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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.

A Little Lesson on Listening

On the jenniferkammeyer.com 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.

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?

Combinations

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!

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.

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.

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.

 

Ideate, Structure, Communicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Be The Steady Hand

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

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

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

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

Self-Composure

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

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

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

Calming Communication

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

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

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

The Art of Giving and Accepting Feedback: Correcting Mistakes Respectfully

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

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

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

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

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

Giving Feedback

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

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

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

Accepting Feedback

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

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

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

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