Getting Comfortable with Discomfort Makes us Better Communicators

Fear of public speaking, conflict avoidance, dread of delivering bad new – many communication interactions can lead us to a sense of discomfort. Handling these tough interactions skillfully requires us practicing in order to get more comfortable with the discomfort. What typically happens is that emotions arise that throw us out of our prefrontal cortex of executive function and into our amygdala reptile brain of flight/fight/freeze. In that moment, we need the skills to reverse that phenomenon quickly so we have the wherewithal to cope. The skills required are awareness to notice what has happened and calming techniques to quickly reduce the adrenalin and restore equanimity. Let’s look at some of the situations that tend to get us riled and explore ways to practice with discomfort.

Discomfort Triggers

We’ve all heard that fear of public speaking is the number one phobia, so it is not surprising that it causes discomfort. Giving a speech puts us in a vulnerable position of being judged by others, which can trigger emotions of fear and unworthiness. While it is true that many people feel significant discomfort when they are giving a speech, in my experience it is not the most common creator of discomfort in communication. The more frequent complaints I hear working with professionals as a communication coach are about the discomfort from dealing with conflict, giving criticism, and delivering bad news. These items have in common that they are confronting others one-on-one with the risk of hurting or insulting another person. Because we as humans have such a strong need to feel a sense of belonging, we to strive to create connection. Confrontation risks breaking connection and therefore triggers discomfort.

Practice with Discomfort

Engaging in interactions that create discomfort is one way to practice, but that is high risk until we have mastered the awareness and emotional regulation. It is better to first practice being with discomfort outside of situations that generate discomfort. This requires imagining the situation with detailed visualization engaging all senses, then feeling the subsequent emotions arise and processing those emotions with a technique. Ways to practice listed here are all mindfulness techniques and can be used both in visualizations and in real life communication interactions that trigger discomfort.

Use the Breath to Calm the Body – Breathe in 4 counts, hold 4 counts, exhale 8 counts

“Breathing in, I know the feeling of despair is in me. Breathing out I know this is only one feeling and I am much more than one feeling.” Thich Nhat Hanh

IRL: Before going on stage to speak, pause, turn focus inward, and practice this breathing technique. As you are breathing out for the long period, silently say to yourself that you are much more than what you are feeling at this moment. Doing just three of these types of breath will calm your fight/flight/freeze physiological reactions and get you ready to do your best public speaking.

Approach with Curiosity – What might happen? How can I be with that?

“When you see the beginnings of a healthy conflict, you should lean into it. Say, ‘That’s interesting, this feels productive. Let’s talk about it.’ It signals that you are intentionally fostering ideas.” Jack Altman, CEO of Lattice from First Round Review article, The Ultimate Guide to Running Executive Meetings.

IRL: When somebody disagrees with your idea in a meeting, pause and notice the initial reaction, take a breath, and then intentionally shift to being curious. The first thing that comes out of your mouth should be a genuine question. For example, “Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way before, can you explain your thought process so I can fully understand?”

RAIN – Recognize what is happening;  Allow it to be; Investigate with kindness; Nurture it

“The RAIN technique is a simple, yet highly effective way of tuning into our inner world and creating a pause between the stimulus of the outside world and our reaction.” Tara Brach

IRL: Delivering bad news, such as letting an employee go or telling a client the goal was not met, is a good time to use the RAIN technique. When developing talking points, pay attention to feelings without pushing them away. Let the emotions guide what you are going to say. Then in the moment, honor your feelings and those that are likely to arise in the other person, in order to be with the discomfort of the situation without any pretense that things should be otherwise.  

The purpose of practicing outside of the moment is to experience the reaction and repeat the process over and over until we feel more comfortable with it. We practice until we feel comfortable with the rising of emotions and the mechanisms of calming the emotions so we can interact skillfully. Think of it like practicing a tennis serve or a basketball show – repetition is what makes our bodies build muscle memory and it give us a level of comfort.

Over time, practicing being with discomfort will increase our comfort with the human process of having strong emotions arise and modulating those emotions so that we can make clear decisions and communicate skillfully. Then in the moment, being comfortable with discomfort, we can stand strong and grounded on stage and belt out our opinions on a subject, we can approach conflict with the true desire to understand another’s perspective, we can share criticism in a way it can be heard as caring, and we can deliver bad news with the presence that allows space for all emotions.

Full Participation – We Get There Together

Full participation makes for better meetings – and we all want better meetings. As leaders we gain full participation by adhering to basic meeting best practices and through inclusive communication techniques; as participants we contribute more with preparation. 

Inclusive Leadership

To make meetings better as leaders we need to apply discipline in the basics of good meeting management: getting the right people there and prepared, setting and following agendas, and managing time. These basics form the structure of effective meetings, but full participation is the key ingredient that makes for high-productivity meetings. There are several communication techniques that increase participation, including explicit expectations, warmups, round-robin sharing, write-first, and polls or surveys. Each of these participation-increasing communication strategies serves a different purpose and they can be mixed and matched to meet objectives. 

  • Warmups: Warmups are a tool to set the tone of the gathering and get everyone comfortable speaking up. Warmups can be as simple as asking everyone the same easy question or playing a simple game. Favorite-Questions and Would-You-Rather game are examples of warmups. What is your favorite movie/book/podcast?  Would you rather swim/wade in a lake, a river, or the ocean?
  • Expectations: Setting explicit expectations at the beginning increases participation by letting everyone know the rules. For example, “Everyone here will have the opportunity to share their opinions. We are setting the ground rules of waiting until each person finishes and says they are complete before the next person speaks.”
  • Round Robin: Round robin is simply the technique of speaking in turns one right after the other without interruption until everyone has had a chance to contribute. This tool is really helpful to gather different ideas for a brainstorm or capture varying opinions about an issue. Round robin is particularly effective in a meeting of people that span the power structure of an organization.
  • Write First: Having all participants write their thoughts on a topic first before discussion is a means of increasing participation. Writing first allows people to better formulate and subsequently articulate their thoughts. This technique is excellent for complex problem solving and deeper analysis. Though it can be used for any topic to increase participation.
  • Polls: People find responding to surveys and voting on things to be a fun way to participate. With technology, this can be done anonymously and  give immediate gratification of results. In person it can be done with hands/thumbs up or down and direct verbal responses. Polls engage people, get the pulse of the group, and are helpful in making final decisions after discussions.

Proactive Participation

As participants, often we are asked to ‘just speak up’ but are not given an obvious way to do so.  The first line of action is to ask meeting leaders to step up and use inclusive strategies, but there are also many things we can do on our own. Identifying where we add value is key. Preparing in advance – comments, questions, places in the agenda we can contribute – makes it easier to speak up. And once we have established a presence, we can lend that social capital to somebody else in the room who needs space for their voice.

  • Value Add: Everyone is invited to a meeting for a reason and knowing why we are there is extremely helpful in determining how we can add value in participating. If we really don’t know, we should find out with a simple email to the organizer, “I see that I am on the invite for the xx meeting and I am wondering what how you would like me to participate.” This may also get us out of unnecessary meetings if we were invited just as a courtesy. 
  • Preparing: Just a few minutes of preparation time can substantially increase our confidence in being an active contributor. Reviewing the agenda, we can formulate our thoughts on topics and come up with questions we can ask. Question can be for the purpose of gathering more information, but they can also be means of instigating deeper conversation or including others. For example, we could ask “What was the thought process behind the current conclusion?” to instigate more evaluation. We could also ask “What does engineering/marketing/Jane/Joe think of this topic?” to give voice to somebody else and expand inclusion. More than anything else, preparing makes us sure of ourselves and, therefore, makes it easier to participate.

With just a bit of forethought and effort, we can gain full participation and improve our meetings both as leaders and as participants. 

Matching Others’ Communication Styles without Losing Our Own

We subconsciously adjust our communication styles to match the people we are around; shifting that to a conscious effort is a communication skill that improves interactions but can raise the fear of being phony. Understanding the communication tactic and being clear on our purpose helps us to match others’ styles without losing our own.

Consider this common conversation I have with clients:

Me: Perhaps you could adjust your speaking style to fit your audience, reflecting their style.
Client: That would be phony, putting on a act; I want to be my true self.
Me: Do you talk to your grandparents the same way you talk to your friends?
Client: Of course not.
Me: How do you change the way you speak for your grandparents as compared to your friends?
Client: Well, I show respect to my grandparents, I don’t curse, I say yes ma’am and yes sir. Around my friends I am much more casual. We finish each others’ sentences and say whatever is on our minds.
Me: So, which of those is your true self?
Client: Both are, I mean I love my grandparents and like to spend time with them, it is just different than being around my friends, that’s all.
Me: So, actually you are already adjusting your speaking style to fit your audience, switching how you speak to your grandparents and your friends. Now you can just apply this skill to your professional life, consciously adjusting how you speak based on the audience.

Mirroring and Code Switching

Many times, we are mirroring and code switching in our communication without being aware that is what we are doing. The two academic terms, mirroring and code switching, refer to our tendency to adjust the way we communicate depending on the people and the situation. Mirroring is matching another’s nonverbal style by displaying similar gestures and using the same vocal qualities, which activates a part of the brain that increases connection. The term code switching originally described bilinguals switching between languages and then expanded to include people switching dialects or styles within a language, depending on the context, in order to improve communication. There are many studies that show both the natural human propensity for mirroring and code switching and their respective communication benefits. Mirroring has been shown to facilitate collaboration and code switching to increase a sense of belonging. One entertaining article shares personal stories on the reasons we code switch. Understanding that matching our styles to others’ styles is natural for humans, we can see the intentional effort of adjusting styles as a maturation of that inherent skill.

Clear Purpose

In the client scenario I shared, the person had a very clear purpose for speaking differently to their grandparents — showing respect. Being clear on the purpose for adjusting our style (in addition to communicating in general) helps motivate us to make the effort and know how we can adjust. In more extreme cases, such as when a friend is in crisis, we are clear that our purpose is to be supportive and will match their serious demeanor and likely mirror their actions, such as sitting if they sit. In a work setting, the purpose may be less obvious, but often is about relationships – building trust, and earning or showing respect. It can also be about content; learning or sharing information requires open listening  and a good connection on the part of the communicators.

As soon as we have identified our purpose, we are motivated to communicate in a manner that supports that purpose, including intentionally mirroring and code switching. That might look like leaning back in a chair when others lean back, or speaking more quickly if another’s pace is fast, or even adding a curse word if the others use profanity as a regular part of their speech. The caveat is that the range of style variation needs to fit within the scope of what feels comfortable and real for us. If we never talk fast and then try to speed up to match a New Yorker, we might feel phony or defeat our own purpose if we trip over our words. If we never curse and then drop an f-bomb because others are, we are likely to feel awkward and thereby hinder instead of increase connection. With the purpose of improving relationships and increasing mutual understanding, we can mirror and code switch within the realm of our own communication repertoire.

It is natural human tendency to adjust our communication according to the people with whom we are interacting. Learning to do that intentionally is a powerful skill. Consciously paying attention to the person(s) we are with, noticing their mood and communication style, and then adjusting our own style accordingly helps us be effective communicators able to fulfill our purpose. Understanding the phenomena and being clear on purpose helps us develop that skill while remaining genuine.

 

Zoom Fatigue Solutions

Move. Look up. Focus. Acknowledge Effort. Vary Medium.

Research on videoconference is rolling in from academics now that a year has passed since it became our primary means of communicating. While we’ve all learned the skills needed to do Zoom right, we now need to learn how to keep it from making us crazy. The latest research out of Stanford and San Francisco State University clearly shows that the fatigue we are feeling is real, with distinct causes, but also that there are ways to mitigate the problem. To tell just how much we are affected, we can take the ZEF Scale survey and contribute to Stanford’s research efforts.

Why the Fatigue?

Based on the current research, the reasons we are feeling this Zoom fatigue – which is not specific to Zoom itself but to any videoconference platform – are both physical and psychological. Physically, we are not moving our bodies and our eyes as we typically do when we are meeting in person or talking on the phone. Psychologically, we are dealing with watching ourselves in action and with having to process nonverbal communication that is more difficult to catch and interpret.

When we don’t move our bodies, we fall into sitting-and-watching-mode where we become conditioned not to act and we have reduced subjective energy. When our eyes are fixed on one thing (the screen) for a long time, certain eye muscles stay in a tight position. This is in contrast to when we look at different things, as we do when meeting in person, and different muscles in the eyes contract and then relax.

Psychologically, when we look at ourselves, we tend to be critical and that puts us into negative emotional states. There has never been a historical time when humans watch themselves while communicating the way we tend to do on videoconference right now. Another historical change is interpreting nonverbal communication when it is mediated through videoconference. In person, we are constantly picking up cues subconsciously decoding messages and making meaning from them. Not only is it harder to give and receiving nonverbal cues, but we are getting false cues that we need to interpret. This places a higher cognitive load on us. So, while we sit still, look in one place, see ourselves constantly, and work to send and interpret nonverbal cues, we are getting exhausted!

That is the bad news. The good news is that the research also gives us relatively easy fixes to these problems. We can move our bodies and our eyes, stop looking at ourselves, focus our attention, increase nonverbal cues given and interpreted, and utilize multiple communication media.   

Move

Move it or lose it. Sitting all day is bad for us physically and psychologically, so we just need to move our bodies more. We can shift positions from a chair to a stool to standing for different videoconferences throughout the day. We can take short breaks by scheduling the start of meetings at five minutes past the hour; do burpees or dance to energetic music for three minutes in between meetings. 

Look up

Avoid staring at one spot of the screen for a long period of time to eliminate eye fatigue. First take the opportunity to shift from looking at the speaker to the presentation materials, which are ideally on a separate monitor. We can position our computers in front of a window and look up right over the edge of camera to something far in the distance outside the window and then back again to move our eyes without appearing to be distracted. We can avoid watching ourselves and triggering negative emotional states by checking our frame when we start and then turning off our self-view.

Focus

To avoid the drop in energy from falling into sitting and watching mode, stay with the flow of the meeting and avoid attempting to multitask (which is usually just task switching). Taking notes on paper (or even doodling) and responding in chat or with emoji reactions helps sustain on-topic attention. Setting the corporate culture to eliminate unnecessary meetings and making sure only those essential to the purpose attend helps to avoid people sitting on videoconference while doing other work.

Acknowledge Effort

Nonverbal communication mediated through videoconference simply takes more energy. We need to exaggerate our facial expressions and nod more in order for others to be able to read our nonverbal cues. We also carry a heavier cognitive load to interpret others’ cues. Did they glance to the side because they don’t understand or don’t believe us? Or did someone just enter the room on that side? We can ask more questions and engage people through chat, turn taking, and requests for reactions so that we are getting more feedback – but all that takes effort too.  Acknowledging that effort helps us plan our workload more effectively. We can also specify when video is needed for a meeting, or at what points during a meeting, and when it is not. This works well for my students when online learning; we are on video when interacting and then off video when I present material and ask for written responses.

Vary Medium

All Zoom all the time just doesn’t work. It is like sitting in the conference room all day in meetings and never going back to your desk to get work done. Before the pandemic videoconference craze, we were more varied in communication mediums.  As we come out of the pandemic, we will make choices about how we communicate from a wider variety of options. The best time to use videoconference will be when we cannot be physically in one place, but definitely need to see others. 

With many of us still working from home, and with conversations starting about what post-pandemic office life will look like, it is helpful to have new research to guide us in using videoconference as an integral part of our daily work life.  With making a few adjustments, we can keep being effective collaborators and communicators without exhausting ourselves.

Graciously Ending Casual Conversations

In meetings we can set time limits and agendas, but in casual conversations it is much harder to know when enough is enough. Recent research is shows that we are not that good of a judge.

Those who are good meeting managers know that setting an agenda in advance, having a time manager assigned, and tabling items when things run long are effective means to ending conversations in meetings. But when it comes to more casual conversations, we are generally not taught how to end them and we are even taught it is impolite to end them. This lack of training and discomfort leads to conversations running longer than we would like.

Of 126 conversations, only 2% ended when both participants wanted them to, according to research by Adam Mastroianni, Ph.D. student in psychology at Harvard University, as reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some extraverted souls had wanted to chat longer, but 69% of the participants said they wanted the conversation to end before it did.

Mastroianni and his colleagues also surveyed 806 people on the online crowdsourcing platform Mechanical Turk, asking them to describe a recent in-person conversation—and how long they actually wished it had lasted. Similar to the lab results, 67% of people reported they wanted out before the conversation was done.

Ending Conversations is Risky Business       

The nature of conversation is back-and-forth turn taking that has social rules of politeness embedded. When we engage in a conversation, we are showing interest in another person.  To end a conversation, we are taking risks. We risk that whoever takes the last turn is indicating more power. We risk implying that the other person is not that interesting or no longer interesting. The rules of politeness or face-saving come into play and make it difficult.

While Mastroianni’s study shows that we may not be that good at ending conversations, there are certainly communication skills we can apply to this conundrum.  As usual, the first step is moving our communication from subconscious and automatic to intentional. With that intentionality, we can be more aware of signs or cues from the other person and can use graceful, but direct means to end conversations.

Picking Up Cues

People are constantly giving nonverbal cues on how much they are interested; we can be attuned to the signs. Nonverbal indications of diminished interest – or desire to end the conversation – can include: 

  • Eyes to something else
  • Body weight shift side to side
  • Body turning slightly another direction
  • One foot stepping out
  • Increase in repetition of sounds like ‘uhuh’ or ‘mhm’

Ending Gracefully

When we are ready to move on, we can give nonverbal cues that we are less interested as described above or, better yet, we can use wrap-up phrases that express gratitude or refer to the future. Expressing gratitude mitigates the risk of implying the person is not interesting and referring to the future implies continued interest. We can use phrases like:

  • It was so nice catching up
  • Thanks for sharing
  • I really appreciate your insight
  • When can we chat again?
  • What is on your plate for the rest of the day?
  • What are you hoping to garner from this conference today?

We can also use more direct phrases that indicate clear endings and put the onus on an external factor as a means of being polite, such as:

  • I am sure you are busy, so I will let you go
  • I wish I could keep chatting, but I need to get back to work

Given the recent research that clearly indicates conversations are lasting longer than we wish, it seems we could all employ intentional,  direct, and polite strategies to wrap things up for the benefit of our professional relationships.

Black Women Leaders Making History

Two black women just got promoted to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies – THAT is making history! They follow the first ever black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company Ursula Burns who was CEO of Xerox from 2009-2016.

The 2020 Fortune 500 list of companies has only five black men as CEOs and only 38 women as CEOs. Historically women and people of color in the United States have faced great challenges and a much harder path toward leading a large company than the white men who dominate those positions. Now in 2021 we get to celebrate the appointment of two black women CEOs to Fortune 500 companies:  Rosalind ‘Roz’ Brewer and Thasunda ‘T’ Brown Duckett.  Thasunda Brown Duckett will take the helm at financial firm TIAA and Rosalind Brewer will take the helm at Walgreens. Given my work coaching and teaching leadership communication, I love exploring examples of pioneering leaders.

Both of these women came from humble upbringings and have worked tirelessly to build strong careers helping companies gain success.  In addition to helping their companies succeed, they both have been advocates for gender and racial equity. 

While stories of these two black women have been all over the press in the recent past, I am compelled to celebrate their success by highlighting their perspectives on leadership. In a country struggling with systematic racism and in need of strong leaders, I am so grateful for Duckett and Brewer for pioneering new paths to the top spots in American industry.

Quick Snapshot

 

Thusunda ‘T’ Brown Duckett

 

Rosalind ‘Roz’ Brewer

Born in Rochester, NY; raised in Arlington, Texas

Education: BA University of Houston; MBA Baylor University

Career:  Fannie Mae,  Chase – Auto, SVP Home Lending, CEO Consumer Banking, Nike Board of Directors

soon CEO of TIAA

Fortune Most Powerful Women 2020 #30

 

Born and raised in Detroit Michigan

Education: BA Spelman College; Chicago Booth School of Business, Stanford Law, Wharton School University of Pennsylvania

Career: Kimberly-Clark, Walmart, CEO Sam’s Club, COO Starbucks, Amazon Board of Directors       

soon CEO of Walgreens

Fortune Most Powerful Women 2020 #27

 

Rosalind Brewer on Leadership

Rosalind Brewer describes herself as a servant leader with the purpose of serving the people on her team. In an interview at the Aspen Institute titled Race, Reckoning, and Leadership in Tough Times Brewer explained how personally impactful the Starbucks crisis caused by employees calling the police on two black men in a store back in 2018 was for her.  She felt both responsible in her leadership position and pained because her son was the same age as the black men. She helped the company to significantly shift in response to that crisis – starting with closing all stores and immediately doing training. When asked what three traits makes a perfect leader, Brewer responded:

  1. High Integrity
  2. Selfless Servant
  3. Authenticity

She mentioned that high integrity is important because there will always be times of pressure and it is in those moment that it is ‘all about the decisions you make’.  She sees herself as a selfless servant there to help people on her team succeed. She sees authenticity in someone who ‘knows themselves more than anyone else’ and it is a critical element to leading others.

In describing in greater detail her role as a servant leader during a Stanford Graduate School of Business View from the Top interview, Brewer said, “They got to know I have their back every day.”  She explained that she still remembered what it was like to work in some of the unfortunate jobs.  She mentioned that early in her career, “I had to do some of the toughest, dirtiest jobs, but it gave me a chance to learn; I put that to work every day and look at is as a blessing.” Remembering that, she intentionally takes the perspectives of the people who work at all levels of her organization. 

 

Thusunda Brown Duckett on Leadership

Thusunda Brown Duckett sees her purpose in life to inspire others and her passion is to help everyone achieve financial security. She often says that she stands on the shoulders of giants and expresses gratitude for all those who have supported her in her pursuit of the American dream.  She helped foster the development of careers for black people and women through the Black Pathways Program and Women on the Move  programs at Chase.  And she started the Otis and Rosie Brown Foundation in Arlington, TX  for supporting students of all backgrounds.

When asked about the many awards she received, Duckett commented, “When I can represent being a powerful woman in banking or being a top African American, I think it just gives a nod to possibility for other women or people who may share a similar story.”

Given the financial hardships she experienced as a child, prosperity as a means to address racial equity is important to Duckett.  She addresses that topic head on in a recent LinkedIn post: The bridge to racial equity starts with financial health  The first step is taking a hard look at the wealth disparities for black Americans created by systematic racism.  “That requires moving beyond the ingrained perception that talking about money and race is taboo, and that financial hardship results simply from bad personal decisions. It also requires moving beyond a culture with the prevailing ideology that success comes simply from individual responsibility.”

In an interview with Operation Hope, Duckett shared her perspective on leadership.  She stated,  “I rent my title, I own my character.” She explained that she understands that titles are owned by companies, but people have ownable assets – character, purpose, passion.  When you show up with your ownable assets you can be authentic and make a real sustainable difference. 

 

Leadership Communication Skills

In addition to being incredible leaders, both of these people are also incredible communicators.  Three excellent leadership communication techniques I notice both women use:

  1. Repetition of key messages through multiple media outlets and mediums
  2. Strong posture and powerful nonverbal communication, such as sitting with legs square and uncrossed and using hand motions at chest level
  3. Commanding verbal communication with wide vocal variance of tone and volume

These are truly inspirational black women making history.  I look forward to watching them thrive and lead others to do the same in the next decade.