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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.  

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.

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.