. The implicit nature of structure (preview, signaling, summary) is a means for guiding their focus.
We already know how to do structure in writing, and it works well there. It makes complete sense to do it while speaking. It is just a matter of preparing a bit in advance. That preparation can be done far in advance for really important interactions and in the moment every day.
30-Second Prep– Pause for half a minute to formulate your thoughts and articulate what overarching concept you want to express.
2-Minute Prep– Before a meeting, scratch on a piece of paper or capture notes on your phone the key points you want to share and the theme that ties them all together.
1-hour Prep– Prepare talking points before a meeting or delivering a presentation that begin with the overarching concept, specify key points, and then give details on each key point.
Try one of these content structuring preparation options this week and see how it changes how you speak and how your audience reacts. The advance structuring has the benefit of the audience better assimilating the information you are sharing and the bonus of increasing your confidence. Both improve the communication interaction.
With a steady hand on the tiller, you can set the direction and guide the course. Leaders of the 21stcentury are frequently encountering times of uncertainty and chaos, including the current pandemic. Your leadership can be the calming factor that allows others to be their best no matter the external factors. But, conscious and centered leadership during difficult times requires an established practice to build the skill and discipline to leverage mindfulness when others are freaking out.
It only takes one person with collected presence to calm and steady others. You can be that person. With practice and intention, we all have the ability to generate the collectedness and clear-headed perspective needed to move forward in unpredictable times. One leader who is doing his job “with a steady temperament that inspires confidence” is U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome ‘Jay’ Powell who is leading the effort to stabilize the U.S. economy with a myriad of lending programs and reductions in the benchmark interest rate.
“None of us has the luxury of choosing our challenges. Fate and history provide them for us. Our job is to meet the tests we are presented.” Jay Powell, Federal Reserve Chairman. He is meeting the test presented to him with quick action with a calm demeanor. He is being a steady hand.
To be leaders with the steady hand we need two elements: self-composure and a calming communication style.
Self-composure cannot be faked. We need to lead from our own foundation of grounded strength, checking in on and managing our own internal state before we engage with others.
“Here [from the inside out] is where leadership presence is cultivated, and only then can it be felt and shared by the team.” Center for Compassionate Leadership.
We can each cultivate an inward focus and strength to find the place of calm within us when needed. In my work with leaders I hear many different ways that people hone their inner strength. Many read to learn, some meditate, some journal, some find introspection through exercise, some have formal coaches that guide them. Once a base level of self-centeredness is established, it is real life practice that allows us to develop self-composure in all types of situations. Tapping into that inner assurance, accepting what is in the moment and knowing we will do what is most needed next — that is the steady hand that can guide the course. Then we can bear witness to others experiencing anxiety and dissonance in times of uncertainty and be a grounded empathetic force so others can do their jobs well.
Calming communication style can naturally arise from a state of composure, but there are certain speaking characteristics that are typically associated with calm communication. Public safety professionals such as police and fire use ‘command and control’ in emergencies and speak in a low and slow voice to keep the calm for others so they can achieve the task at hand. Research shows that voice pitch and speech rate have a statistically significant correlation with perception in crisis communication. The two primary characteristics of calm communication are a slower pace of speaking and lower pitch of voice. The slower pace of speaking also includes more pauses and more distinct enunciation of words. A common association of voice pitch is the higher the pitch, the greater the excitement, the lower the pitch the more mellow. The structure of the communication is also important; well-organized information implies the leader is in control of the interaction, even if the outside circumstances are not controllable.
Silveria Jacobs, Prime Minister of Sint Maarten, demonstrated a steady hand style of communication in her ‘Simply. Stop. Moving.’ speech that went viral. Her word choice was both assertive and empathetic and she used a low and slow voice with many pauses.
As leaders, we cannot always control external circumstances, but we can control our reactions. We can use our foundation of grounded strength and a calm communication style to be the steady hand for others.
Bringing forth our best communication skills on a video conference makes interactions much more engaging. It is not quite in-person, but video is a much richer interaction than over the phone. What do we need to keep in mind on video? The question I get most often is, ‘where do I look on the screen?’ If we look at the people or content it can seem to others like we are looking in our laps. Not good. The short answer to that common question is move your eyes around, just like you would in person. The long answer is part of my four tips for better video conference communication:
- pretend you are in person
- use both verbal and nonverbal communication
- avoid distractions
- stay audience aware
1) Pretend You Are In Person
It is easy to feel more casual when interacting over video, but it is better to treat the situation as if we are in person. We can ask ourselves, ‘would I be dressed this way and doing what I am doing if that person was here with me?’ That typically means that we are dressed professionally (at least on the top half). It also means we are sitting in a chair at a table or desk. Importantly we are notmultitasking getting some other project done or checking email while engaging with someone.
2) Use Skillful Verbal & Nonverbal Communication
Our voice can be interesting if we vary our pitch, volume, and speed of speaking. Our voice can put others to sleep if we keep the same tone, volume, and pace the whole time. It helps to remember we are speaking with someone, not to someone. We can speak faster to show excitement and slow down when a point is super important. It also helps to call in on a phone instead of using computer audio because the sound of our voice is clearer and there is less environmental noise.
Effective nonverbal communication shifts a bit from in person to on video. On video only our upper torso is visible and therefore body language expression needs to occur in that area. Our facial expressions need to animate more, and we can use head tilts and nods to show we are listening. Now to the details on where to look, the most common question. Going back to the first tip – pretend you are in person – we look many different places when we are in person, so we should do the same on video. What is different is the many different places are spatially limited to the screen. I recommend looking directly in the camera because then it appears we are making eye contact. But don’t looks just there because then it is like a broadcast reporter staring into the camera. Move from the camera to the other people on video, to the content displayed on the screen and then back to the camera. This way it will appear more natural, much like it would in person. It helps to drag the box with the video of other participants to the top of your screen so when we look at them, our eyes are just adjusting slightly, and our heads don’t need to move down to see them.
The last element of nonverbal communication on video is hand motions. If we use hand motions where people can’t see them, they may wonder what exactly we are doing with our hands. Better to move our hand motions up to the level of our chest and shoulders. It might feel a bit odd at first, but when we watch ourselves on video it looks natural. We also need to move our hands more slowly to avoid blurring in the video. Keeping our voice, face, eyes, and upper body animated on video conference shows we are engaged and helps keep others interested.
3) Avoid Distractions
We are curious beings and if there is something visually interesting going on in video behind the speaker or listener, we can easily get distracted. Before getting on a video conference, test the system and look at all that is in the view window. Do we want people looking at that picture of us in our bathing suit or dancing on a rooftop? Is our to-do list on the whiteboard? Is there an unmade bed or unfolded laundry visible in a home office? Clean up the view window to reduce the distractions. We can also give officemates or roommates heads up that we are jumping on video, so they don’t inadvertently come into view. Turning off alerts or going into Do Not Disturb mode on our devices eliminates another form of distraction. Not touching our hair, face, or clothing is another way to avoid distraction. It helps to remember we are being watched and to look at ourselves as well as the other participants as we are moving our eyes intentionally around the screen.
4) Stay Audience Aware
On video we only get a little square headshot of our audience to receive nonverbal listener feedback. That means we need to be acutely aware of the nonverbal signals given and we need to seek more verbal feedback. Take turns looking at every person who is in the meeting. This is more easily done if we use the gallery or multi-person video option. Still remember to look at the camera in between looking at people. If we see someone distracted – either looking down or up or (worse case) leaving the video screen – we can stop talking and ask questions. Overall it is just a good idea on video to pause more often and ask more questions.
Video conference is a great way to have more of a human connection when you cannot meet in person. Being intentional about how we communicate through this method improves our interactions. When we pretend we are in person, skillfully use verbal and nonverbal communication, avoid distractions, and stay audience aware, then the people on the other end of this technology will be much more interested and engaged.
Conversations bring people together or drive people apart based on our perceived commonality or differences. All humans are 99% alike from a DNA perspective. What is missing from the equation for harmony is just the perception of similarity. Luckily, our perceptions can be changed. With a bit of intention and effort, we can perceive others as similar to us and increase the chances we can get along.
I invite you to experiment with two methods for finding connections and improving interpersonal interactions. The first is discovery of similarity and the second is reminder of humanity.
Discovery of Similarity
We can find surface-level commonality with people we meet, such as a hobby or an element of our work. Taking it on as a discovery process can be fun. Austin, Nevada City, San Francisco, Tampa – what is the connection? Places I’ve travelled in the past month and met people just like me. They might be a different gender, from a different culture, or their skin might be a different color, but we can still find commonalities. Meeting new people, what comes to my mind first is: What do I have I common with this person? I discover connections by asking questions: ‘where are you from?’ ‘what do you do for fun/work/hobbies?’ ‘how was your weekend?’ These small talk methods are simple ways to find connections. Typically, conversations will proceed at a surface level with these types of connection creators until we find something in common. Then we tend to dive deeper into that topic, be it food, kids, sport, music, books, or recent movies. Generally, it feels good to be connected, but that is not always how it goes.
Reminder of Humanity
Sometimes initial interactions seem to bring up differences rather than commonalities. They may reveal a difference in culture or political leanings. In these cases, we may feel separation and perceive that the ‘other’ is not like us. It is in these times when we can remind ourselves of all being human – that we are 99% like each other. As humans, we have more in common than we have as differences. The exercise here is to repeat the phrase ‘just like me’ and follow it by a basic human condition: ‘just like me this person wants to be understood,’ ‘just like me this person is forming their opinions based on information they have received,’ ‘just like me they want to be healthy, happy, and loved.’ In really challenging situations it is helpful to drop to an even more basic level: ‘this person has a beating heart and their lungs are filling with oxygen, just like me,’ ‘this person is somebody’s daughter/son, just like me.’
Human commonalities are so much more significant than a political opinion, religious practice, or social norm. When we see this reality of sameness as more significant than difference, our perspective changes. With that internal perspective shift comes a subconscious change in body language – facial expressions and stance – that others perceive. It often also leads to a shift in our language to be more inclusive and accepting. The result is the other person feels more accepted and is more inclined toward getting along.
For example, in a recent interaction someone used the term ‘God fearing’ frequently in conversation. At first, I was put off by the term as it reminded me of the judgment I felt from some religious people having grown up Catholic. That brought up difference instead of sameness in my mind. Then I remembered that we were both human and I made a conscious choice to listen for commonalities from this person. I heard common values of family and integrity and dedication. With that I was able to shift my perception toward sameness and I could hear the term ‘God fearing’ to mean trusting in and leaning on a belief in times of uncertainty. We had in common the human desire to feel a sense of security.
This skill of seeing commonality takes time to develop, and it can be helpful to practice on strangers with whom we are not interacting. Airports are a perfect practicing ground. Particularly with people for whom our initial reaction is irritation or judgement. I practice the ‘just like me’ exercise and seek to find a commonality. I see that the person standing in the wrong line has a kid in tow and I remember what it was like to travel with young ones. I hear that the person talking loudly on the phone next to me is appeasing an upset boss and I connect with the feeling of being stressed and striving to meet high expectations. Once I find something in common, I am amazed at how quickly my perspective and attitude toward them changes. I also enjoy this free ‘Just Like Me’ meditation.
The start of every good conversation begins with a connection between people. When we find that connection it changes our perspective and likely our language and approach to interacting with that person, bringing us together instead of driving us apart.
It is amazing what can change in a moment. One pause. One breath. Whole new perspective. Towards the end of the year we are dealing with more than usual as we continue our typical routine but then add annual review and planning plus holiday celebration activities. The pause becomes so valuable in times of many simultaneous activities.
- One pause, one breath gave me insight on a piece of narrative for a new client in the midst of completing tactical tasks.
- One pause, one breath let me truly enjoy a celebration despite a pending work deadline.
- One pause, one breath reminded me to send See’s candy to a distant loved one before the holiday shipping deadline.
- One pause, one breath stopped me from making a request that felt urgent, but was poorly timed.
The trick to gaining the power of the pause is two-fold. First, practice pausing to develop the muscle memory so it can be effective in a busy moment. Second, take the cue from the situation to use the pause power.
Practice the Pause
Like any skill we want in life, we need to practice. Practicing the pause means some regular contemplative practice. Ideally this is daily, just like physical exercise. It can be focusing on the breath, repeating a mantra, or anything that allow us to shift our focus inward and away from the external stimuli. Practicing the pause teaches our entire system to pipe down. We shift from active mind to calm system. In this state, we see more clearly and notice things we may miss when going about our usual work and home routine. This regular practice gives us the muscle memory we need to have the pause work instantaneously in daily like.
Take the Cue
When to pause is determined by the environment. Often cues are strong and we just need to pay attention. Tripping over nothing while walking. Spilling coffee on my shirt. Struggling to remember a name of somebody I’ve known for years. Time to pause. Take a breath. Reset the system. Regain the power. One breath and the muscle memory from practice kicks in and calmness and clarity arise.
So simple. So powerful. Pause. Power.
We all love to be heard. We can feel understood, validated, and truly connected in the presence of a good listener. It is not easy to listen in our times of excessive stimuli, noisy environments, and shorter attention spans. But the benefit of human connection and deeper understanding makes it worth the effort. What makes a good listener, and how can we give that gift to others? A recent anonymous survey of my professional network highlights elements of skillful and unskillful listening plus we can learn from experts.
Survey comments aptly express what we intuitively know about skillful listening.
“They are looking at you directly in the eyes and are engaged by asking questions that pertain to the information you are delivering or offering the advice you are asking for.”
“For deep listening, I tend to listen for my words, repeated back in their own words, but not with my prompting.”
We also have a good sense when others are not listening, or we are not fully listening.
“They are looking away or have a distracted look in their eyes.”
“They jump immediately to a story or example about them.”
“I catch myself constructing an answer or how to make my next point.”
“I am thinking about something else other than what the person is telling me about. Or, I am listening, but my goal is to find some hook to get out of the conversation.”
Practice the Art of Listening Well
While we all like to be heard, few of us are formally taught how to listen. In addition to taking the advice of our peers, we can learn from experts. Three core steps set us in the right direction.
- Be present.
- Set intentions and be deliberate.
- Give appropriate nonverbal and verbal responses.
First, we need to bring ourselves into the current time and place and set thoughts of the past and the future aside. Often focusing on the feeling of our feet on the ground and on the sight of another person brings us fully present. Once present, we can listen better by setting specific intentions such as understanding, problem solving, or a creating a sense of connectedness.
This Farnam Street blog highlights the importance of listening to create human connections and strengthen relationships. “A simple way to focus your attention is to listen with the intention of summarizing the other person’s point of view. This stops you from using your mental energy to work out your reply and helps store the other’s words in your memory as well as identify any gaps in your understanding so you can ask questions to clarify.”
Sound expert Julian Treasure highlights ‘listening positions’ that we hear from usually based on a compilation of our life experience. Our listening position, or mental stance, literally changes what we hear and how we hear it. Active position is listening to be able to reflect back directly what we heard someone say and it is a powerful way to make others feel understood. In contrast, passive listening is suspending the meaning-making process and simply listening to the sound of someone speaking. When listening from a reductive position, we focus on getting to one answer vs. an expansive position where we hear broader possibilities arise. If we are listening from a critical position, we are hearing what can be improved vs. if we are listening from an empathetic position, we are hearing the emotional impact to the person speaking. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ listening positions. It is all about reading the current need of the speaker and setting intentions deliberately.
The third step is demonstrating to others that we are listening by providing nonverbal and verbal responses. When we are fully present and intentionally listening, we tend to naturally make eye contact, nod our heads, and give subtle verbal cues of encouragement. Our nonverbal responses reflect what is true – we are fully engaged. The appropriateness of our verbal responses depends on our read of the speaker’s need. An effective solution is to outright ask, ‘Are you looking for answers and advice or would you prefer a sounding board?’ so that the speaker can set us in the right direction.
Since we all love to be heard, let’s give the gift of listening to those around us by being present, deliberate, and giving appropriate responses.
This semester, 28 leaders from 17 different fields shared what it takes to be a good leader with students in my Leadership Communication course at San Francisco State University. After hearing the stories and wisdom of all these leaders, the students reflected upon what they learned and what they valued the most.
Leaders interviewed for this assignment are in a wide range of industries including professional baseball, hospitality, technology, restaurant, military, law, government, finance, retail, and even cannabis. Their titles varied from directors to founders and everything in between. Below are the students’ favorite words of wisdom from these leaders.
Make the Effort
Say yes to opportunities.
80/20 rule – put 80% of effort into something you like and the other 20% comes easily.
Use the resources available to you to overcome challenges.
Hard work pays off.
Hold yourself accountable for your success.
Sometimes you learn the most from failure.
Act like a sponge.
Strive to master tasks – know everything about the job, and others will recognize and value your expertise.
Each person is like a steak, all the content people bring you is an ingredient – if you embrace all the knowledge you will become a tasty dish.
Be a lifelong learner.
Be good at identifying your own weaknesses.
Know who you are as a leader.
Learn from your failures, others’ failures, and your success.
You don’t have to always be the loudest in the room in order to be a good leader.
Don’t be afraid to speak up.
Be direct but be kind.
Communication is key!
You can influence without authority.
Adjust to the Situation at Hand
Use different leaderships styles with different leaders.
Have thick skin.
Emotions are contagious.
Passion is energy. Use it.
My hope in sharing these nuggets of knowledge is that a few of them strike you as memorable, spark an old flame of enthusiasm for leadership, or can be directly applicable to your daily work. Lead on.
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.”
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:
- Leverage Personal Strengths
- Know Your Topic
- Listen Before Speaking
- Answer with Key Messages
- 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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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:
- Address the specific behavior
- Describe objectively what was observed
- Make an explicit actionable request
- 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.
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:
- Listen without interrupting
- Receive the information objectively
- Ask clarifying questions
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.