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“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.

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. 

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.

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. 

 

 

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.  

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

“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).

Consciously Resolve Conflict

While we know conflict is part of life, it still can catch us by surprise and throw us off our ‘conscious communicator’ game. To stay present and bring our best selves forward when conflict arises we need to be knowledgeable and practice being present with discomfort.

In terms of being knowledgeable, there is both understanding the nature of conflict resolution and being prepared to face a specific conflict.

Let’s review conflict basics. There are four elements necessary for conflict: opposing forces, interdependence, affect or emotions, and perceived differences. It is helpful to remember that there needs to be an interdependence in order for there to be a conflict in the first place; there is a connection at some level between the conflicting parties that you can use to help solve the conflict. The word ‘perceived’ is also a key part of the definition because perceptions can change, and as perceptions change options for resolving conflict can arise.

Now, let’s consider the five styles used in approaching conflict set out by Kilmann & Thomas:

  1. Avoidance – passively ignore conflict – this is usually counterproductive unless it is used for cooling off before addressing the conflict or for minor issues.
  2. Competition – pursuing only own goals – this is productive for only one person, it is a win-lose situation.
  3. Accommodation – defer to others – this is productive for the other person, it is a lose-win situation and tends to build resentment.
  4. Compromise – give and take – this is a productive style and can be thought of as the middle ground where each party wins some and loses some.  Compromise is the most common (positive) style of solving conflict.
  5. Collaboration – finding a new alternative together – this is a win-win where both parties walk away feeling they gained something, but it takes time and is difficult to achieve. Collaboration leads to the best outcomes for both parties in a conflict.

Fisher and Ury developed Principled Negotiations, which is a collaboration style of resolving conflict with four action items that are illustrated in the graphic below; separate the people from the problem, focus on interests, not positions, invent options for mutual gain, and use objective criteria for resolution. An example of a position is pro tax increase; the interests for that position might be fairness for all citizens or support for public servants.  By focusing on the interests or motivations behind the positions of each party, it opens up possibility of options for mutual gain.

book-getting-to-yes1

Source: sachachua.com

Of course, even after we have refreshed our memory on the nature of conflict and resolution, we still need to prepare for a specific conflict. Sometimes we know in advance that we will be facing conflict. Then we can prepare by figuring out exactly what we want, what the other party wants (to the best of our knowledge), what we are willing to give away, and lastly what options we have if negotiations fail. Other times we walk into a conflict in the moment and need to gather our thoughts and composure on the spot. In these cases, our ability to be with discomfort is as important as our critical thinking. This takes practice.

Any time we are upset at things that doesn’t go our way, we have the opportunity to try and be our best selves in that moment. One technique for doing so is Tara Brach’s RAIN.

R stands for recognize – pause, take a breath, focus inward and become aware of what is happening inside of you at this very moment. I find it helpful to name it – upset, anger, tension, or fear.

A stands for allow – instead of trying to push away the discomfort, just allow it to be.

I stands for investigate – kindly look at your inner experience from a higher perspective to discover what is being triggered in you and what patterns you see.

N stands for non-identification – realize that you are not your current feelings and that, like everything else in this universe, the current situation is not permanent.

This RAIN technique takes just a moment, and it can create a major shift in perspective that allows you to be more open-minded and openhearted, while still advocating for yourself during a conflict.

To further develop your conflict resolution techniques, you can refer to negotiation expert William Ury’s new book, Getting to Yes with Yourself and the six steps he recommends.

As we all face conflicts, some big and some small, bringing our best self forward by being present with discomfort and brushing up our resolution techniques can help us consciously connect with fellow humans.