Growth Mindset Improves Communication

Communicators with a growth mindset elevate their performance more quickly. Excellent speakers and superb leaders continuously build on their aptitude. I saw this recently with a founder of a financial firm who had been speaking on stage for decades and still boosted their performance with a growth mindset and dedicated practice. 

A growth mindset, conceived by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and colleagues, is the belief that basic abilities can be developed and improved over time. The opposite is a fixed mindset, which is the notion that our given intelligence and capabilities limit meaningful development. Research shows that people using a growth mindset improve more over time. The primary reason is that they tend to treat obstacles as learning opportunities and put in the persistent effort to change. 

Belief in Ability + Hard Work = Improvement

The formula can be easy to learn, but difficult to implement. Implementation takes the self-confidence to know we are smart and capable and also always have room for improvement. The grace of taking critical feedback and then doing the hard work are the magical elements for change. Recently a client who leads a professional service firm received feedback that their leadership style was not working for their current followers, even though it had been productive in the past. With a growth mindset during coaching, we brainstormed what changes might be effective. Then they experimented and applied the effort over time with fantastic results. Same leader, same followers, drastically better communication outcomes.

My ‘secret sauce’ for achieving a growth mindset is asking questions to spark self-reflection, to elicit input from others, and to experiment with what works best. 

Some questions my communication coaching clients find helpful are:

  • How could this situation/communication be better?
  • Does memorizing my talking points for a speech help or hinder my performance?
  • Do I demonstrate more confidence standing behind a podium or on an open stage? 
  • What are others I respect doing?
  • What else could I be doing to improve my approach?
  • When I communicate <insert a communication style such as – more directly with followers> is the response better or worse? 
  • What happens when <insert a communication method such as – I give the broader context to someone before instructions on a task>?
  • What might make a difference?

With a growth mindset we can get micro feedback from others on a regular basis to track progress. In the moment we can ask, “What is the one thing I could have done better in that situation?” This simple question makes it easy for others to give us actionable suggestions for refinement.

The primary benefit of a growth mindset is constant advancement. The bonus is that it creates greater happiness. That makes the effort worthwhile!

Practice Makes Better

Like everything in life, when we practice speaking, we get better. We don’t get perfect, but that is not what we are striving for. Perfect sounds fake and looks impersonal. Better is about highlighting our natural talents and employing a few audience-engaging techniques such as voice variation, pauses, and meaningful body language.

We get the chance to practice written and interpersonal communication as a regular part of our job, but most of us do not speak formally to a crowd on a daily basis. When we do get the opportunity to speak, we need to set aside the time to practice in order be as effective as we are at our daily communication. Beyond organizing content, looking over slides, and thinking through talking points, there are ways to practice that help us improve.

Of course, I recommend working with a communication coach as that is my livelihood. In addition, there are several things we can do that help memorize the content and to condition our bodies to perform effectively. I categorize these into three groups of tips:

  1. Practicing in daily life
  2. Getting feedback
  3. Over dramatizing

Say Your Speech During Daily Life Tasks

Once we have a good sense of our talking points, we can incorporate practice into our daily life. That helps us find the best wording and get really comfortable with our content and flow. We can say our speech, or parts of our speech, out loud when doing the dishes, working out, going for a hike, or driving in our car. While we are doing this, we will not say the same things we wrote for our talking points and that is actually beneficial. We will find the words that are most natural for us and still get the concepts across. I also recommend practicing a speech right before bedtime as the brain solidifies knowledge while we sleep.

Get Feedback from Yourself and Others

Even when you are getting feedback from a coach, it is helpful to get additional feedback from other sources. Sharing your speech, or parts of your speech, with friends and family helps you to simplify your content for a general audience and gives you reactions from a variety of perspectives. It may feel awkward in the moment to practice in front of others, but it makes us more at ease on speech day. While we are our own worst critics, or maybe because we are our own worst critics, it is helpful to record and review our speeches. I recommend both audio and video recording. Capturing just the words, on Voice Memos or other devices gives, us information about our enunciation, pitch variation, pace variation, and pauses. Video gives us information about our body language and helps us get our verbal and nonverbal communication in alignment. We can see our facial expressions and note if our hand motions are adding to or detracting from our words. I also recommend practicing in front of a mirror so we can get instant input and can immediately adjust what we are doing.

Over Dramatize to Calm Nerves

Everyone gets nervous when speaking. Some feel that energy as positive and some feel it as dread. If you fall into the dread category, adding a bit of drama to your practice can lighten you up. Try taking your content and singing it to a tune from a toddler song, like the ABCs or Itsy-Bitsy Spider. It will make you laugh, and you will remember your talking points. If your voice is monotone or cracks when you are nervous, try saying your talking points in a whisper and then really loud. We can also do this dramatization with our body language, making big facial expressions and big hand motions, exaggerating our movements. Adding drama during practice makes us more comfortable with ourselves when we present.

Practice makes better. We can count on giving better speeches using these strategies. May you enjoy experimenting and feel more at ease giving audience-engaging speeches.

Poised to Influence

We have all been impressed by somebody who is well poised and captivates the room when speaking. We too can be poised and influence others by deliberately using our body language to improve communication.

When seeking to get others to understand our point of view, our tendency is to focus on content. We take the time to fully form ideas and chose words to best express those ideas. Of course, the content is very important. But we are missing a critical element if we don’t spend the time to decide on the best nonverbal communication for influencing our audience. Research shows that “Body language, spatial language, and appearance language were found to have significant effects on customer trust.” 1

Nonverbal communication has six elements, academically called appearance, paralinguistics, kinesics, chronemics, proxemics, and haptics. In every-day terms this is what we wear, how we say things, our movement (posture, gestures, and facial expressions), our use of time, our use of space, and touch. All these elements are in play when we communicate whether we are paying attention to them or not. Better to pay attention.

To intentionally use nonverbal communication to influence others, the first step is asking ourselves about the situation and the second step is choosing techniques that increase our chances of being heard and understood.

The Situation

Answering the following questions will give us the data we need to make appropriate choices for our body language.

  1. What is the mode of communication (in-person, video, phone)?
  2. What is the environment (large auditorium, conference room, public space, many individuals on video)?
  3. Who is the audience (current level of understanding, level of receptiveness, demographics, relationship to us)?
  4. What do we seek to change (attitude, belief, value, behavior)?

Nonverbal Techniques

Our nonverbal communication can be shifted to influence the audience while still staying true to ourselves. It is not about playing a part, but rather being intentional given what we learned from answering the questions above. Here are a few techniques to try for professional communication to influence others in business.

Alter Speed, Pitch, Volume

  • When sharing a new concept or something important, slow down and deepen voice pitch to convey gravity and significance.
  • To generate excitement, speed up and use a higher pitch.
  • Vary the volume getting quieter to pull people in and then louder to emphasize points.

Move Around

  • To gain authority, stand in front of the room or on a stage.
  • Stand with legs hip width apart and step one foot forward while making a point to stress importance.
  • Avoid pacing as that indicates nervousness and distracts the audience.
  • In a conference room, to differentiate groups, sit across the table. To build camaraderie, sit beside people.
  • Lean forward to show interest, lean back slightly to show listening, and lean back far to show dominance.

Be Expressive

  • Use face and hands to express meaning that complements word choice.
  • Smiles and raised eyebrows imply friendly and open, which encourages others to share.
  • When we don’t smile, we are more likely to be taken seriously.
  • Hands apart and up imply receptivity, lightly together imply active engagement, and firmly clasped imply tension.
  • Hands can be raised to show an increase, drawn apart to show expansion, and moved toward one another to show unity.
  • Pointing is condescending, but fingers together moving slightly demonstrates importance of the content.

There are many ways that people express and interpret nonverbal communication. It certainly varies by culture, so these techniques are just a few examples of what is effective. The important take-away is to be informed about the situation and be intentional about how we communicate nonverbally. Adding deliberate body language to our well-crafted words makes us poised to influence others.



  1. Yoon, S., Kim, S., Kim, J., & You, Y. (2016). A study on the Impact of Consultants’ Nonverbal Communication on Customer Satisfaction, Trust, and Long-term Relationship Orientation of the Client Firm. Indian Journal of Science and Technology9(26).

Communicate to Collaborate

Collaboration, that highly touted process by which humans innovate, happens through communication. Bright minds playing off each other generate more ideas and better outcomes. Both the structure and the content of collaboration hinge on effective communication. When communication fails, so does collaboration and instead of innovation, we get conflict and stifled voices.

Collaboration is the process by which interdependent autonomous entities interact to make decisions or take actions to achieve goals for mutual benefit1. Together we set goals, agree on how we will engage with one another, then each contribute expertise and effort to jointly achieve objectives. Collaboration is a generative win-win process where all participants benefit. It is different than cooperation, which is a give-and-take process where you win some and lose some. Both are effective ways to work together, but collaboration takes more effort to generate additional ideas beyond what each individual brings to the table. As such, collaboration require respectful, inclusive, and productive communication. Here are two actions I recommend to get started on positive collaboration experiences:

  1. Be clear about the role of communication as a strategic tool
  2. Use metacommunication to move through the process

Role of Communication

Employ communication as a strategic tool. That means we are intentional about our goals and our methods. For example, we could set the objective that we will generate ideas that no group member has thought of in advance. We can use methods that ensure everyone contributes and we build upon each other’s ideas. Three of my favorite collaboration methods I call capture-first, all-voices, and build-upon.

  • Capture-first allows each participant to think of and articulate ideas for themselves before sharing with the group. Typing into a phone or computer is a good way to capture thoughts and ideas. After this solo process, participants can share with the broader group. This method allows people who think at different speeds and in different patterns to all contribute to the group.
  • All-voices is designed to let every participant fully explain their ideas prior to getting any input from others. It works well to go one by one to each participant without any interruptions so that all ideas can be heard. I recommend that everyone takes their own notes on the ideas shared during this period so that they can react to the ideas when discussion starts.
  • Build-upon encourages positive contributions to other people’s ideas. Instead of looking at ideas with a critical eye, the method encourages looking at the broadest possibilities of each idea, expanding upon the original. Using the phrase “and also” is a way to achieve this. For example, “Having chocolate for breakfast is a great idea and also we may want to combine it with milk for some protein.”

When we acknowledge that communication will make the difference between success and failure in collaboration, we can be more intentional in our goals and focus our attention on effective methods.


Communicating about communicating is metacommunication and it establishes the process for collaboration. Metacommunication can also move the group past obstacles that arise. At the beginning of a collaboration the group communicates to agree upon methods for interactions that determine how ideas are brought forth, discussed, and evaluated – this is metacommunication. The methods stated above are good examples of what might be agreed upon. As the collaboration progresses, metacommunication can be used when the group gets stuck. Perhaps disagreements arise, people break the positive generative cycle, or they devolve into raised voices and not listening respectfully. At that point we could use metacommunication and say, “Since our communication is not happening the way we intended, let’s take a break and then revisit our original intentions before we restart.”

Collaboration is key to success in business and life. As the proverb states, “If you want to fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” It is worth our effort to learn the communication skills that make collaboration possible. We can start by acknowledging the role of communication as a strategic tool and by employing metacommunication.

  1. Ann Marie Thomson, James L. Perry, Theodore K. Miller, Conceptualizing and Measuring Collaboration,Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Volume 19, Issue 1, January 2009, Pages 23–56,


A Little Lesson on Listening

On the blog we have explored many aspects of effective listening and now I invite you to watch a short 4-minute video called A Little Lesson on Listening.

Levers for Listening Engagement

We all desire connection, have innate curiosity, and feel gratitude. We can leverage these three human qualities to improve our listening skills and increase engagement.


Our innate desire for connection with others is a lever we can pull to increase our listening engagement. Thinking of how our fellow conversationalists might have similar interests or values is a means for finding out how we are connected. Sometimes the connection is strong and sometimes not so much, but with engagement we can discover just what it is.


Our thirst for knowledge and desire to learn new things is a lever for listening engagement. We don’t know what we don’t know and by listening we will likely learn a new fact or a new perspective.


We may never pass this way again, so having gratitude for those in front of us and what they are sharing is an excellent lever for listening engagement. When we are feeling that what others are saying is valuable, we are engaged. Appreciating that the other person is sharing their thoughts, experiences, and opinions will make it easier for us to stay entirely focused on what they are saying.

Leveraging human desire for connectedness, our natural inquisitiveness, and gratitude for the privilege of listening to someone, we can improve our skills of listening engagement, the emotional state of dedication and interest. This emotional engagement will be visible through our nonverbal and verbal behavior, and it will require the cognitive elements of attention and comprehension

Listening well allows us to connect in new ways, increasing our understanding and helping us solve the challenging problems of our time. Plus, it feels good to be really heard and that is a gift we can give our coworkers, our family members, and our friends.

Attention for Listening

That wonderful feeling of being seen and respected when somebody is listening attentively is a source of positive energy. It is a gift being shared. We can give this gift by developing our attention-directing skills in listening.

Listening is the process of concentrating on someone speaking and it includes affective, cognitive, and behavioral components. Attention falls within the cognitive component.

Attention is placing our care and focus on something, in this case the person who is talking. Attention requires our mind, body, and emotions to be simultaneously attuned to the same thing. We can experiment with the energy attention creates with this “Where attention goes, energy flows” practice.

The Essential Skills for Being Human article in the New York Times (possible paywall) eloquently states, “The issue is that we lack practical knowledge about how to give one another the attention we crave.” Here are five practical ideas of how to focus our attention on the speaker.

  1. Set our intention to hear every word and to really understand the meaning behind the words.
  2. Use our eyes, facial expressions, and body language to be engaged.
  3. Verbally demonstrate we are listening with little words of encouragement.
  4. Ask open-ended questions to gather details and to learn more about the speaker’s views.
  5. Keep the emphasis on the speaker by resisting the urge to add our own experiences, opinions, or solutions.

As we give the speaker our attention, we can expect our mind to occasionally wander — that is a natural process of being human. External distractions in the environment and internal distractions, such as our thoughts, might catch our attention. When our attention is pulled elsewhere, we simply practice bringing attention back to the speaker over and over again. Noting the speaker’s facial expressions as they talk is one way to help bring our attention back.

By showing persistent curiosity, we direct the energy of attention to others. In doing so we give the gift of feeling valued. In doing so we reap the rewards of listening including the sense of human connection and expanding our perspective of the world.

The Sounds of Good Listening

We may think of listening as a silent activity, but good listening includes a surprising number of verbal responses. It is helpful to think of listening as distinct components so we can analyze our own listening skills and recognize good listening in others. Listening, the process of paying full attention to someone speaking, includes three elements, each with two components: the affective element with the components of empathy and engagement, the cognitive element with the components of attention and comprehension, and the behavioral element with the nonverbal and verbal components.

Homing in on the verbal component of listening behavior, there are the small sounds/words we utter, the phrases we state, and the questions we ask. Usually, these verbalizations occur in some combination. Always, the purpose of the verbal component of listening is to encourage the speaker to continue or to clarify/confirm understanding for the listener. Even though the listener is verbalizing, this component of listening focuses on the speaker. The “litmus” test of effectiveness is if the verbal behavior keeps the speaker talking. Here are examples of little words, helpful phrases, and curious questions that my communication coaching clients have found effective.

Little Words

The pitch and volume of these utterances can vary depending on the intent of the listener. For example, a higher pitch at the end connotes a question and louder volume adds emphasis.

  • Uh huh
  • Really
  • Wow
  • Got it
  • Interesting
  • Hmm
  • Huh
  • OK

Helpful Phrases

Longer phrases encourage the speaker to provide more detail or to clarify/confirm some element of their communication. The purpose of rephrasing what was heard is not to prove the listener is good at memorizing, but to give the speaker a chance to clarify their message based on feedback.

  • Thank you for sharing.
  • I appreciate your perspective.
  • I appreciate the information.
  • It is clear you have researched this topic.
  • So, what you are saying is <rephrase what your heard>
  • What I heard was <rephrase what your heard>
  • It seems as though <phrase what was inferred but not directly stated>

Curious Questions

Open-ended questions allow the speaker to continue the conversation in the direction they see most fit. On the other hand, specific questions serve the needs of the listener to clarify or expand upon points of interest – this is a good conversation technique, but not a listening technique. Curious and open-ended questions are designed to encourage the sharing of more information that the speaker deems relevant.

  • Can you tell me more?
  • What else have you discovered?
  • What else might be possible?
  • What else could we explore?
  • What have we yet to consider?


Here are some effective combinations of the sounds, phrases, and questions.

  • Got it. <Rephrase idea>. Did I hear that correctly?
  • Thank you for sharing. Can you tell me more?
  • What I heard was <rephrase idea>.   My initial reaction is <emotion-not thought>. What I would like to know more about it is <element you are most curious about>.
  • Hmm. It seems like you may be feeling/thinking/considering <state what is inferred but not spoken>. Might that be the case?

Uttering small sounds and words, stating helpful phrases, and asking curious, open-ended questions comprise the verbal behavior of listening that supports the speaker in sharing information they seek to convey. I encourage you to try out the examples above and send me other examples that have worked well for you. Keep listening – it makes communication better and it makes life more interesting!

Honing Listening with Random Sounds

Practicing the art of listening when we are not engaged in conversation is like practicing a musical instrument before a performance – it makes us better. We can think of it as training our ears and our attention. There are many opportunities in everyday life to do this and I will highlight three of my favorites: birds in nature, voices in an airport, and the sounds of home.

Birds in Nature

Whenever we are lucky enough to be in nature, we have the opportunity to tune into a multitude of sounds, including birds. We can listen to the general sounds of all bird noises in contrast to other sounds we might be hearing in nature, such as wind in the trees. Once we are hearing the birds above other noises, we can listen specifically to the different types of bird sounds we are hearing. We can also switch between the different bird sounds, focusing on one type at a time and then moving on to another type for a bit. For bird enthusiasts out there, try to avoid slipping into the cognitive exercise of identifying the bird types. The point is improving our listening ear, not our memory.

Voices in an Airport

Training our ears to hear different types of voices can easily be done in an airport or any mode of public transportation. We start by noticing the voices around us, preferably with eyes in a downward gaze so we are not looking at people. We can notice different qualities of voice, such as pitch (high vs. low) and cadence (fast vs. slow). If our attention starts to go to the meaning of the words, we can draw it back to just the voice qualities. We can also switch between different voices to practice homing in on one sound and then switching to a different voice to practice controlling our attention.

Sounds of Home

Wherever we live, there are noises about us that we mostly do not hear because our attention is elsewhere. Pausing what we are doing and turning our listening to the sounds of home can be a surprisingly entertaining practice because we hear things we don’t usually hear in our everyday environment. It can be loud or quiet and we can still practice noticing the various sounds. For this practice, I recommend giving a simple label to the sounds we hear as they randomly arise – fan, car passing, refrigerator, dog barking, roommate on phone, water running, etc. We can also notice the quality of the sound, but we want to avoid cognitively engaging by thinking about what is behind the sound, such as, “I wonder who my roommate is talking to now.” The listening practice is about focusing on the sound, not the meaning.

Not only are these listening practices a way to pause and enjoy the day, by honing listening skills outside of conversation, we may find that we are better able to control our attention and stay engaged during conversations.

Listen with Body Language

Our body language is an important element of listening. Nonverbal communication, commonly called body language, is over 50% of the message we send to others. Research shows that if our spoken words and body language are out of sync, that people will believe what our body communicates, not what we are saying.

We have all been in situations where somebody says they are listening, but we don’t believe them. This is likely because their bodies are not demonstrating listening even though their ears are hearing what we say. We can avoid doing this inattentive listening with others by using our bodies to demonstrate engagement.

In the listening framework we are using to explore the full skill set of listening in 2023, body language falls in the Behavioral category, which addresses how we act as part of the listening process.   


Listening with Body Language

Demonstrating listening is mostly done with our head and face, but the upper part of our body can also participate. Here is a break down what we tend to do naturally when we listen. Knowing these elements, we can be intentional in our efforts to demonstrate active listening.

  • Head – tilt for engagement, nod for agreement, shake for disagreement, throw back for disbelief, drop down for disappointment
  • Eyebrows – raise for something positive, lower for negative
  • Mouth – smile to indicate agreement or enjoyment, purse lips for concern, frown for sympathy
  • Upper body – lean in for intense interest, lean back for receptiveness
  • Hands – bring together for enthusiasm, palms up for disbelief

All of these elements happen in conjunction with one another depending on the expression. A reaction to somebody telling us their boss just called them out for something minor in a meeting could be: nodding with a furrowed brow and pursed lips, then throwing our head back and bringing open palms up in disbelief.

Practice: Listen with Body Language

This month when we listen to people tell stories about their day, we can notice how our bodies are demonstrating listening and intentionally adjust.

  1. Notice what we naturally do with our head, face, upper body, and hands when we listen
  2. Experiment with intentionally using one part of our body to demonstrate we are listening
  3. Note how it feels and note the other person’s reaction

The sense we get that somebody is listening to us comes from the nonverbal communication message they send with their body. So, we can intentionally use body language that demonstrates listening to others and give people that wonderful sense of being heard.

Curiosity for Empathetic Listening

Listening with curiosity allows us to be empathetic and focus more on others than ourselves. Recently while getting yelled at, the thought crossed my mind, “I wonder what is going on for this person that they are raising their voice?” In this moment, I was practicing empathetic listening and was able to focus on curiosity instead of my own self-interest. I did not take it personally. Granted, this is not always the case, but it is a worthwhile intention to practice empathetic listening. When we listen empathetically, we demonstrate caring and encourage others to share, which gives them a sense of being worthy and gives us more valuable information.

Defining Empathetic Listening

It is helpful to define empathy, especially because it is a bit loaded in today’s vernacular. According to Psychology Today, empathy is “the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another.” Empathy is different than sympathy, which is a concern for someone else, and different than compassion, which is an altruistic desire to act on a person’s behalf. The common analogy for empathy is the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes.

As a frame of reference from our listening process framework, empathy falls within the Affective category, which addresses the emotional element of listening.

Empathetic listening is the skill of switching our listening lens from our own perspective to another person’s perspective. It is challenging for three key reasons: we are self-centered beings evolutionarily inclined to take care of our needs first, we live among many distracting stimuli, and we rarely stay in the present moment. Empathetic listening falls squarely in the listening challenge of our evolutionary self-centered tendencies as humans. When we listen, we tend to think about how what is being said affects us, and we tend to assume the person speaking is thinking about us. But in reality, most of the time all of us are thinking about ourselves. The antidote to the challenge of empathetic listening is curiosity.

Curiosity, or the desire to know more, is what allows us to shift our perspective from our own to another’s. Sometimes we are naturally curious and find what someone is saying interesting; in these cases, empathetic listening is easy. This tends to be when we care about the other person and they are speaking of something that expands an area of knowledge that already entices us. The good news is that we can use this experience to identify our own actions of empathetic listening and apply them to other situations, even difficult situations when empathetic listening may not come naturally.

Getting yelled at is a perfect example of a difficult situation. Most of the time when someone raises their voice, we think it is about us. We think that something we did or said made them yell at us, and we want to protect and defend ourselves against this upset. But, if we think back to times in life that we raised our voices, we may notice that there were many factors involved that were way broader than just what sparked the moment of yelling. While it is challenging, having curiosity about the person who is yelling allows for empathetic listening and can help diffuse the situation.

What it Looks Like to Listen with Curiosity

Listening with curiosity will look different for each of us, but there are some common techniques we can apply. This includes setting the intention to listen attentively until the other person has stopped talking; making verbal acknowledgement sounds such as ‘hmm’, ‘ahuh’, ‘ah’; and asking open-ended, non-judgmental questions. Just waiting for a person to completely finish speaking and allowing for a moment of silence can be very impactful. ‘Tell me more’ is a good statement to make after they finish, and it is even better when we can add the subject at the end, such as, ‘Tell me more about your experience on TikTok’, or ‘Tell me more about what is upsetting to you right now’.  Examples of open-ended questions include ‘What was that like for you?’, ‘How did you feel after that?’, ‘What was the best thing about that experience?’, and ‘What was most difficult?’. If we are feeling a desire to act, then ‘What can I do to help?’ is a good question.

Practice: Listen with Empathy

When listening to others, practice wondering what they will say next and wondering more about the topic they are discussing. Imagine the benefit of expanding your knowledge through listening to the person speaking. With this mindset, practice the following actions:

  1. Notice how you listen to someone you like talking about a topic that naturally interests you.
  2. Apply those same actions in situations where you are less fond of the person and may even disagree with what they are saying.
  3. Wait for the person to completely finish speaking and pause for a moment.
  4. Ask open-ended questions, without judgement.
  5. If moved by compassion, avoid giving advice and instead ask ‘How can I help?’

Empathic listening is so beneficial and worth the effort. It is fine and normal that we will not always be able to apply this skill, and still, we can practice. What is wonderful is the unexpected things we may learn about the world and others through our curiosity.

Through the Listening Lens: Same Words, Different Meaning

Just like wearing colored glasses changes how we see things, our listening lens changes how we hear things. We all hear something different through our own particular listening lens. Our listening lens is created by the sum total of all we have learned and experienced in our lives. This lens shapes how we take in the world.

Knowledge of the listening lens, and the discovery of both our own and others’ lens in interactions, gives us vital information to become better communicators. This knowledge can unveil the difference between what we think we are saying and what others are hearing and vice versa. It can help us clear up misunderstandings.

Recalling the listening processes framework from The Year of Better Listening blog, this skill falls in the Cognitive category of Comprehension. It is the skill of becoming a better listener through comprehending the lens that is influencing interpretations.

Through the Listening Lens

Through what lens am I listening?

We can take a minute before interacting with someone – or even a few seconds during an interaction – to see what is going on inside our own heads about the person or the situation. There may be some expectation about how this interaction will go based on how other interactions like this went in our previous experience. There might be some hidden bias present based on what we have learned. We can notice our listening lens in an interaction and acknowledge that it is not neutral. It is important to acknowledge that our lens is influencing how we perceive and interact with others. With this insight we can adjust our communication. For example, we can adjust our expectation and approach the situation with curiosity about how it will play out this time.

Through what lens are others listening?

We can pick up clues about others’ listening lens based on what they say, their body language, and how they react to us. If we are saying something we intend to be positive, we can notice if the reaction is positive. In particular, when we get a reaction that we do not expect, instead of immediately getting defensive we can pause and think what possible listening lens could have generated such a reaction. For example, if we say ‘that was fast’ with the intention of praise and we get a frown, perhaps the listening lens of the other person is that fast means poor attention to detail.

We can also use the technique of asking open-ended questions such as ‘what does that bring up for you?’ to better understand others’ interpretation of what was said. By actively listening without judgment, we may be able to better understand how to bridge the gap between our intention and their interpretation of what we said.

Practice: Listening Lens Awareness

Last month, we practiced with paying attention and keeping our focus on the person(s) with whom we are interacting. This month, we build on that skill by focusing on the listening lens at play in an interaction. We cognitively acknowledge our own lens and how it is influencing the interaction, and we seek clues about the listening lens of others. Let’s practice this during times of misunderstandings this month.

  1. Notice that there has been a difference in interpretation of meaning
  2. Acknowledge our own listening lens at play in the moment
  3. Gather clues about others’ listening lens at play
  4. Ask open-ended questions to clarify meaning

Our lives today include interactions with people from many different cultures with vastly different life experiences. While we may have a more similar listening lens to those with shared backgrounds, we severely limit ourselves if we can only listen to people with a similar lens. Seeking to see things from others’ perspective and really thinking through the lens of the listener helps us comprehend possible interpretations, making us better communicators.

2023: The Year of Better Listening

What they are hearing?, I ponder when I see a rabbit darting down a country road with ears perked and pivoting. The visual reminds me of active listening, a skill many of us are still perfecting. In this year of the Water Rabbit, when we can expect calm and reflection, I will focus my research and writing on the communication skill of listening.

The Value of Listening

We intuitively know—and research shows—that good listening has benefits. We feel better when we feel heard and we demonstrate we care by listening to others. Listening improves relationships and makes speakers feel at ease. Listening well gives us information that helps us understand others, making us better problem solvers.

The Challenge of Listening

While important, being a good listener is not easy. Three factors make it challenging. First, we are self-centered beings by nature, and by this I mean that we evolutionarily take care of our needs first for survival. Second, there are many stimuli to distract us, from the obvious such as our smart phones to the not-so-obvious like our perceptions of the person speaking. Third, we tend to think about the past and future much more than we stay in the present moment.  

Take this scenario, for example: An important person in our lives starts to tell us about a problem they encountered and we immediately start to think of ways we can fix the issue. We nod our head and say, ‘mmhmm’ and then wait for the earliest opportunity to share the brilliant solution we just generated. Likely this scenario sounds familiar. I spend my life in the realm of effective communication, and it is very familiar to me! And this is a better scenario than an important person in our lives starts to tell us about a problem and our phone buzzes so we look down and see a funny text and smile. But either scenario can leave the other person feeling unheard.

Self-centered, distracted, and not in the moment. These are the enemies of good listening. The friends of good listening? Intention and practice. The tactics can be learned, and with intention and practice our habits can shift.

What Does it Mean to Listen?

The academic definition of listening is “a multidimensional construct that includes affective processes (e.g., exhibiting empathy and engagement), cognitive processes (e.g., attention and comprehension), and behavioral processes (e.g., nodding and asking questions).” (Flynn, et al, 2022). In everyday terms it is paying attention and showing that we are paying attention.

In 2023 I am focusing on the intention and practice of listening. I invite you to join me on this journey, where every month I will present a different aspect of listening and offer up a practice. The first practice is in the category of cognitive processes and it is the act of paying attention.

Practice: Paying Attention

Paying attention means that the mind, body, and emotions are all focused on one thing–in this case, the speaker. That means our thoughts are on that person, that our bodies are still with eyes on the speaker, and that we are emotionally trying to connect to how they feel in the moment. This can be done in person, on video, or over the phone.

Practice Steps:

  1. Pick one person you will pay full attention to when they speak or you can pick one situation that occurs regularly, such as a team meeting.
  2. Before conversing with that person or entering into the situation, remind yourself of your intention: “I intend to pay full attention, bringing my focus back to the speaker when it strays.”
  3. After the conversation or the situation, check in with yourself and note how well you met your intention.

I encourage us all to practice and see what happens. May 2023 be the year we learn to listen better.

Top Three Pieces of Communication Advice

Hearing Those Who Sacrificed for Our Freedom

Reading out loud the names of fallen soldiers this Memorial Day as I walk through the cemetery, I hear the bravery of those who gave their lives for our freedom and the sorrow of those who lost their loved ones. They no longer speak, but we can still hear the meaning of their sacrifice as we live our privileged lives of freedom. Strength can be found in acknowledging all those who came before us and especially those who died defending our country. Those with medals of honor and those unknown soldiers all deserve to be heard on this day of remembrance.

Dum Tacet Clamat – Though Silent, He Speaks

Graves of Unknown Soldiers

Bearing Witness to Ease Suffering

In times of great personal and community suffering, we can ease others’ pain through listening, through bearing witness to their experience. We encounter others’ distress through social media, but we also encounter it at work as we hear stories of our colleagues going through hard times. This blog was motivated by my personal encounters of suffering this week including stories of war, the continued pandemic suffering, and the death of a dear friend’s mother. I was also inspired by a conversation with a client who provides palliative care. Sometimes the pain around us gets to be so much we are at a loss of what to do. In these times we can remember the power of bearing witness, of validating the existence of something simply by being present.

My client Dr. Cheng provides palliative care to patients at UCSF’s Cancer Center. In preparing to speak on the topic of palliative care and integrative medicine, Dr. Cheng commented, “Palliative care welcomes grief into the room and allows it. Given the times – pandemic and war – we need to let grief and pain in the room.” I asked how we actually do that and the response was, “Inviting people to share whatever they are experiencing and bearing witness and deep listening and letting go of other agendas. As you and I know, the caregiver and facilitator need to first do that for themselves.”

What a powerful reminder. 

Inviting People to Share

Asking open-ended questions is the best way to invite people to share. These questions allow for expression of whatever is occurring for the person at the time. We make room for what arises by being open to anything people choose to say. Open ended questions often start with the word ‘what’ as these examples below show.

  • What would be most helpful for you to share about your experience?
  • What is most present for you at this moment?
  • What are you experiencing right now?
  • What was that like for you?

Bearing Witness with Deep Listening

Verifying that something exists can be done through deep listening. Listening is a gift and can be demonstrated by being fully present, setting intentions, and giving appropriate cues. We can intend to hear everything others are expressing with voice and body and we can avoid thinking of other things while they speak. If we start to plan our response while someone is speaking, we can just acknowledge but not follow that train of thought and return to deep listening. The nonverbal listening cues of head tilting and nodding help the speaker feel heard and are likely to come naturally when we are listening deeply.

Letting Go of Other Agendas

When we are being mindful, we might notice that we actually have something we want out of supporting others. We might want them to perceive us as being helpful. We might want to make things better by offering our hard-earned advice. We want might to demonstrate that we understand by sharing an experience of our own. These are our agendas. It is instinctive to have agendas, but when we are bearing witness, our agendas are not helpful. We can let go of our agendas by naming them in our heads as they arise and then visualizing them passing on, like a leaf floating down a river. We can focus entirely on bearing witness. The kindness of letting go of our agendas gives more space for others, more room for grief to be present.

Building Our Strength First

Bearing witness is emotional work. It might sound simple through the steps just outlined, but simple is not easy. We feel others’ pain when we hear their stories. To be in a place to offer this deep listening, we need to first take care of ourselves. That means making space for our own pain or grief and listening to ourselves without any self-criticism about how things ‘should’ be at any given time.    

We all encounter others’ suffering on a regular basis at work, in our personal lives, and through world news in various forms of media. While we don’t have the power to stop war or solve a colleague’s woes, we do have the power to bear witness to others’ experience and, being resolutely present, ease the pain.

Virtual Teams Require Explicit Communication

Teamwork is helpful but hard – and virtual teamwork is even harder. In an increasingly distributed work environment, more explicit communication is required in virtual teams to make up for the missing subtle communication that automatically occurs when in person.

When teams are effective, the outcomes are impressive. Research shows effective teams generate better solutions to problems with multiple possible outcomes, which is just about every 21st century problem we face. The key word here is “effective.” An effective team achieves their tasks, has high satisfaction among team members, and has viability for the future. It also has a high level of team virtuousness, or adoption of norms and moral commitment, which leads to team cohesiveness. On the flip side, ineffective teams can slow things down and create interpersonal conflict.

As we know from experience, so much of success and satisfaction with teamwork happens through communication. In person, this includes all the subtly of nonverbal communication. We notice our teammate is having a bad day by the way they sit at their desk, a bit slumped with their head hanging, so we save our critical feedback on their part of the project until tomorrow. We can tell by their upright and leaning forward posture when we discuss one element of an issue that it is of great interest to that team member, so we suggest they take it on. In person, we take in myriads of signals that guide how we relate to team members to help us be part of an effective team. When we lack all those signals, it gets more challenging.

Virtual teams have a harder time communicating the subtleties of interpersonal relationships, requiring different tactics. Of course, there are benefits of virtual teams, including being able to tap experts regardless of geography and being able to build a team of diverse members. Innovative technologies, such as video and chat and so many collaboration applications, have made it logistically easier for virtual teams to share content and interact. But even video does not provide the richness of interaction that benefits in-person teams. Since we know virtual teams are here to stay and communication is more difficult without in-person nonverbal cues, we can compensate with more explicit communication processes and techniques.

Explicit communication processes and techniques that are helpful for virtual teams include consistent structured and unstructured team meetings, reflecting back to indicate we listened, and metacommunication to adjust for effectiveness.

Consistent Team Meetings

Because virtual teams lose much of the ability to have “water cooler” talk, consistent meetings become more important. Having calendared time that team members can depend upon for working through strategy and task execution increases effectiveness and satisfaction. Both structured and unstructured meetings are important because they serve different purposes. Structured meetings with set agendas move things forward for the team and give team members a way to share and discuss items in a timely fashion. Unstructured meetings serve the purpose of letting team members communicate issues and ideas that are not specifically task related. Even in unstructured meetings, there still needs to be mechanisms to ensure everyone gets a chance to speak their minds, such as round-robin shares prior to open discussion. But the agendas can be open and fluid with any team member bringing up something that is top of their mind.

Reflecting Back

At a micro level, interpersonal communication on virtual teams can improve just by making the practice of reflecting back a team norm. Reflecting back, sometimes called replay, is when one team member shares what they perceive they heard from another team member. For example, when a team member says, “I don’t know why everyone has to edit each document before it gets posted. I don’t have time for that much editing and other team members just need to trust that I am an expert in my area.” Another team member could reflect back, “I hear you are feeling time pressure and want to be respected for your level of expertise, and that makes total sense. Is that an accurate depiction?” Notice that there was no judgment nor any recommended action or solution in that reflect-back statement. Reflecting back is purely a technique for making team members feel heard. It occurs before the problem-solving step. It replaces the subtle nonverbal communication of the empathetic head nod and facial expressions we would give in person to make somebody feel heard.


Metacommunication is the discussion of how interactions are occurring. Just like metadata, it is pulling up a level to get a new perspective. This technique is helpful in many situations where there is a misunderstanding, but it is imperative for virtual teams to meet the third element of effectiveness: viability for the future. No matter how much team members are committed, the very nature of being human means there will be miscommunication. When the team norm is to apply metacommunication when things are not running smoothly, problems can be efficiently addressed. Miscommunications are often about differing perceptions of the same thing. For example, one team member perceives moving quickly through a portion of the agenda as indictive as that part not being important, while another perceives it as a means to keeping the meeting on topic and on time. The first team member might feel disrespected if that section was about content that they felt was important. By pulling up a level and having metacommunication about the incident, the second team member could make it abundantly clear that they highly respect that person and their work and they were just working to keep the meeting on time.    

Since we know that virtual teams will be part of the workforce in the foreseeable future, adjusting our communication to make our teams effective is critical. Meeting consistently, replaying content to make people feel heard, and using metacommunication to resolve issues are techniques that help make up for the missing nonverbal cues we get with in-person teams.

Creating Progress: John J. Kelly, Good Samaritan

Our world needs kind leaders who create progress, and John J. Kelly was one such leader helping people improve their lives. The recently published book, The Quintessential Good Samaritan, tells of John Kelly’s life work in making a difference in the lives of so many people. Through many engaging stories we learn of his compassionate leadership style. What stood out in his leadership is humble connections with others, good story telling, and persistent pursuit of his ideals no matter the pushback. Over the course of his life, he did this as a priest, and educator, an advocate for the poor, a mentor for troubled youth, and an inspiration to the incarcerated.

Humble Connections

Time and time again, people recount how John Kelly met them as they were as an equal.  He was able to erase the power gap of his position in society and truly connect human-to-human with others. One example of this connection was how at risk-youth went from making no eye contact and not speaking to calling John ‘abuelo’ (grandfather) and teasing him about his common expression ‘oh stop it’ as they laughed with him.  A San Quentin inmate who built a strong relationship with John Kelly in his progress of turning his life from prisoner to positive community contributor in society, told of John’s connections to other as recounted in the book. “ . . . he was in his mid-seventies, yet he engaged nineteen and twenty-year old gang bangers – Noreños, Sereños, Black folks from the East Bay. You could look at him as a friend . . . He always came as an equal which attracted people to him.”

An important note is that John Kelly, because of his humble nature, would not take credit for all that I am attributing to him here or of the achievements listed in the book. He would attribute the success to the individuals changing their own lives and to the many citizens who contributed to building community and helping others. While all of this is true, his leadership did strongly influence change and progress in countless lives.

Stories for Wisdom

Storytelling was integral to John’s leadership. He told stories to illustrate life and he facilitated others to tell their stories both as a means of self-healing and as a means of sharing wisdom with others. He told stories as a priest to bring religion into the reality of people’s lives, as a teacher to demonstrate life lessons, and as a mentor to at-risk youth and the incarcerated to inspire. When John was mentoring at-risk youth, he had inmates from San Quentin write letters to the teens he was coaching and had them read the letters out loud to each other. They told stories of how they were once in the same place as these teens, thinking that the gangs were their families, only to realize that they would be abandoned when something went wrong and they too would end up in prison. The stories from people who walked the same path were so much more effective than a school guidance counselor lecturing a student about the hazards of gangs. And through the Kairos program at San Quentin, Kelly helped inmates change their lives with the important first step of writing their own stories to acknowledge both the tragedies of their childhoods and the responsibility of their own actions.

Passionate Persistence

Persistent pursuit of equal kindness and opportunity for all people did not make Kelly popular among some in power, but it did allow him to make the change he wanted to see in the world. As a priest, John Kelly pushed against what he believed was ill-guided in the establishment. He supported striking lay (non-priest) teachers who were not receiving commensurate pay to public school teachers, he permitted non-Catholics to participate in taking communion, and he deviated from traditional mass. All of these acts of defiance were motivated by compassion for people and the community. These acts had consequence both positive and negative. He made incredible human connections and life-time friendships and he also was chastised by the religious establishment and eventually left the priesthood.  Yet his persistent pursuit of fairness continued through his work at Samaritan House and at San Quentin Prison. Many times, he bumped up against other leaders who believed he went too far in giving the disadvantaged second chances, even when they continued a life of crime. But those who managed to break the cycle would say that this unconditional love provided by Kelly was exactly what they needed to go against all odd to change their lives.

I was lucky enough to have met John Kelly on a few occasions, including when he spoke at San Francisco State University to a group of students interested in leadership and restorative justice. I saw firsthand his unrelenting passionate pursuit of ideals, his use of stories, and the human connection he so quickly created with the students. This student engagement was one more example of so many throughout John Kelly’s life where he instigated change for individuals and society.








The Case for Incremental Progress

We are embarking on a new year – what kinds of goals have you set for yourself? Setting big audacious goals and expecting quick results is tempting but can cause us to fail with inaction because we become overwhelmed by the enormity of them. Breaking those goals into smaller increments – and setting the expectation of progress in the same way – we see that it is not too much to take on. I recently added a new exercise to my morning routine and it has certainly given me practice in heeding my own advice on progress. The first day I was barely able to do one and now, after 25 days, I can do eight. My goal is 22 and it may take the better part of the year for me to get there – incremental progress.

Communication habits take time and incremental progress to change. Habits are automatic behaviors that we’ve learned from an original motivation which now occur without a conscious motivation. Changing unwanted habits requires consciously replacing that action with a new one, until the new action can occur without conscious motivation. Research shows that habits take time and repetition to build. 

Take one of the most common communication habits that people want to change: audible pauses (um, uh, so, er). We can make a goal of having silent pauses and come up with strategies, such as pressing the roof of our mouth with our tongue, but we will still use audible pauses in our speech for some time because they are a habit. They occur without conscious effort. Our original motivation that formed the habit was likely to hold our spot in a conversation so that somebody else doesn’t interrupt. We need to replace the audible pause with something else that holds our spot – such as executive presence through bold posture. Then, over time, we achieve the same goal of holding the conversation with a different action. We consciously and repeatedly replace audible pauses with bold posture and the tongue on the roof of our mouth so no sound comes out. We build a new habit – incremental progress.

Setting realistic habit-change expectations and tracking incremental progress will reduce frustration and the tendency to be self-critical, which only sets us back. In the reducing audible pauses example, it is better to start by picking one meeting a week in which fewer than five audible pauses are used. Then, the next week, pick that same meeting and one other, gradually increasing the number and types of communication interactions in which we utilize our new habit. Gentle persistence applied relentlessly.   

In this first month of the year, join me in taking on new challenges, applying persistence in small increments over time, and making progress. From Benjamin Franklin’s idiom, “Little strokes fell great oaks,” we get the reminder that small everyday efforts make change happen.

Presence as Presents

Oh, the joy of having somebody fully in the moment with us, hanging on every word, entirely focused. This year, we can give the ultimate gift – our time and full presence. 

I am lucky to have had the most wonderful mom in the world, and one thing she is remembered for is how she would greet people who came to visit. It was if every time was the first time she had seen you in a very long while. She would exclaim loudly, “Jennifer is here!” and rush toward me in grand embrace – even if it had only been two days since I saw her. She was so interested in every little detail of my life and would ask questions to demonstrate interest, even in the mundane. If I told her I fed the kids pasta, she would ask what type of sauce. 

That feeling of being so strongly emotionally embraced was an incredible gift. What she gave was her time, attention, and interest. What it felt like was confirmation of my importance as a human being.

We are fortunate when we encounter humans who naturally give in such a generous manner. We all can be one of these humans who spread joy through the gift of presence. What it takes is mindfulness and curiosity. Being aware and uncertain about who this person in front of us is and what will happen next. You read correctly – uncertainty is key to this gift of presence. 

Our minds naturally project what will happen next based on our past experience. It is a practical skill that helps us move through the world without having to relearn things all the time. But in the art of gifting presence, it is not helpful. When we set aside the predictions and the certainty, what arises is curiosity and wonder. That is what makes us see the other person with fresh eyes and ask questions we never thought of asking. And that is what feels wonderful for others: our undivided attention and our fascination with this very moment and this very person.

This giving season, consider presence for presents because nothing is more valuable than our time and attention.

Small Bites of Gratitude

Often we think of expressing our gratitude in heartfelt prose, but small bites of appreciation shared frequently helps strengthen relationships and improve morale.  During this time of the Great Resignation we hear stories of people leaving their jobs because they are not happy. While pay and working conditions are at play, a sense of purpose, aligned values, and being appreciated are also stated reasons for seeking other opportunities. Sharing our appreciate for others around us is one thing we can do to keep our teams and organizations strong. Through small doses of affirmations, we can help create a culture of gratitude

Here are a few ways we can concisely express appreciation.

Short Phrases

  • Your hard work is valued
  • I notice you really care about this
  • Clearly you put in significant effort
  • You obviously worked hard on this
  • I see you have your teammate’s back
  • Way to nail that one
  • Nice work
  • You knocked that out of the park
  • Well done

Just One Word: Wow! Excellent. Superb. Kudos. Fantastic. Terrific. Impressive. 

Small efforts to show appreciation can have a big impact on others around us. When we see or hear something that is impressive, let the person know and help contribute to their sense of being valued. While it might feel a bit corny to say these short phrases and one-word expressions, a little can go a long way.

Keep It Simple: Top Three Tricks

We have all had the experience of reading or hearing something and having no idea what it means, making us either feel stupid or stop paying attention or both. Good communicators use simple language to help others understand their message, especially when communicating complex or technical topics.

Just yesterday I read on my Twitter feed, “In response to today’s coronal mass ejection (CME) from Region 2887 associated with the X1 flare a G2 (moderate) watch is in effect . . .”

     What do I do with that information?

Climate change advocates are explaining carbon neutral as, “. . . when anthropogenic CO2 emissions are balanced globally by anthropogenic CO2 removals over a specified period.”

     When was the last time you used anthropogenic in a sentence?

At a conference I heard a speaker say, “Create the environment without conspicuously otherizing people with the difference.”

     How many times do I have to repeat that back to myself to figure out what it means?

Here are simplified examples of the above statements that are easier to understand.

  • We might see gorgeous lights in the sky called an Arora because of an electrical storm.
  • Balancing out the carbon dioxide we put in the air with the carbon dioxide we take out is called carbon neutral.
  • Make everyone feel included without pointing out differences.

Keeping our communication simple helps people understand better and it does not offend those who may already have an understanding. Here are the top three tricks for keeping it simple.

Top Three Tricks to Keep it Simple

  1. Use Everyday Language

Think of explaining something to a recent high school graduate with no job experience. Using words and phrases they would understand is everyday language. We can write out our message and then edit it to reword anything that requires a dictionary or an internet search.

  1. Avoid Jargon and Acronyms

People outside of a specific industry are totally lost with jargon and acronyms. Take for example the acronym EMT; it can mean ‘emergency medical technician’ or ‘electrical mechanical tubing’ depending on the industry. Both ‘exercise induced asthma’ and ‘environmental impact assessment’ are abbreviated as EIA. Even people within a specific industry need to spend more time figuring out what something means when jargon and acronyms are used.

  1. Explain with Stories

Stories bring ideas to life. When we share situations where something relevant happened, people are more likely to understand our ideas. When I tried to explain to a friend how my AeroPress was not working, I failed to gain understanding until I told a story of coffee spurting out in all directions as I tried to make my morning caffeine fix. 

Wise words taken from a symposium on science communication remind us, “We cannot afford to assume that the public, or even sometimes our colleagues, will understand our science without investing some effort into the manner of its delivery.”

We want to communicate in a way that makes our audience easily understand our ideas, and most definitely not feel stupid. Using the top three tricks of everyday language, no jargon, and story explanations keeps our communication simple and our audiences engaged.

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 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.


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. 

Language to Unify

President-elect Joe Biden’s acceptance speech used language to unite this country. We each can hone our #ListenFirst skills and use the same unifying communication to strengthen and expand our communities.

Biden started with a pledge to unify:

I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify.
Who doesn’t see red and blue states, but a United States.
And who will work with all my heart to win the confidence of the whole people.
For that is what America is about: the people.

Midway through the speech, he acknowledged all of the people from so many walks of life that supported him and then he acknowledged those who did not support him and he called for cooperation:

And to those who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of elections myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance.

To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.

The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make. And if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate. And I believe that this is part of the mandate from the American people. They want us to cooperate. 

Biden concluded with the benefits of being unified:

This is a great nation. And we are a good people. This is the United States of America. And there has never been anything we haven’t been able to do when we’ve done it together.

This intentional language of unification is an example we can all follow. We too can set the intention of communicating with inclusive language.  We too can acknowledge and show respect to both those who agree with us and those who do not.  We too can gently point out to those around us that we all have a choice to cooperate.  We too can remind ourselves and others that we all are stronger and more content when we are unified as a community and as a country.

Inspiring Leaders: Students’ Perspectives

We all have somebody who inspires us – to work harder, to stand up for what we believe in, to be the best versions of ourselves.  This post reveals such leaders. This October, my students in Leadership Communication at San Francisco State University created artwork to convey leaders who inspire them.  The leaders were poets, politicians, educators, families, entertainers, athletes, healthcare workers, and executives. In the hopes that the students’ selection of leaders and artwork brings you as much positivity as it brought me, here are some examples (shared with students’ permission). 

Human-First Communication

One silver lining to our work-from-home situation is that we often hear more about the human side of our colleagues.  Taking a step back to realize that the person on video is also dealing with everything 2020 has brought helps us to see their humanity.

Instead of the typical sports and weather topics that we often chat about face-to-face before diving into a meeting, now we often get to hear about family members and pets and emotional states as we share common struggles. People are making more self-disclosures and revealing their humanity. This human-first communication makes finding commonalities and building strong relationships easier, and that is a good thing.

Communication research shows that when people make emotional self-disclosures there are benefits to themselves and the relationship.

  • Greater Self Affirmation – We feel more supported and confident after we share with others.  Recent study participants demonstrated this empirically by being less defensive toward threatening information, which is correlated to greater self-affirmation.
  • Higher Perception of Relationship Quality – We believe that we have a stronger relationship with the person to whom we self-disclose. Study participants reported that their conversation partner was warmer, that they enjoyed the interaction, and they even tended to like the partner more.

We receive these benefits because we feel others understand us and because we do something scholars call  ‘cognitive reappraisal’ wherein we think of situations in a new light and gain a broader perspective. Connecting on this human level is mutually beneficial.

Hopefully these improved relationships are lasting, and we can see them as a positive aspect of our otherwise tough situation. That seems to be a trend as we round into the third quarter of this year.  According to a recent poll, two-thirds of Americans believe the troubles of 2020 have made them a better person and 38% indicate they want to create more meaningful personal relationships.

We can embrace the greater human connection and foster stronger relationships for the future.  We can even “take your colleagues to the proverbial watercooler with you as you move around your home” expanding our shared environment and opening up greater creativity that is usually found away from desks at work.

When we slow down and remember that the person on our screen is human, we can appreciate the house tours and family interruptions that occur on video meetings.  Instead of seeing them as disruptions to work, we can see them as opportunities for building stronger professional relationships.

“What?” The Art of Communicating While Masked

We are masked most of the time these days, but we are still communicating with people we encounter in public, and being intentional about that makes for clearer communication and can create a sense of belonging.  Even though we have masks over our noses and mouths, we are still communicating with our upper face and our body language, in addition to what we choose to say and how we say it.  But, many of the verbal and nonverbal social cues we use to make meaning have literally been muted.

You may notice when you are on an outing and you encounter others with masks, some seem to pretend that you are not even there.  It is as if covering noses and mouths prohibits communication.  It reminds me of toddlers who cover their eyes and then think you can’t see them.

I don’t know about you, but when I encounter such people, it is off-putting, raises my already-elevated sense of COVID-19 anxiousness, and reduces my sense of belonging in community. 

Yet, I have been that person!  Focused on task at hand in a store or on a walk and pretending that nobody else exists.  It seems easy for us to fall into these silos in public these days. Adding a hat and sunglasses makes it even easier to socially disappear.

The opposite also happens. I am on a walk and smile underneath my mask and say hello and the other masked people smile, nod their heads, and/or say hello back.  Sometimes I even get a ‘what a cute dog’ or a ‘have a good day’ response. Then I feel the world is still a friendly place and my mood brightens.  That experience has given me reason to consider more intentional communication.

I have been coaching leaders all summer on how to communicate more effectively on Zoom, and I realize that just as there are techniques to counter reduced human interaction on video, there are also techniques to compensate for communicating while wearing a mask.

We can use other forms of nonverbal communication and adapt our verbal communication to compensate for having our mouths and noses covered.

Nonverbal communication techniques we can employ while masked include:

  • Head movement – taking a page from the book of the India head hobble, we can tilt our heads to show listening and nod or shake our heads to communicate if we agree
  • Eyes – we can make direct eye contact to show that we want someone to listen and that we care, and we can smile underneath the mask, which makes our eyes visibly smile too
  • Foreheads – we can raise or lower or furrow our eyebrows in a more dramatic way than usual to express our emotions
  • Shoulders – we can raise them up when we don’t understand, and we can move them toward or away from a person as a means of connection or distancing
  • Wave – the popular way to finish Zoom calls, the wave is also an effective form of masked communication to indicate friendliness when passing by or signal completion of an interaction at a store or restaurant

Adjusting our verbal communication while wearing a mask also improves interactions and creates more of a human connection.

  • Slow down and enunciate – to be understood even though our mouths are covered, we need to speak at a slower pace and consciously enunciate our words
  • Speak louder – it is just harder to hear with a mask on and sometimes a shield in between, but it is worth the effort to raise our volume in order to converse
  • Say hello – just a short greeting will increase the sense of connectedness when a lengthy conversation is too much effort
  • Be respectful – ‘yes please’, ‘no thank you’, ‘have a good day’ — these short salutations are easy and foster friendliness

All of these masked communication techniques, while seemingly minor in consequence, can actually go a long way in helping with clear communication. They also may alleviate pandemic anxiety and increase our sense of human connection in a time when we all could use a little more understanding.

Team of Teams Leadership with John Kammeyer

Leadership titles line our bookshelf, but recently my husband, John Kammeyer, insisted that I immediately read Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal just as he finished it because the book was so insightful for him.  After I read the book, our internal conversation inspired me to share John’s leadership perspective.

Why did you insist I read McChrystal’s Team of Teams right when you finished it?

I have read so many leadership books that focus on productivity or ‘hacks’ to accomplish more in less time. What I like about this book is that it explains why the processes we have been using for the last hundred years — originating from Taylor’s 1911 principles of scientific management — don’t currently serve organizations well. It recommends that instead of striving for efficiency, organizations shift to adaptively solving complex problems.

What is the core concept of Team of Teams?
McChrystal proposes a new way to solve problems by breaking down silos and unifying different parts of an organization through extremely transparent communication and decentralized decision making.  For McChrystal, this method shifted the way the United States addressed the dynamic threat in Iraq by unifying different elements from special operation forces to the CIA. The core concept is that in our information-heavy, ever-changing world, being adaptive must be valued at the same level as being proficient for organizations. To be adaptive, all teams must understand and be working toward the larger organizational goal and communicate with every other team. This makes a Team of Teams.

You have an academic understanding of leadership with a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership, leadership experience as a Fire Chief, and now lead Training in a humanitarian rescue organization. Why is this Team of Team concept appealing to you?
It addresses a problem I see of leaders, including myself, struggling to apply traditional methods in a world becoming increasingly complex. Complex is different from complicated. Complicated can be difficult, but also predictable, so the Taylorism organizational principles of the 20thcentury worked well to solve the problems in the industrial and early informational ages.

“Things that are complicated may have many parts, but those parts are joined, one to the next, in relatively simple ways…they ultimately can be broken down into a series of neat and tidy deterministic relationships… Complexity, on the other hand, occurs when the number of interactions between components increases dramatically; this is where things quickly become unpredictable.” 

The information revolution and current speed of technological innovation has moved the world from complicated to complex.  Access to information has changed not only what we know, but how the whole world acts, increasing dependencies between moving parts and making prediction near impossible.

That is why there is a need to change the functioning of organizations away from optimizing process to being adaptable. I saw this increasingly in the fire service and now in humanitarian aid.  Being adaptable means that every individual needs autonomous decision making at some level, and the only way that works is if they have the right information to make a decision that best serves the organization. The Team of Teams’ leadership facilitates both the distribution of information and a sense of camaraderie among members in an organization so that every function is working toward the same broad goal and can quickly adapt as unpredictable environmental elements change.  These environmental elements change more quickly in organizations that are focused on crisis, such as the military and emergency services, but they are changing quickly in most organizations. And recently the pandemic and civil unrest in the U.S. has created unpredictable factors for every organization. 

‘Shared consciousness for empowered execution’ is a key Team of Teams concept. What does that mean in practice?
In a word it means trust, organizational trust. Most of us are wired to be competitive or accomplishment-based and, because those two terms are usually measured against other people, it can create an unhealthy environment or organization. ‘Shared consciousness and empowered execution’ in practice mean that organizational objectives are known throughout and everyone feels they are contributing to those objectives.

One of my favorite stories in the book is about the janitor who works at NASA who, when asked what his job is, said, “to put a man on the moon.” I think that kind of shared consciousness and empowered execution requires a lot of trust throughout the organization and acceptance that everybody has their unique role within it. The idea is to be competitive to the problem not each other. What McChrystal makes clear is that shared consciousness must come before empowered execution.  Prematurely giving autonomous decision-making power can lead to undesirable results where people and teams are doing things in their own best interest and not the interest of the full organization.

As you know, my greatest area of interest in all subjects is communication. What is the communication role of a leader in this method and why does it matter?
First and foremost it’s important to understand how change happens within an organization and how communication plays such a critical role. It’s easy to read a book likeTeam of Teams and want to go and change the world or maybe just your own small piece of the world, but change takes time and consistency. Communication is really the key to this change. Of particular importance is communication in the form of widespread sharing of organizational objectives and clear setting of individual and small group expectations. The responsibility for all of this falls on leaders at every level, and my experience has been that good communication about objectives and expectations decreases anxiety among teams.

To put a fine point on it, people often confuse leadership communication with talking but really, it’s more about listening. In my last few years as fire chief I knew a meeting with my staff was successful when I emerged from the meeting having said very little and learned a lot through listening. In the Team of Teams method, leaders of all teams and the top leader need to actively listen to others in order to gain the information needed to make strategic decisions about what to do next. 

What benefits are derived from this organizational leadership method?
A key benefit from this method is looking at problems differently, bringing in more information from many different areas of the organization to get a bigger picture and gauge all of the influencing factors. This has become more common with increased access to more data, but data in itself isn’t actionable. What is also needed is the connections within the organization to understand multiple changing factors of influence and potential outcomes in an uncertain environment.  The term ‘mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE)’ is one McChrystal uses to describe the old way of using information when things were complicated, but gathering enough information allowed predictable outcomes.  Those days are no longer, so the massive amount of information gathered needs to be paired with this intense interorganizational connection – shared consciousness.

Why is micromanaging counterproductive?

Often people think of leadership in an egocentric perspective of how their own leadership qualities or abilities affect the organization, rather than how the whole organization is functioning with many different leadership elements. Micromanaging is a top-down leadership problem that occurs in the leader who doesn’t feel confident or  doesn’t understand their purpose of motivating and enabling others. Ultimately, micromanagement is counterproductive because people in the organization become disenfranchised when they don’t see how they are contributing unique value. 

“ …containing my desire to micromanage, I flipped a switch in my subordinates …they acquired gravitas that they had not had before  . . . Empowerment did not always take the form of overt delegation; more often, my self-confident subordinates would make decisions, many far above their pay grade, and simply inform me.” 

Top of mind for so many leaders is greater organizational inclusivity. How do you see Team of Teams helping with inclusivity?
The Team of Team concept is designed to have everyone contribute value, so in that way it is inclusive. As I mentioned earlier, everyone in the organization should understand the overall objectives and I think it’s important to be able to talk through a problem involving a wide range of solutions.  When many different voices and perspectives are heard, more options become available.  Part of inclusivity is also transparency of information so that everyone has what they need to benefit the organization. 

When should leaders consider using Team of Teams for their organization?
When an organization has complex problems with multiple disciplines, it would be wise to implement a Team of Teams approach in which you start to bring disparate disciplines together and shared perspectives begin to occur. I’ll go back to the difference between complex and complicated; a complex problem is non-linear and multi-modal. When you’re chasing down solutions to nonlinear problems and you have multiple disciplines across your organization, these are your Team of Teams.  In the fire service this may mean fire fighting crews and emergency rescue crews; in business, product development and sales; and in humanitarian aid, rescue and resilience teams.  In each case the success of the full organization is dependent on the interconnectedness of teams functioning in an ever-changing environment.

How can leaders get started in implementing this method?
Understanding the needs of your organization requires you to listen, gather information, distill that information, feed it back to your teams, and collaboratively determine a productive way forward. Then repeat, and repeat again.

“I needed to shift my focus from moving pieces on the board to shaping the ecosystem.”

A word of caution, though: There is a natural tendency to learn a new method of leadership and look at it as an easy fix. That attitude is what McChrystal calls a LIMFAC or limiting factor. This isn’t easy! It requires you as a leader to step out of the way of your teams, breaking old habits of controlling what happens, and it takes patience in difficult times. This attitude of leadership requires using your head for business and your heart for people – and always keeping the organizational mission as top priority. When organizational values are properly established and everyone is collectively cared for and understands their contribution, then each person and function can participate as a Team of Teams.


About John Kammeyer
John Kammeyer was Fire Chief at Central County Fire Department for the last five of his thirty-year career in public service.  He also served in the United States Coast Guard as a Rescue Swimmer, receiving the Presidential Commendation Award for a harrowing rescue.  John is currently leading the training effort at a rapid-response humanitarian organization and continues his competitive athletic pursuits.

Ideate, Structure, Communicate

Adding the step of structuring your content after you create it and before you communicate it makes it much easier for the audience to understand and boosts your confidence, increasing the effectiveness of an interaction.

Most of us learned the five-paragraph essay in school. When we are writing an academic paper or article we know to first preview what we are going to tell people. Then we share each point starting with a header sentence and give proof through concepts, numbers, and examples. After sharing our ideas, we know to summarize in a closing paragraph. But not many of us are taught to speak that way.

Often, we speak whatever comes to mind, in the order it comes to mind. We may start with one interesting detail and then another unrelated detail and then tie the two together in a relevant concept. Or we may just share a stream of data and let the listeners connect the dots.

Because the brain assimilates information better when it knows what is coming, structuring our communication first is much more effective. In education we call it ‘anticipatory set.’ Think of the process as creating buckets for the brain so it knows where to put the information it receives.

I was recently coaching a young professional who caught on to this structuring-before-communicating concept very quickly and demonstrated it well while giving a speech to a few hundred people. Instead of jumping into the details of a slide, this professional first described what the audience was seeing and contextualized the information. I could actually see the audience following along closely and nodding their heads as they assimilated the relatively complex information shared.

Including the preparation of structuring content between ideate and communicate is even more important when on video conference because the higher level of distraction inhibits focus. The audience has distractions in their own environment and also on screen. The more you guide their focus the more effective the communication.  The implicit nature of structure (preview, signaling, summary) is a means for guiding their focus.

We already know how to do structure in writing, and it works well there. It makes complete sense to do it while speaking. It is just a matter of preparing a bit in advance. That preparation can be done far in advance for really important interactions and in the moment every day.

30-Second Prep– Pause for half a minute to formulate your thoughts and articulate what overarching concept you want to express.

 2-Minute Prep– Before a meeting, scratch on a piece of paper or capture notes on your phone the key points you want to share and the theme that ties them all together.

1-hour Prep– Prepare talking points before a meeting or delivering a presentation that begin with the overarching concept, specify key points, and then give details on each key point.

Try one of these content structuring preparation options this week and see how it changes how you speak and how your audience reacts. The advance structuring has the benefit of the audience better assimilating the information you are sharing and the bonus of increasing your confidence. Both improve the communication interaction.



Be The Steady Hand

With a steady hand on the tiller, you can set the direction and guide the course. Leaders of the 21stcentury are frequently encountering times of uncertainty and chaos, including the current pandemic. Your leadership can be the calming factor that allows others to be their best no matter the external factors. But, conscious and centered leadership during difficult times requires an established practice to build the skill and discipline to leverage mindfulness when others are freaking out.

It only takes one person with collected presence to calm and steady others. You can be that person. With practice and intention, we all have the ability to generate the collectedness and clear-headed perspective needed to move forward in unpredictable times. One leader who is doing his job “with a steady temperament that inspires confidence” is U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome ‘Jay’ Powell who is leading the effort to stabilize the U.S. economy with a myriad of lending programs and reductions in the benchmark interest rate.

“None of us has the luxury of choosing our challenges. Fate and history provide them for us. Our job is to meet the tests we are presented.”  Jay Powell, Federal Reserve Chairman.  He is meeting the test presented to him with quick action with a calm demeanor.  He is being a steady hand.

To be leaders with the steady hand we need two elements: self-composure and a calming communication style. 


Self-composure cannot be faked.  We need to lead from our own foundation of grounded strength, checking in on and managing our own internal state before we engage with others.

 “Here [from the inside out] is where leadership presence is cultivated, and only then can it be felt and shared by the team.” Center for Compassionate Leadership.

We can each cultivate an inward focus and strength to find the place of calm within us when needed. In my work with leaders I hear many different ways that people hone their inner strength. Many read to learn, some meditate, some journal, some find introspection through exercise, some have formal coaches that guide them.  Once a base level of self-centeredness is established, it is real life practice that allows us to develop self-composure in all types of situations.  Tapping into that inner assurance, accepting what is in the moment and knowing we will do what is most needed next — that is the steady hand that can guide the course.  Then we can bear witness to others experiencing anxiety and dissonance in times of uncertainty and be a grounded empathetic force so others can do their jobs well.

Calming Communication

Calming communication style can naturally arise from a state of composure, but there are certain speaking characteristics that are typically associated with calm communication. Public safety professionals such as police and fire use ‘command and control’ in emergencies and speak in a low and slow voice to keep the calm for others so they can achieve the task at hand. Research shows that voice pitch and speech rate have a statistically significant correlation with perception in crisis communication.  The two primary characteristics of calm communication are a slower pace of speaking and lower pitch of voice.  The slower pace of speaking also includes more pauses and more distinct enunciation of words. A common association of voice pitch is the higher the pitch, the greater the excitement, the lower the pitch the more mellow. The structure of the communication is also important; well-organized information implies the leader is in control of the interaction, even if the outside circumstances are not controllable.

Silveria Jacobs, Prime Minister of Sint Maarten, demonstrated a steady hand style of communication in her ‘Simply. Stop. Moving.’ speech that went viral.  Her word choice was both assertive and empathetic and she used a low and slow voice with many pauses.

As leaders, we cannot always control external circumstances, but we can control our reactions.  We can use our foundation of grounded strength and a calm communication style to be the steady hand for others. 

Where to Look and Other Video Conference Tips

Bringing forth our best communication skills on a video conference makes interactions much more engaging.  It is not quite in-person, but video is a much richer interaction than over the phone.  What do we need to keep in mind on video?  The question I get most often is,  ‘where do I look on the screen?’  If we look at the people or content it can seem to others like we are looking in our laps. Not good. The short answer to that common question is move your eyes around, just like you would in person.  The long answer is part of my  four tips for better video conference communication

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

1) Pretend You Are In Person

It is easy to feel more casual when interacting over video, but it is better to treat the situation as if we are in person.  We can ask ourselves, ‘would I be dressed this way and doing what I am doing if that person was here with me?’  That typically means that we are dressed professionally (at least on the top half). It also means we are sitting in a chair at a table or desk.  Importantly we are notmultitasking getting some other project done or checking email while engaging with someone. 

2) Use Skillful Verbal & Nonverbal Communication

Our voice can be interesting if we vary our pitch, volume, and speed of speaking.  Our voice can put others to sleep if we keep the same tone, volume, and pace the whole time.  It helps to remember we are speaking with someone, not to someone.  We can speak faster to show excitement and slow down when a point is super important.  It also helps to call in on a phone instead of using computer audio because the sound of our voice is clearer and there is less environmental noise.

Effective nonverbal communication shifts a bit from in person to on video.  On video only our upper torso is visible and therefore body language expression needs to occur in that area.  Our facial expressions need to animate more, and we can use head tilts and nods to show we are listening.  Now to the details on where to look, the most common question.  Going back to the first tip – pretend you are in person – we look many different places when we are in person, so we should do the same on video.  What is different is the many different places are spatially limited to the screen. I recommend looking directly in the camera because then it appears we are making eye contact.  But don’t looks just there because then it is like a broadcast reporter staring into the camera.  Move from the camera to the other people on video, to the content displayed on the screen and then back to the camera.  This way it will appear more natural, much like it would in person. It helps to drag the box with the video of other participants to the top of your screen so when we look at them, our eyes are just adjusting slightly, and our heads don’t need to move down to see them.

The last element of nonverbal communication on video is hand motions.  If we use hand motions where people can’t see them, they may wonder what exactly we are doing with our hands.  Better to move our hand motions up to the level of our chest and shoulders.  It might feel a bit odd at first, but when we watch ourselves on video it looks natural.  We also need to move our hands more slowly to avoid blurring in the video. Keeping our voice, face, eyes, and upper body animated on video conference shows we are engaged and helps keep others interested.

3) Avoid Distractions

We are curious beings and if there is something visually interesting going on in video behind the speaker or listener, we can easily get distracted.  Before getting on a video conference, test the system and look at all that is in the view window.  Do we want people looking at that picture of us in our bathing suit or dancing on a rooftop? Is our to-do list on the whiteboard?  Is there an unmade bed or unfolded laundry visible in a home office? Clean up the view window to reduce the distractions.  We can also give officemates or roommates heads up that we are jumping on video, so they don’t inadvertently come into view.  Turning off alerts or going into Do Not Disturb mode on our devices eliminates another form of distraction.  Not touching our hair, face, or clothing is another way to avoid distraction.  It helps to remember we are being watched and to look at ourselves as well as the other participants as we are moving our eyes intentionally around the screen. 

4) Stay Audience Aware

On video we only get a little square headshot of our audience to receive nonverbal listener feedback.  That means we need to be acutely aware of the nonverbal signals given and we need to seek more verbal feedback.  Take turns looking at every person who is in the meeting.  This is more easily done if we use the gallery or multi-person video option.  Still remember to look at the camera in between looking at people.  If we see someone distracted – either looking down or up or (worse case) leaving the video screen – we can stop talking and ask questions. Overall it is just a good idea on video to pause more often and ask more questions.

Video conference is a great way to have more of a human connection when you cannot meet in person. Being intentional about how we communicate through this method improves our interactions.  When we pretend we are in person, skillfully use verbal and nonverbal communication, avoid distractions, and stay audience aware, then the people on the other end of this technology will be much more interested and engaged.