Language to Unify

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.

Inspiring Leaders: Students’ Perspectives

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). 

Human-First Communication

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.

“What?” The Art of Communicating While Masked

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.

Team of Teams Leadership with John Kammeyer

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.

 

About John Kammeyer
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.

Ideate, Structure, Communicate

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.

 

 

Be The Steady Hand

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

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

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. 

Where to Look and Other Video Conference Tips

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

  1. pretend you are in person
  2. use both verbal and nonverbal communication
  3. avoid distractions
  4. 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. 

What is the Connection? Find Commonalities for Better Conversations

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. 

Pause. Power.

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.

Give the Gift of Listening

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.

  1. Be present.
  2. Set intentions and be deliberate.
  3. 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.

Leadership Through Students’ Eyes

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.

Learn Constantly

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. 

Always Communicate

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. 

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

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

 

Turn Down the Temperature in the Room

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

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

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

 

Be Vigilant in Interactions with Press

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

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

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

 

Bring Out Followers’ Best with Reinforcement

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

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

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

 

Communicate with Repetition to Be Memorable

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Top-5 Tips for Spokespeople

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

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

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

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

#2 Know Your Topic

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

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

#3 Listen Before Speaking

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

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

#4 Answer with Key Messages

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

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

#5 Always Represent

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

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

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

Manage Power Dynamics with Communication

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

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

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

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

Giving Power through Communication

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

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

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

Taking Power through Communication

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

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

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

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

 

 

A 5-Minute Primer on Compassion in Leadership

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

Compassion = Empathy + Action

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

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

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

3 Skills of the Compassionate Leader

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

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

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

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

Organizational Systems can Foster Compassion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Art of Giving and Accepting Feedback: Correcting Mistakes Respectfully

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

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

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

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

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

Giving Feedback

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

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

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

Accepting Feedback

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

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

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

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

Where Attention Goes, Energy Flows: Be Attuned in Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

Leadership Wisdom: Learnings on the Intersection of Mindfulness & Technology

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

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

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

We all have biases; change starts with seeing them.

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

Shortcuts to enlightenment have limited but valuable use.

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

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

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

Challenge Your Worldview

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

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

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

What Color are Your Glasses?

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

Fact Check Yourself

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

Step Into Other’s Shoes

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

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

Start with Intentions

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

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

It only takes a second.

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

We have relationship and content intentions.

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

Balance is Required.

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

There is danger in subconscious intentions.

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

Start at the very beginning.  

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

Build Your Personal Brand: Make an impression through every communication interaction

A personal brand is the sum total of impressions that we make on other people.  It is our image among the circle of people we wish to influence, be that our immediate team, our entire company, our industry, or an entire country. We create our brand through every single communication interaction.  It is more than our online presence and media coverage. We create our brand through our body language, the words we choose to speak, and the manner in which we deliver our words.

Body language is a primary means of creating our personal brand because people judge us by our appearance within seconds of meeting us and nonverbal body communication is at least 50% of interpreted attitude meaning.1 There are the large movements of our body and the small gestures of our hands and face that influence in how people perceive us.  The large movements include our position and posture, such as how close we are standing to others and whether we are leaning forward or leaning back.  The small gestures include how we are using our hands and the movements of our muscles on our face.  If we want our personal brand to exude power we will stand with our legs more than shoulder length apart, use grand hand gestures, and smile only occasionally.  If it is receptiveness we want to be known for then we will keep our feet shoulder width apart, keep our hands open, and smile and nod frequently.  After others get an initial impression from our body language, they focus on our words.

The words we select to communicate not only have meaning in and of themselves, but also in how we string them together.  The audience we wish to influence has particular vernacular, and using words that have meaning to them allows us to have influence.  The way we string words together can have very different effects on the audience.  If we state ideas in no particular order and without intent, our ideas are not likely to cause an emotional reaction or be remembered.  On the other hand, if we intentionally use rhetorical devices, such as alliterations and anaphora, we are more likely to engage both an emotional and a logical response from others.  Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound, such as ‘common cause of catastrophe’.  Anaphora is the repetition of the same word or phrase as the start of successive verses, such as ‘I have a dream’ in Martin Luther King’s famous speech.

While our focus is often on content, the style of our speaking is also important. Paralinguistics is the academic terms for our speech characteristics, which is everything except the words.2 This includes our pitch, tone, speed, and volume.  American culture associates lower pitch with power and privileges those who speak louder and faster with a greater share of conversation time. Often we think of our style as just ‘being natural’ and forget that we actually have control and likely already vary our style for different audiences.

Knowing that every interaction builds personal brand, we can set intentions about our body language, word choice, and style in advance of each situation.  Setting the intention, preparing, and practicing increases the probability that each situation builds personal brand in the way we wish to reach our professional goals.

Footnotes

  1. Mehrabian, A. & Ferris, S.R. (1967). Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, Vol 31(3),  248-252.
  2. Jaspers, J. M., Saager, P. G., Oever van den, T. (1973). Nonverbal Communication. Nederlands Tijdschrift voor de Psychologie en haar Grensgebieden, Vol. 28(1), 21-35.

Jennifer Kammeyer combines over 25 years of industry and academic experience to advise leaders on intentionally using communication to elevate professional relationships and improve business outcomes. She offers coaching one-on-one, in teams, and through workshops. As adjunct faculty at San Francisco State University, she is up to date on new communication research and trends, allowing her to counsel professionals on a wide range of communication topics. Popular training topics include building executive presence, leadership communication, public speaking, high-value meetings, and mindful communication. She has been personally practicing mindfulness since 1999 and incorporates these concepts into her teaching.

Grateful for Human Brilliance: People Improving the World One Communication Event at a Time

In this month of giving thanks, I pause to consider all the wonderful people with whom I am lucky to encounter in my work.  First, I acknowledge that I am among the small percentage of people in this world who get to do what they love for a living — super grateful for that.  Mostly I am grateful for the people I coach, who are making the effort to improve the world one communication event at a time.

What I see in people is their willingness to embrace change, both personally and organizationally, in order to improve the status quo.  I see people finding ways to keep a human connection.  The leaders whom I coach prefer anonymity, but here I share a few stories with changed names to highlight the human wonder I encounter daily.

Embraced Discomfort:  Sitting in a room full of boisterous men, Brenda has a hard time getting a word in edgewise.  She is an intellectual equivalent with good insight, but was not taught to raise her voice to get attention.  During communication coaching we address the at-odds values of her family culture and corporate culture.  We generate ideas on how she can be heard in the boardroom and keep true to her own values.  What is amazing about Brenda is her willingness to step into discomfort and try new techniques.  She experiments with ways to grab attention that are foreign to her upbringing and she pushes her colleagues to consider ways of working that are more inclusive to every person in the organization, not just her.

Faced Fear:  Herman is an awesome communicator in small groups, but goes into a panic speaking in front of an auditorium of people.  At our initial meeting, Herman wants tricks to get around the panicked feeling.  He asks where he should look in the audience and how he should hold his hands so people can’t see them shake.  I give him the hard news that those tricks won’t really work and he needs to take a deeper look at the source of the anxiety. Amazingly for a successful, high-powered executive, Herman is willing to look inward and do the challenging work of self-discovery.  Over the course of several months, he addressed the internal fears that he had never previously acknowledged.  We brainstorm ideas of facing those fears in the moment while speaking and he puts them into practice, improving his public speaking dramatically.

Dealt with Difficult People:  Jane says her boss doesn’t listen and has nothing positive to say, but she likes her job and feels a strong connection to the overall organization.  During communication coaching Jane wants to know how she can change her boss. Unfortunately, she cannot.  The power to change lies only with ourselves, a fact that Jane comes to accept over time. We brainstorm ideas and Jane finds ways to shift her attitude, in a genuine way.  What is wonderful about Jane is that she learns to listen to her boss in a completely different way, hearing what is not being said.  In particular she starts to hear the incredible pressure and stress her boss is under.   This allows her to become more compassionate about the negative talk and being brushed off. She also finds ways to be more direct in asking for what she needs from her boss.  It would be much easier to blame her boss and just complain, but Jane does the challenging work to improve the situation by changing what is in her control.

These three stories are just a few of many that bring me joy in working with wonderful people willing to face and overcome communication challenges.  In this month of gratitude, my hope is that you too encounter human brilliance at work.

Managing Our Attention Improves Communication: Simple (Not Easy) Techniques for Better Focus

In today’s highly stimulating world where we often spend the day fending off overflowing email inboxes and incessant smartphone notifications, the ability to focus is a critical skill. Good management of our own attention is particularly important for effective leadership communication.  Research shows the value of our attention, especially for leaders, and yet, we often let our attention get pulled instead of deliberately managing it. My contribution to this topic is to offer a few simple quick-tip techniques for improving our attention abilities, and subsequently our communication.

Daniel Goleman, in his book Focus, outlines the attention triad: focus inward, focus on others, focus outward.  In communication, the focus inward gives us insight into what is personally influencing our own communication in the moment.  Focus on others allows us to pick up and respond to their cues.  Focus outward allows us to frame the communication within a bigger context. Let’s look at each of these areas in a bit more detail, through the lens of leadership communication.

The first focus is inward attention. We all walk into every communication situation with baggage.  That baggage can be old and deeply instilled – such as cultural values and biases based on our experience – or current and transient – such as our emotional reaction to something that just recently happened.  Knowing what we carry into a communication situation allows us much more control over how we communicate.  Intentionally placing our attention inward reveals that knowledge. Good leaders communicate more effectively because they are aware of themselves and deliberately choose how they let tendencies and current states influence their interactions with others.

The second focus of the attention triad is focus on others.  It is entirely possible to spend time with somebody and not actually give them our attention.  We see this trend in meetings where people’s bodies are in the room, but their eyes and minds are connected to their electronic devices and not the others in the room.  As soon as you enter into an interaction, it is beneficial for your attention to shift to others.

“The person in front of you does not know what your dealing with a moment ago, and there’s no reason he or she should.  It’s your responsibility to show up and be fully present to effectively utilize the limited time you have with each person you are with.” Hougaard and Carter, The Mind of the Leader.

Paying close attention to others gives us two advantages: seeing things we might otherwise miss, and making others feel our presence.  When paying close attention, we pick up many more nonverbal communication cues, such as a shift in a chair or a side glance to a colleague.  If our attention is elsewhere at that moment, like on an electronic device, we miss those subtle moments. These hidden cues can be extremely helpful in our understanding of the situation, and our ability to adapt our communication accordingly. The other advantage is that people feel heard when our attention is directed at them.  When our attention is focused on other people, they feel our presence.  This is powerful because felt presence builds confidence and motivates others to do their best.  People perceive they are valued and are better versions of themselves when they feel heard, and our attention on them achieves that.

After attention focused inward and attention focused on others, the third piece of the triad is focus outward.  Focus outward is placing our attention on the bigger context, such as what has been on that news that day and any events or circumstances that are impacting
the people with whom we are communicating.  With busy schedules and information overload it is easy to get myopic, focused on what is immediately in front of us in order to get anything done. To broaden our minds, we need to pull up for a higher perspective, observing the entirety of a meeting, our company, our market, or even our world.  This bigger picture gives us information to be contextually sensitive and adaptive in our communication.

Our communication improves when our attention is grounded in the present moment and on the person(s) involved in the interaction.  It sounds simple, but it is not easy.  The three quick tips of doing a self check, being curious, and pulling up are ways to practice deliberately managing our attention to advance our communication skills.

 

Jennifer Kammeyer combines over 25 years of industry experience with academic research to advise leaders on how to intentionally use communication to elevate professional relationships and improve business outcomes.  She offers coaching one-on-one, in teams, and through workshops. As adjunct faculty at San Francisco State University, she is up to date on new communication research and trends, allowing her to advise professionals on a wide range of communication topics. Popular training topics include building executive presence, leadership communication, public speaking, high-value meetings, and mindful communication. She has been personally practicing mindfulness since 1999 and incorporates those concepts and techniques into all of her teaching.

Communicating Well Starts with Yourself

Our ability to communicate well with others actually starts inside our own heads, with our ability to listen to ourselves. Thich Nhat Hanh, author of over 100 books including The Art of Communicating, points out that we can’t really engage adequately with others until we first communicate with ourselves well.

In this book I found many precious tidbits that I had not thought of in quite the way he phrased it. A big take-away is how important our self-communication is to our wellbeing and to our communication with others.

It all starts with the breath.  Awareness that we are breathing brings us to the moment and gives us access to ourselves in the present.  “The quiet of nonthinking and nontalking gives us the space to truly listen to ourselves.”  How often do we listen to ourselves the way we would like others to listen to us?

We start by giving ourselves the gift of deep listening.  Deep listening is listening with the intention to help without passing judgment.  When thoughts and emotions arise, we hear them and give them space, but do not judge or take action.  “These feelings are like a small child tugging at our sleeves.  Pick them up and hold them tenderly,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh. In this listening with the purpose of helping, we are listening with curiosity to understand better.

Listening to our own thoughts, we may be surprised what they are saying.  Often they are not rational or even in line with our current true beliefs, but rather just automatic regurgitation of past things we were taught or have experienced.  Whether we are aware of them or not, they are still influencing us.  It is better to be aware so that we can make the active choice whether to the follow their lead.  This is the benefit of listening to ourselves well – it moves us out of autopilot and gives us more choices in how we communicate and act with others.

For example, I sometimes hear a thought in my head of bias against people with heavy accents.  The irrational thought is that they are less intelligent. I don’t believe that nor is it in alignment with my values.  When I hear that ‘less intelligent’ thought arise, I choose not to follow where it would lead, which would hamper my listening.  Instead, I hear the biased thought as I listen to myself well, and then I choose deliberately to practice active listening with that person.  I am curious to learn what they know.  If I were NOT listening well to myself in that moment, my implicit bias might automatically influence my interaction with that person without me even having a choice!

Listening to ourselves eventually leads to self-mastery. With self-mastery we can know the tendencies of our own minds.  With extensive practice, we have the awareness and the discipline to stand above our arising thoughts in the moment and determine their wisdom prior to words coming out of our mouths.  It all starts with a breath and a moment of turning inward and listening to ourselves. Try it right now.

 

Jennifer Kammeyer combines 25 years experience with academic research to advise leaders on how to intentionally use communication to elevate professional relationships and improve business outcomes. She offers coaching one-on-one, in teams, and through workshops. As adjunct faculty at San Francisco State University, she is up to date on new communication research and trends, allowing her to advise professionals on a wide range of communication topics. Popular training topics include building executive presence, leadership communication, public speaking, high-value meetings, and mindful communication. She has been personally practicing mindfulness since 1999 and incorporates concepts and techniques in all of her teaching.

Managing Emotions

We can better adapt our communication when we first manage our emotions. The common expression ‘I get so angry I can’t even see straight’ has literal validity; when we get emotional the prefrontal cortex of the brain ceases to guide us.

There are three key steps to managing our emotions effectively:

  1. Bring awareness. Notice when emotions arise and name them in the most basic terms, such as “upset” or “tension.”
  2. Allow space. After noticing and naming it, be present with the emotion; let it be and do not push it away.
  3. Keep control. While the emotion is present, do not let it hijack control of the situation; make wise decisions despite it being present.

Picture the last time you were upset.  Close your eyes and bring the situation into your mind in as much detail as possible. Notice the sights and sounds of the situation.  Staying with the visualization, shift your focus internally and notice how your body felt at the time.  You may even notice how your body feels right now as you visualize the upset.  Commonly we notice tightness and heat in our bodies.

This exercise increases awareness of emotions for situations in the past and is good practice for dealing with challenging situations in the future.  The ultimate skill is to be aware of emotions as they arise, in real time, while we are interacting with other people.  This is an exercise in “noting” where we see and name what is occurring. During a conversation when you feel tightness in your body or heat rising, note what you feel and name the associated emotion with a simple word.  That is it. That is the noting exercise.  You can also note what you observe in others as you interact.  Peter Drucker, known as the Father of Management influencing modern management extensively through his writing and teaching, wrote, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”  Part of communication competency is the ability to ‘hear’ the emotions of others.

The second skill in managing emotions is allowing them to be, not trying to push them away.  You may have noticed that trying to not be sad when you are sad only makes you sadder.  Pushing emotions down has the opposite of the desired effect and makes them stronger.  The skill lies in being with the discomfort of the emotion.  This skill is best developed outside of communication interactions through insight meditation.  Sit quietly for a few minutes every day and, after focusing on your breath at first, notice what arises in your mind, emotions, and body without trying to change anything.  Inevitably, something unpleasant will arise, like a body pain or an emotion, and you get to practice being with the discomfort.  With this practice, when we are in a communication interaction, we can more easily see emotions arising and let them be.  This practice of being with discomfort also increases our ability to be with other people’s emotions that arise in our interactions.

 

The third skill is not allowing emotions to control the situation.  It might be tempting to jump directly to this step, but it doesn’t work so well if you do.  First awareness, then allowing, and then controlling.  In Patty Azzarello’s book, MOVE, she conceptualizes valor in leadership as accepting fear that arises and still moving forward.  She mentions that fear might be coming along for the ride, but we can tell it to sit in the back seat and not let it drive.  We can allow emotions in without acting on them.  Two techniques that may be helpful are intentionally taking an objective view and shifting your perspective to see outside of your own view. To look at things objectively, state the observed facts to yourself and avoid the back story.  To shift your perspective, think of as many alternative viewpoints to the situation as possible.  With both of these techniques, you don’t need to believe what you come up with; it is just the process of expanding your mind in the moment that is helpful.

An example of the alternative viewpoints technique is to generate many reasons why somebody said something you found insulting, such as “always the last one in the meeting” when you walk in late.  They might be jealous that you took the time to get coffee and they didn’t; they might be trying to look better than you in front of the boss; they might genuinely want to give you feedback that this habit is detrimental to your career; or, they might just be trying to lighten the mood with a joke. I bet you can think of at least two more reasons. See how this technique broadens our perspectives?

With the three steps of managing emotions: awareness, allowing, controlling, we can move from autopilot and reactive to collected and intentional.  In a calm state and with intentionality, our communication will naturally improve.

 

 

Jennifer Kammeyercombines 25 years experience with academic research to advise leaders on how to intentionally use communication to elevate professional relationships and improve business outcomes.  She offers coaching one-on-one, in teams, and through workshops. As adjunct faculty at San Francisco State University, she is up to date on new communication research and trends, allowing her to advise professionals on a wide range of communication topics. Popular training topics include building executive presence, leadership communication, public speaking, high-value meetings, and mindful communication. She has been personally practicing mindfulness since 1999 and incorporates concepts and techniques in all of her teaching.

Mindfulness is Vital to Exceptional Leadership

Leaders excel by being aware of self and others, and the situation at hand. We lead in a time of perpetual chaotic change, we drink from a fire hose of information, and we interact with people from around the globe with different perspectives, cultural norms, and communication styles. To achieve high performance, we need to uptake massive information quickly, process in a non-biased open-minded manner, and respond compassionately. Mindfulness practice gets us there. With training, through meditation or other mindful techniques, our minds become more sensitive and less reactive to the stimuli that are constantly flowing through, permitting us to move out of automatic mode and make more deliberate choices about what we say and how we act.

Leaders Need to Train Their Minds As Well as Their Bodies a recent Forbes article explained.  Based on information from Megan Reitz, researcher and author, three important mindfulness practices are meta-awareness, allowing, and inquiry. Meta-awareness is the ability in the moment to notice and acknowledge our own thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses – understanding that they are temporary and we can choose if we act on them. Allowing is a kind and compassionate attitude – letting things be without judgment.  Inquiry is a curiosity of the present moment – wondering how the current situation will unfold. We build a leaders mind by practicing these techniques, just like we build muscles through exercise. Mindful leadership is additive to other skills and techniques required to be an excellent leader as heightened awareness simply helps us apply learned skills more wisely.

Entrepreneur article, Mindfulness Isn’t Just a Trend, It’s Key to Being a Better Leader emphasized the benefit of unlocking intrinsic motivation for today’s workforce that is seeking meaning and purpose.  Based on the extensive research of Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard, mindfulness generates greater mental effectiveness for the realization of a leader’s potential. In their recent book, “The Mind of the Leader” the authors’ claim mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion are essential leadership skills. Mindfulness, in particular being present, attentive, and curious is what teaches us how our own minds work. “By understanding how your mind works, you can lead yourself effectively.  By understanding and leading yourself effectively, you can understand others and be able to lead them more effectively.” Long-term mindfulness practice leads to selflessness, where we no longer constantly act as if we are the center of the universe, and to compassion, where we are able to take others’ perspectives into consideration before we speak or act.

In the words of LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner,  “Compassion is putting ourselves in the shoes of another person and seeing the world through their lens for the sake of alleviating their suffering.” For him compassionate leadership meant “pausing, and being a spectator to my own thoughts, especially when getting emotional. It meant walking a mile in the other person’s shoes; and understanding their hopes, their fears, their strengths and their weaknesses. And it meant doing everything within my power to set them up to be successful.”

Here is the rub. Being an attentive leader simultaneously processing information about ourselves, others, and the environment is not easy. I have practiced mindfulness almost daily since 1999 and I am still constantly learning about my own mind.  That said, I have developed acute sensitivity to my thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses, and to others in my environment.  That allows me to make decisions based on a greater amount of information.  My practice also allows me to change course quickly when I discover a bad habit arising or see that my current course is not effective.  There is a good reason it is called ‘mindfulness practice’ because it is an ongoing effort and, just like exercise, it takes constant hard work to see the benefits.

We are better leaders when in a chaotic moment we can simultaneously be aware of our own thoughts, feelings, and sensations and have a broad enough vantage to incorporate diverse perspectives of others.  Tapping all that information we can make better decisions and communicate compassionately. To get there, we practice mindfulness daily. There are now several meditation apps to support us, including my favorite Insight Timer.  Then when we are aware of something awry in a given situation, be that in our own minds or in what we observe in others, we pause, take the time to acknowledge and allow what is happening, and then respond with intention.

The Training Imperative and Communication

The jobs of the future require a skill set not held by people today, but communication will always be critical professional skill.  As of late, we read and hear that through automation and artificial intelligence, the jobs we have today will be done by technology in the future.  The response is the call for training, not just done once, but a shift to a culture of perpetual learning.   A recent Deloitte report on ‘Rise of Cognitive Collaboration’makes the case for lifelong skill training in order for humans to work along side of machines to produce the best business outcomes. “That means organizations will need to provide that constant training and that individuals will need to shift their habit to one of constant learning,” stated the report.

A 2018 PEW Internet survey study on ‘The future of Jobs and Jobs Training’suggests that important skills are those that artificial intelligence (AI) and machines seem unable to duplicate; those that are uniquely human. The study found that experts believe,   “. . . workers of the future will learn to deeply cultivate and exploit creativity, collaborative activity, abstract and systems thinking, complex communication, and the ability to thrive in diverse environments.”

Individual workers seem to agree. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey, ‘The State of American Jobs’ found that 87% of workers believe it will be essential for them to get training and develop new job skills throughout their work life in order to keep up with changes in the workplace. This survey noted that employment is much higher among jobs that require above-average interpersonal, management and communication skills.

Leading a workshop of emerging leaders in New York I asked the group, “Tell me a time when communication is not important in your job.”  Thinking hard and coming up only with situations where communication mattered, finally somebody said, “In the kitchen getting coffee.”  Then somebody else chuckled and chimed in, “Well that depends on who else is in the kitchen.”  Effective communication is essential to every job on the planet today and it will continue to be so in the future.

I argue that human communication is becoming even more important as machines infiltrate every aspect of our jobs.  Our environments are becoming more complex and ever changing.  To adapt we need to utilize all the uniquely human communication skills, such as using all our senses to read a situation and people, and listening with an open mind to consider many perspectives and possible scenarios. The challenges of the rapid technological change in the coming decades will best be met by curious and communicative humans.

Body Language is Louder Than Words

If there is an inconsistency between body language and speech, research shows that the listener will believe the message conveyed through body language over that which is said. Body language is louder than words. We have all been in the situation where a friend tells us everything is fine, and we know darn well it is not. How do we know? Their body language.

The Washington Post ran an article on President Tump’s body language, stating that reporters find it more telling than any statements he makes. His handshakes indicate what he thinks about other world leaders and his facial expressions are much more honest than his words.

Body language seems obvious when we see it. It accounts for more than 55% of communication. When are listening to others, we are constantly reading body language, including facial expressions, posture and hand motions. Sometimes this listening is subconscious and other times we are well aware that what somebody is wearing or how they are standing is making an impression on us.

Yet, we tend to be less aware of the nonverbal messages we are sending. If we are going to a job interview or a momentous occasion, then we think about what we are going to wear, but that is often the only time. And rarely do we think about how we are sitting in a chair or waiting in line is making an impression on others. Our facial expressions are mostly automatic and don’t always give the impression we want to give, hence the term ‘resting bitch face’ was born.

According to Deborah Gruenfeld, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business,
“When most people are preparing for a situation where they want to have influence, they tend to think a lot about what they say. Rather than thinking about what you are going to say, you need to think about what your body is telling people.”

In the academic arena of Communication Studies, there are six elements of nonverbal communication.

• Appearances & Artifacts – your physical looks, what you wear, and your accessories
• Kinesics – how you hold and move your body and your facial expressions
• Haptics – how you touch other people to communicate
• Proxemics – the distance you stand or sit in relation to other people
• Chronemics – how you use time to communicate
• Paralinguistics – your voice qualities including pitch, volume, and pace

Since body language plays significantly in the power relations of communication, let’s consider a few examples and the how the nature of power is determined by nonverbal communication, using American social norms as the basis.

What is more powerful, a red dress/tie or a blue dress/tie?
What is more powerful, chest high and shoulders back or slumped shoulders?
What is more powerful in a meeting, standing or sitting?
What is more powerful, a loud voice or a soft voice?
What is more powerful, being last to arrive or first to arrive?

If you answered the first item every time, you are right, and I bet that little quiz was super easy. We all know strong body language when we see it, but that doesn’t translate in to us using the body language we know is strong. With a bit more awareness that can change.

Awareness and intention are key. First, spend a month just being aware of your nonverbal communication. Notice how you sit and stand and the qualities of your voice. Ask your friends or coworkers what habits you have. Do you sit forward or lean back in your chair? Do you interrupt others or rarely speak in meetings? After a bit of self discovery through awareness, set intentions. If you want to be respected in meetings, sit upright and speak loudly. If you want to show respect for others, don’t interrupt and nod your head when they are speaking. Gruenfeld speaks of Playing High using authoritative body language, such as taking up maximum space, and Playing Low using approachable body language, such as smiling frequently. You need both skills and you need the wisdom to know when to apply each.

Observe others you admire in your life and notice what body language they are using and when, and then emulate them. Above all else, remember that your body language speaks louder than your words.

Excellent Leadership is Both Communal and Agentic

I saw brilliant women talk about leadership at Wisdom 2.0 beginning with the statement that both men and women need to incorporate both Agentic and Communal leadership to be effective.   Forget the terms feminine and masculine and all the leadership characteristics we may associate with these terms and replace them with Agentic and Communal, which are categories of characteristics for all leaders.

Communal leadership is the ability to pull the best from everyone and to generate new ideas. It also includes building relationships and fostering community. Agentic leadership is the ability to drive toward a goal taking the risks and demanding the standards to reach excellence. Leaders need both. One without the other does not get the job done.

Using this type of leadership language helps us move beyond biases about men and women in leadership. It is one thing we can do to move towards more conscious leadership.

Avoid Saying ‘You’ ‘Always’ ‘Never’

When providing feedback, it’s all about the delivery. To achieve your end goal more often avoid the pronoun ‘you’ and avoiding generalizations when giving constructive criticism. Just think about how you felt the last time somebody said ‘You are always late for meetings’ or ‘You never do your share of the work’ – it triggers the defensive reflex.

The purpose of constructive criticism is to change future behavior, not to shame the person exhibiting the behavior. Use of the words ‘you’ and ‘always’ or ‘never’ when giving criticism raises people’s defenses and hinders effective communication, reducing the chance of changed behavior. When we hear ‘you’ we tend to react as if we are being personally attacked, even if that is not the intention. When we hear generalizations such as ‘always’ or ‘never,’ we tend to react as if it is not fair, because nothing is true 100 percent of the time.

These defensive human reactions have to do with the attribution bias, which is the human tendency to take personal credit when things go well and give responsibility to outside factors when things don’t. Attribution bias works just the opposite for others; we assign personal responsibility to others when things don’t go well and assign credit to outside factors when things do go well.

Given what we know about human nature, you will be much more effective as a leader if you carefully word your constructive criticism. To get a sense, just imagine yourself in these two scenarios and see how you feel.

Scenario One: Coffee spills on your shirt so you have to change it before leaving. Public transit is delayed on your route by 10 minutes. You walk into the Monday morning meeting five minutes late and your boss says, ‘You are always late.’

Scenario Two: Coffee spills on your shirt so you have to change it before leaving. Public transit is delayed on your route by 10 minutes. You walk in to the Monday morning meeting five minutes late and your boss says, ‘Let’s all try to be on time next Monday so we can start our week off right.’

If you are like most people, the first scenario feels like a personal attack and you think that factors out of your control were the cause of your lateness. The second scenario feels much more palatable because you think that factors out of your control made you late, but still acknowledge that it is better if everyone is on time.

As a leader, you can experiment with wording your criticism carefully and then watch the different reactions of those whose behavior you are trying to modify. The table below gives examples of alternative statements you can make while doing this experiment.

Instead of Saying This . . .   Say That
You never do your share of the work. Can you stop being lazy and get to work? Don’t you see that everyone else is working harder than you here? When we all contribute significantly, we all benefit from reaching our goals. What do you think your greatest contribution can be here? Is there anything that is hindering your efforts?
You always mess up projects. Your mistake is costing everyone. What were you thinking? How are you going to fix it? The mistake made on this project has significant consequences. What do you think we can do to correct it immediately and prevent it from happening again in the future?
The way you talk to coworkers always pisses everyone off and never gets you what you want. Why are you so rude? Since everyone has different styles of communication, it is helpful to adapt to others’ styles in the office. How can I help you to observe others and learn to adapt to their styles?

 

Odds are you will be pleasantly surprised at how switching just a few words can have a significant impact on the reaction of others and the achievement of your end goal of changed behavior.

On Teaching Mindfulness

“I really enjoyed every single exercise we did this course, it made me feel thankful, calm, and alert. A feeling I don’t normally feel prior to entering this class.” – Anonymous Leadership Communication Student

“I struggled with it but it gave me good techniques to apply to my daily life and my stress management.” – Anonymous Leadership Communication Student

Mindfulness is a topic that I teach in every class in the Leadership Communication course at San Francisco State University. Here is my thinking: the more a leader is aware of themselves and others, the more likely they are to make sound decisions, doing the most good for the greatest amount of people. Therefore, teaching future leaders mindfulness will have a positive effect on the future of the world. That may be a bit of a grandiose statement, but it is my mission. The responses I get in the end-of-term survey, like the two above, inspire me with the immediate impact mindfulness makes.

Over the course of the semester, I teach various forms of meditation and mindfulness to expose students to many options in hope that at least one strikes a chord and they make it a habit. I tie the type of mindfulness to the course content. For example, Metta/Kindness Meditation is taught while learning about Out-Groups, and Visualization is taught at the same time as Creating a Vision.

This semester, the survey results showed that 83 percent of students had no prior experience with mindfulness, 92 percent liked being taught mindfulness, and 96 percent indicated that this instruction made it a better course. I had them rank their preferences of six methods I teach:

Breathing – Center your attention on your breath

Body Awareness – Slowly scan your body, focusing on sensations

Concentration – Focus on a word or phrase repeated silently to yourself

Freeze Game – Stop in the heat of a moment to notice and name internal states

Metta/Kindness – Send goodness to self and others through silent kind phrases

Visualization – Picture a situation, immerse yourself with all senses and notice internal states

Focus on breathing came in as the most popular method, with Visualization being the second most popular and Body Scan and Metta tying for third.

My favorite part of the survey is the free-form responses, so I am sharing a few more here.

“I really enjoyed the experience of doing meditation in class. Majority of the time I’m coming from working a full 8 hour shift and then in traffic for about an hour and a half. This experience really helped me calm down and focus on this class. I also really enjoyed the entire concept of being mindful because it not only helped me with myself but with others also. It really helped me become more aware of emotions, thoughts, and actions because I realized that I am the one in control.”

“I didn’t know that we would be having these every class time and I find it super essential to do because I like to meditate and it feels relaxing to do it towards the end of the day so I can be a little relieved and then carry on to just solely focus on this class. I believe that mindfulness and meditation helps a leader out in many ways and it’s highly important to value that.”

“My mind wanders a lot and I have a lot of thoughts and imagination so to clear out my mind and focus on a singular thing was frustrating.”

As that last comment indicates, not all students enjoy the process. It is not easy in a world of constant digital stimuli to sit quiet for a few moments and turn inward. Not easy, but essential for leaders. So, I will keep teaching mindfulness in my leadership course with the hopes that the impact expands beyond the classroom through the careers of my students.

Get Out of Your Head

Most of us look at things from our own perspective. This makes total sense because we are with ourselves more than anyone else. But, it doesn’t make as much sense when we are striving for effective communication with others.

When we communicate and interact with other people, our own thoughts are often very active and distracting. We are thinking questions like, ‘what does this person think about what I am saying?’ ‘am I sounding intelligent here?’ ‘did I offend them with that last comment?’ ‘are they convinced of my opinion?’ ‘what am I going to say next?’. Often we are planning what we are going to say in response to what they are saying. Rarely are we paying 100% attention to the other person’s words and body language, even though we know that is what makes the most effective communication.

A key to effective communication is to get out of your own head. By quieting the stream of thoughts in your own mind and focusing on the other person, you increase the likelihood of a successful interaction. A successful interaction is defined as the person feeling heard and you gaining valuable information, including and beyond the content actually being spoken.

How do you quiet that stream of thoughts? Perspective, patience, and practice.

Perspective

Look at things from the other person’s point of view in advance of the interaction. Catalog what you know about the person and how that knowledge may affect their opinions of the topic to be discussed. In this exercise, you can compare and contrast your own perspective with your audience’s perspective to get a sense of similarity and differences.

Also define the objective or desired outcome of the interaction from both your and the other person’s perspective. For example, you have a planned phone call with a prospect and you know your objective is to get a face-to-face meeting. You can assume their objective is likely to discover if there is a good fit between your offering and their need, and you know that they are looking at many other providers. You also know that the person has an accounting background and shares the same home state as you. In this case, you would connect with similarities (home state), acknowledge their objective (determine fit), use logical appeals (accounting background), and close with the ask of including you in the list of providers with whom they meet (your objective). Note that this perspective-taking happens before the interaction, so these thoughts are not streaming in your head as you interact.

Patience

Let them finish every statement completely before you respond. The pause is a powerful communication technique. People feel that you are listening if you give a thoughtful (3-second) pause after they complete a statement. That pause actually allows you to fully listen while your audience is speaking and then think of your response in those 3 seconds. By fully listening while someone is speaking you gain more information than just the content of what they say. Nonverbal communication says a lot. The pace at which they make certain statements, their facial expression and body language – it all tells you more than just the words. Take our example above and assume you got the face-to-face meeting and kick it off by asking their top priorities. The person responds with a list of three but states the first two very quickly and then slows down their speaking pace on the last one. Likely that last one is really the most important one and you just got that added information because you were being patient and really listening.

Practice

After 100 times it will be habit for you to get out of your head and focus primarily on the other person. While it is not always easy to be an attentive communicator, it is well worth the effort. Don’t give up just because you’re stuck in your head for a conversation (or a few conversations). Set your intention, practice, and then kindly remind yourself to return your attention to the other person when you find yourself focused on the stream of thoughts in your head. Tricks to keep your focus on the other person include paraphrasing what they said in your mind or focusing intently on one aspect of nonverbal communication such as their facial expressions or what they are doing with their hands.

By taking the other person’s perspective in advance and planning how you will accommodate that perspective, you can minimize streaming thoughts during the interaction. By being patient and letting them finish every statement before you respond you are both making them feel heard and gaining valuable information for yourself. By practicing you get better at communicating, which improves your interactions, your relationships, and your desired outcomes.

 

 

 

 

Non-Ordinary States

Time feels irrelevant, brilliant ideas flow easily, and you have a deep sense of connection to others and the world at large – you are in a non-ordinary state of consciousness. In addition to the fabulous feeling, the benefits of these non-ordinary states are increased creativity and performance for a wide variety of pursuits – from business, to sports, to spirituality. Scientific research is revealing more about these states and the forces of psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology are allowing more and more people to effectively and consistently tap them. The book, Stealing Fire, gives an excellent synopsis of the state of these states. I will share my Top-3 Take-Aways from the book and give my perspective on how non-ordinary states relate to leadership communication.

1) Different Paths Lead to the Same Place

The book categorizes non-ordinary states into three areas: flow states typically sought by high performance individuals and teams; mystical states typically sought by contemplative people; and psychedelic states traditionally sought by hippies and youth, but now also sought by some high performance seekers. While these three seem drastically different, the book exposes that research has shown the neurobiology of the varied perspectives are quite similar. That is to say that what happens in the brain (slowing of brain waves from beta to alpha, transient hypofrontality, and release of certain neurotransmitters and hormones) is actually the same regardless of how the non-ordinary state is reached. Having practiced meditation for decades, I am biased towards that particular contemplative technique, and the book offered me an eye-opening vantage on other means. The pharmacology approach is the perspective farthest from my own and I appreciated the depth of research in that area.

2) Trend is Becoming Revolution

Specific examples of how people are working to solve ‘wicked problems’ of our time by tapping non-ordinary states are prevalent throughout the book, from the SEAL Team Six, to Googleplex, to many innovation teams. Everywhere people are hacking performance through non-ordinary states using many methods to get there. Access through smart drugs and microdosing psychedelics unveiled an entirely new perspective for me. Tim Ferris, referenced in the book, explains the trend in Silicon Valley, “Can LSD Make You a Billionaire?” Scour the Notes at the end of the book for all the research.

3) It is Not All Good News

These non-ordinary states feel good and improve performance, but they have a downside. Some of the athletic and psychedelic approaches can lead to bodily harm and even death, while some of the technology progress can lead to mind manipulation. My last Top-3 Take Away from the book is that pursuit of these states requires discipline. The formula Value = Time x Risk/Reward is offered as a means to determine how best to access non-ordinary states and the authors also offer tools for flow management.

Non-ordinary States and Leadership Communication

There are plenty of binary logical skills related to communication that can be taught, but there is a significant benefit of being in a frame of mind that naturally leads to better leadership communication. Let’s contrast the two scenarios.

You can learn to be a better storyteller or listener through specific techniques, which I teach to students and clients all the time. These cognitive skills can be intentionally applied and better leadership communication habits can be built over time. This skill building relies heavily on the prefrontal cortex of the brain.  In contrast, practicing and honing access to non-ordinary states, such as through meditation, creates a different frame of mind. These states increase the connections in the brain and allow you to see things in ways that you previously did not. The anandamide neurotransmitter promotes lateral thinking and the transient limited prefrontal cortex activity reduces the typical filters that limit our perspectives. As a leader, this helps you to be more strategic by giving you a variety of frameworks for viewing an issue. As a communicator, this allows you to see things more clearly from others’ point of view, reducing unintentional discrimination and opening broader channels of connection.  Both scenarios lead to better communication, but I argue that the second creates a fertile ground that actually helps the first.

To tap the fabulous feeling, creativity, and high performance (including excellent leadership communication), read the book, access a non-ordinary state periodically, and intentionally practice communication that honors the perspectives of others.

“Works well with others” Required

Two budding leaders from Kulesa Faul Public Relations spoke to my Leadership Communication class at San Francisco State this week, offering advice to students interested in entering the profession. The interactive conversation was a good reminder of how effective communication plays into career advancement in addition to being essential for the art of public relations. Here are a few memorable pieces of advice that I find relevant to all stages of leadership.

If you want something, take initiative

That something could be more responsibility within your organization or a better understanding of a client’s perspective on an industry topic, but it will take your initiative to make it happen. Those who sit back and wait don’t get very far in the field of public relations (or any other field, I might add).

A problem with a coworker can be worked out 1:1

The person to go to if you have an issue is the very person with whom you are having an issue. You might first get advice from a mentor on how to deal with the specific problem at hand, but to solving it requires open, honest, and non-judging communication. Sometimes that is best done out of the office and over drinks so that both people can be relaxed and focused.

Acknowledge and appreciate different working styles

Understanding the every person has unique strengths to contribute and different ways of working is essential for high standards of excellence. Success requires learning team members’ styles and then adapting communication so that everyone on the team can contribute and understand others’ contributions.

Intentionally choose the best mode of communication

Email, text, instant messaging, call, videoconference, face-to-face – we have so many possible modes of communication available. Good public relations, good client relations, and good team relations all rely on selecting the best mode for the situation. Taking into account personal preferences, urgency, sensitivity of the content, and the number of people involved will help ensure the most appropriate communication mode is intentionally used.

I truly appreciate the reminder that relationships are the key to success and good communication is key to relationships. Therefore, ‘works well with others’ is required in public relations (and in life).

Wisdom at Work

Attending Wisdom 2.0 for my sixth time, I was, as usual, impressed by the caliber of speakers, but this year I was more impressed by the attendees and the way in which they are implementing mindfulness in their work. I met people from all industries from all over. Hearing their stories gave me insight on just how many ways we can practice mindfulness and bring wisdom into work. So, I am sharing the highlights with you.

First, just a quick reminder of the definition of mindfulness from industry veteran Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.

Second, what struck me through all the stories is how central communication is to implementing mindfulness. That is not a surprise since I look at life through a communication filter, but it makes sense because while mindfulness allows us to pause and gain insight, it is in relations with others that wisdom comes forth. The fruits of mindfulness are evident in our interactions with others at work. Through people’s stories on bringing wisdom to work, we can see this in action. Now, on to the vignettes.

  • Medical devices marketing manager in New Jersey finds that mindful practice helps with coping with a boss who uses an unkind style of speaking to the team. This boss readily admits the aggressive communication style, but expects the team to cope with it anyway. This particular team member uses mindfulness to keep centered and to be able to respond with kindness despite the aggression.
  • Always facing families who are dealing with trauma, rehab worker from Utah uses mindfulness to recharge compassion on a regular basis. Mindfulness helps with staying fully present to families as they go through very difficult times without getting too burned out from the nature of this intense work.
  • Organizational design specialist in San Francisco uses mindfulness in helping entrepreneurs launch their businesses. Staying aware in the present moment fosters creativity and leads to better solutions.
  • Programmer in Silicon Valley uses mindfulness to wisely choose where to place the valuable resources called our attention. People’s attention often goes to the most prevalent and easy-to-access information fed through an application or through online media, even if it is not the best for them or even what they really want and need. By designing more mindfully, programmers can create technology that is both the path of least resistance and in line with what is good for individuals and society.
  • Human Resource manager for consumer goods company in Ontario teaches mindfulness to employees in order to reduce mental health issues, moderating the cost of disability claims for the organization.
  • Onboarder at technology company in Menlo Park uses mindfulness both as part of formal process for new employees and personally as a way to give more spaciousness for making decisions in a fast-paced environment.
  • Business Development Specialist at a start up in Oakland uses mindfulness as core to the business offering and to create meaningful connections with individuals at organizations that are prospective customers.
  • High-profile sales executive in Colorado used wisdom gained from mindfulness to switch careers to be in better alignment with intentions and strengths, giving up prestige for greater well being.
  • CFO of school district in Vancouver uses mindfulness in dealing with fellow coworkers in the district, particularly those who don’t listen well. Practicing full attention in meetings, leaving technology behind and really listening is a way to stay present and model the desired behavior for others.
  • Leadership Development executive from NY uses mindfulness to listen fully and effectively to clients prior to creating development plans.
  • Educator in Pennsylvania finds that Group Think among colleagues is the greatest detriment to productivity at work. Her take is that people want to belong so badly that in the moment they will agree with others even if they don’t actually agree. She uses mindfulness to stay present and true to integrity and will kindly state differing opinions in group settings. When rebutted mindfulness brings forth self-compassion.

All of these individuals inspired me and I hope they inspire you to take a moment to pause and bring yourself into the present moment and see what wisdom is there for you.