Today the news is all abuzz over United Airlines forcibly removing a passenger off of their airplane after he refused to leave. Apparently the flight was overbooked and four passengers were selected to be taken off of the flight, but one of them refused to leave. He was physically removed from the flight and the result has been twenty-four hours of bad press and plummeting stock. Presumably, this message from the CEO didn’t help matters much:
I am not a lawyer and have nothing substantive to say about the legality of the passenger’s physical removal (other than to say that I can’t imagine a more botched customer-relations moment in the history of a company).
That being said, what is it about this response from Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines that has upset people so much? What can we learn from his communication here and what do we think he may have been trying to do. Reminder that this wasn’t a reactive tweet sent out in the heat of the moment like we often see from our current Commander in Chief:
(I hope that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ate his Wheaties this morning. He’s going to be busy.)
What makes the statement by Oscar Munoz so bizarre is that it is a thought-out response. It has all the makings of a statement that had passed through marketing, legal and public relations. Oscar Munoz is himself an accomplished executive at public relations, having won the award for Communicator of the Year last year (thanks to CNN Money for the link). He was heralded for turning the troubled organization around and making heartfelt connections to his employees.
In fact it is this quote that jumps out at me from the award:
“His ability to connect and share with employees his vision for the airline, and get them to rally behind it, is a key reason PRWeek named him 2017 Communicator of the Year.”
Basically, he is the kind of CEO that we always write about wanting other CEOs to be, i.e. capable of leading from the bottom up.
Okay, so what is it about his message that is so upsetting? In the article from CNN Money that I cited earlier, the consensus from PR experts seems to be that the main mistake is what he specifically apologizes for:
Everything else that he says here is fine. Everything. I get that he can’t apologize for having beaten a passenger senseless (turns out that opens you up to lawsuits), but what everyone seems to be responding to is the term “re-accommodate,” which is in direct contrast to the violence that people are sharing of the video that has gone around:
(Warning: this video contains real violence)
The absurd juxtaposition of this video with the term “re-accommodate” is what creates the sense of disconnect between the CEO and their customer base.
Why does this happen?
Well, only the people in the room know for certain why they chose that word (my money is on the lawyers), but here are some thoughts that I have for what I think happens to us in these situations.
Too many audiences:
I could almost understand this note if it were sent out to employees only. The message is that he has your back and that he supports you. I still think that it is fairly tone deaf in the position that the company policy put the employees, and that this whole mess could have been avoided with some forethought. (Example: “Hey, what do we do if someone refuses to get off the plane? Tase them? Ha, Ha, Ha, just kidding. This is a stupid policy.) Even so, if that message were only sent internally, I could imagine it being received fairly well by employees.
However, since this message was tweeted out to customers, it changes the frame or perspective of the whole note. While employees might see his message as supportive and responsive, United customers see only that they are “these customers” which makes them feel (understandably) angry and disregarded. Couple that with the video of a passenger being beaten, and you have a groundswell of anger toward the company.
When people use words like “upsetting” we also expect consistent language to reflect that emotion. Again, the employees at United might have felt like they were going to be in trouble with their CEO, so maybe the most upsetting thing for them was that Munoz would throw them under the bus. For customers, however, the word “upsetting” is most closely linked to the image of the passenger being dragged through the aisle. Pairing that image with the passenger being dragged down the aisle and you get a surprising level of dissonance.
We are extremely sensitive to tone of voice, especially in heightened emotional situations. This particular message implies that the CEO does not care about its customers. In fact, they will be “re-accommodated” or beaten up if they do not comply. (See the comments on @United twitter feed for how people feel about that tone.)
It looks to me like Munoz may have been trying to handle two different audiences with one message. First he wanted to reassure the employees that he would support them and second he wanted to signal to the customer base that he was going to delve into what really happened. That is a tricky tightrope to walk for anyone. It was made impossible by the juxtaposition of the term “re-accommodate” and the video of the passenger being removed.
By choosing a tone-deaf word to describe the event, Munoz (and his team) has created more trouble for himself and his company.
When going through these crisis exercises, ask yourself two questions.
Who is my audience?
What do I want them to feel? (tone)
This will help you focus your thinking and align your language with your intentions so that you don’t inadvertently create an upsetting message (or in this case, make a more upsetting message).
What do Ann Richards, Rodin, Hamdi Ulukaya, Wilbert L. Gore and Maria Grazia Chiuri have in common?
Answer: they are all weirdos.
(Oh, and John Ritter. He’s a weirdo, too.)
Or at least they are all different from the society around them.
The key is that they were able to take that difference and make it a success story.
When I read books or articles on communication, I often find that the goal is how to fit a specific mold. How do I give a great TED talk? How do I nail this interview? How do I project confidence? How do I project the right persona? How do I guarantee success?
Which pretty much produces a lot of this:
(This is pretty much what all TED talks sound like to me today)
Organizations sometimes struggle because they want compliance and obedience from the middle managers, but they need boldness and creativity from their leaders (who were once middle managers). This is not surprisingly very confusing for the people who are rewarded for being a good conformist, only to be chastised for not being authentic enough.
The reality is that most systems often reward people for conforming and punish them for being different.
(Ah Breakfast Club. Their punishments only made you stronger.)
Even outside of High School, we are all looking for ways to fit into the group and make sense of our place in the world, our company, our community or our society.
We want to be successful so therefore we strive to belong.
And yet, when I look at that list of men and women (and it could have been much longer), I see strong-willed, independent-thinking, non-conformists. Artists, scientists, business-people, activists and politicians who felt different than the world around them and wanted to do something about it.
Ann Richards, many would argue, was actually the first woman elected in her own right to be Governor of Texas. (Miriam Ferguson was elected twice as proxy for her husband who had been impeached.) She campaigned for Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro during the 1984 Presidential election, even though Texas was for Reagan, and she repeatedly spoke her mind on many unpopular issues, like women’s rights and gun laws, eventually causing her to lose the election to George W. Bush in 1994. Richards made sweeping changes in Texas around prison and education reform as well as gun laws, all within the context of Texas conservatism. She was an authentic leader and fought successfully for what she believed in. An alcoholic in recovery, she demonstrated that focusing on who you really are is more important than trying to fit into an existing mold.
“There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character.” – Rodin
Rodin was a weirdo in the sense that he wanted to create sculptures that told a story about the essence of the person, not just about the skill of the artist. He was rejected from the Beaux-Arts school four times (never went) and repeatedly accused of having no talent, until he became one of the most celebrated artists of the turn of the twentieth century. He was never interested in becoming like other artists and focused entirely on his own vision.
This sculpture of Balzac was such a monumental break from the norm of what was expected from heroic sculpture that it was at first derided for being a mess and an embarrassment. Later, it would become one of the potent signals pointing to the dramatic shift in art and realism. (You Must Change Your Life, by Rachel Corbett)
Hamdi Ulukaya is the entrepreneur and founder of the successful yogurt company Chobani. In a relatively short period of time, Ulukaya has managed to steal considerable market share from the $3 billion yogurt industry by building a company that “fuses competitiveness with an unusually strong sense of compassion.” He gives 10% of Chobani equity to his employees, has instituted a six week parental leave and has helped to transform American’s taste in yogurt.
When he first decided to buy a soon-to-be defunct Kraft yogurt facility, his lawyer was not so pleased. “He said, ‘Hamdi, What are you talking about? You’re telling me Kraft is closing the plant, and you are going to do something with it? They’re looking for an idiot. You’re the idiot.'” – Hamdi Ulukaya (Fast Company)
What was it that gave Ulukaya the courage to believe that he saw something in that factory that Kraft did not? Maybe it was the weirdo in him.
Ulukaya is an anticapitalistic entrepreneur who sees himself as an outsider. What is expected of him from society and the fears that the rest of us have (as illustrated by the lawyer) do not concern him.
Wilbert L. Gore (and his wife Genevieve) founded the Gore company when Bill was a 45 year-old chemical engineer at Dupont with five kids. Turns out that he and his wife didn’t like the “authoritarian” nature of large companies and wanted to start something on his own.
How about a company without hierarchy?
An organization with no bosses?
(But who will pet this cat?)
Not only has Gore been a successful company, it is consistently listed as one of the most innovative companies in the country. (Anyone ever heard of Goretex?) All because he was willing to follow his own desires over what common sense and the popular opinion would have him do.
Rather than have actual bosses, he teaches everyone in the company that their team is their boss. Everyone is their boss and no one is their boss. It works, but nobody else is willing to try it because that’s for weirdos.
Maria Grazia Chiuri is a fashion designer who recently left the company Valentino to head up Dior. She and her partner Pierpaolo at Valentino were able to build their company into a billion dollar design juggernaut by making designs that were different and relatable. In her Fast Company interview from June 2016, she was asked about what made her collaboration so successful?
“Every relationship needs respect. It’s important to maintain differences. Difference is a value, not a defect. You can argue. You make your point of view more strong.”
“Maybe people want a fairy tale, but we are not a fairy tale. We are people!”
The ability to honor those differences in other people and within ourselves, the willingness to celebrate the weirdos is what allows us to differentiate ourselves from the masses.
If all that you want is to fit in, that don’t be surprised if that is all that you get.
If, however, you have felt like a weirdo your whole life, then maybe it is time to celebrate that difference.
What if that difference, that strange way of thinking and interacting with the world is actually more of a strength than a weakness?
What if by risking being different you gained the freedom to be yourself and in that freedom you became more powerful than you could have imagined?
The only thing that we have to lose is mediocrity.
Have you ever walked into a meeting and immediately felt anxious?
If you are like the rest of us, you probably start thinking of all the things that you have to be anxious about. Maybe you remember that Bob from accounting is there today and often asks tough questions about your budget, or perhaps you read into your boss’ sour demeanor a criticism of your sarcastic email humor. Or perhaps you begin to wonder whether you have forgotten that today was your day to do a presentation. Whatever the thought, chances are that you will believe that the anxiety is coming from you. This is because we think that our emotions are self-contained and that they are response only to things that happenoutside of us. This belief leads us to look for evidence that justifies our emotional state.
Chances are pretty good, however, that these emotions are not yours.
Let’s assume that you were having a great day before entering this room. Let’s assume that you were actually quite happy walking through the hallway leading to the meeting and that you didn’t start to feel the anxiety until you opened that door and walked in.
(I have wanted to use this gif for a looong time)
The answer is emotional contagion. You may have read about this from my previous posts or if you have read any of Daniel Goleman’s writing about leadership and emotional intelligence. The concept was pursued by psychologist Elaine Hatfield who did research along with John Cacioppo and Richard Rapson to see that people’s emotions were impacted by what others said and by their body language. Daniel Goleman gives an example of one experiment that had two people in entirely different emotional states (ex: calm and agitated) sitting next to each other in a room without speaking. After approximately fifteen minutes, whichever was the the stronger emotion of the two would infect the other, leaving them both in the same state. In other words, emotions are like an airborne virus that can infect people in your vicinity without you even saying a word to them. (Hence the Twilight Zone reference above.)
How is this useful to us?
For starters it helps us to know that the emotion that we are feeling at a given time might not be our own. It can be confusing and crazy-making to try to understand the root of our anxiety or anger just by looking at what is happening in a room. If you know that emotions can infect us, then you can start to check in with yourself. Is this my emotion or is this someone else’s? Was I feeling this way before I stepped into this space or is this new? This kind of cognitive awareness requires that you have a working sense of what you are feeling at any given time, something that adults often struggle to have. Here are some “primary colors” of emotions to choose from:
If you are willing to take the time in your day to “check in” with yourself and notice these emotions, you will find that you have both more awareness of what is going on with you as well as more of an understanding of what is happening around you. I find that people often struggle to name an emotion that they are having right now (try it) and that many people try to deflect the notion of emotions altogether.
This behavior creates problems because it cuts you off from a deeper understanding of what is happening under the surface of your actions (and the actions of those around you). Here are a few basic premises that could help you to understand this process and learn more about the emotions in your body as well as for those around you.
Discussion is deflection. Anytime you ask someone a straight question (example: are you angry about this decision?) and they respond with a lot of words, they are deflecting. They might be doing it because they don’t know whether they are angry, it could be because they are scared to answer the question directly or it could be because they want to dissemble their true feelings. Whatever the reason, nothing they say in discussion is helpful to getting an answer. Name it and ask for a straight “yes or no” answer.
Everyone has emotions all the time. I meet people who say that they do not have emotions (I’m looking at you, engineers), but that is simply not true. We are sensate beings and without emotions, we would not have survived to get to the top of the food chain. Emotions drive us to seek security, understanding, connection and solutions. The more aware you are of those emotions roiling under the surface, the more control you will have over your brain and your actions.
Feelings are not facts. (Facts are facts). This one is perhaps the hardest to figure out early on. Our emotions are running through us all the time and are not necessarily tied to anything that is actually happening right now. We could be responding to an old memory that was triggered by a smell or a sound, which reminds us of a time when we did something embarrassing or someone did something to us that made us angry. The lack of self-knowledge in this moment can often lead to us attaching our emotions to what is happening right now. We think that the emotions are a fact, so we look for evidence. I am feeling angry, it must be what you are doing. Investigate your emotions and you will have more awareness and therefore more control.
Emotional intelligence is one of the key factors in being able to navigate many of life’s challenges. It helps you to be calm while other people are reacting out of fear, and it gives you insight into other people’s behaviors and comments. The more aware you are of your own emotions, the more likely you will understand when you are being swept up in the emotions of a group. The more that you understand how emotional contagion works, the easier it will be for you to work on calming your own nerves, relaxing your body and being an emotional anchor for the room.
Trump is manipulating people with his communication style, and I do not approve.
In my coaching work, I strive to help leaders be clearer about their intentions, more authentic in their communication and more resonant in their presence.
What President Trump is doing with communication, however, is dangerous, manipulative and disorienting and no matter what your political affiliation, you should be concerned.
For the past two years I have followed Trump’s behavior with some professional interest. I have watched the tweets, the debates and the press’s reaction to Trump’s attacks with a mixture of curiosity and awe. Since the election, I have read interpretations of his rise to the presidency as a natural reaction to economic pressures, a distrust of Hillary as a candidate, a result of designer media (Fox News, Breitbart, MSNBC) which serve to create information bubbles for voter groups, and a rejection of the “out of touch elite.”
Perhaps all of these have some truth and in normal circumstances we could talk about those elements, but what concerns me the most about his success as a political candidate is his communication style.
“Gaslighting” is a term that originates from the movie of the same name that came out in 1944.
In the film (which was originally a play written in 1938), the main character George convinces his new wife Paula that she is losing her mind by hiding various items that they own and blaming her for taking them. The premise for George’s behavior is to control Paula and keep her dependent on him so that he can look for jewels that were left hidden in her aunt’s house. He continues to deceive her, always creating new situations that make her question her own sanity or her ability to trust others. The “gaslight” is in reference to the flickering of the light that occurs every time George sneaks into the attic to look for the jewels or to steal another item. (When the other lights are turned on in the middle of the night, her own gaslight flickers.) This is her only evidence that someone else is doing the stealing in the house.
The term “gaslighting” is even used by psychology professionals to explain that type of abusive relationship. Here is what Stephanie Sarkis PhD of Psychology Today describes as the eleven characteristics of someone who is gaslighting:
They tell blatant lies.
They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
They wear you down over time.
Their actions do not match their words.
They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
They know that confusion weakens you.
They try to align people against you.
They tell you or others that you are crazy.
They tell you everyone else is a liar.
This is not a cute metaphor to discredit Trump’s presidency. It is what he is actually doing. Think about how often he accuses people of being corrupt (while refusing to completely cut ties with his business), how he attacks characteristics that one might consider sacred (calling John McCain a loser for being captured during war), how his actions don’t necessarily match his words (“Drain the swamp” while appointing Mnuchin, former partner of Goldman Sachs as head of Treasury), how he undermines people’s authority by mocking them (accusing Robert Gates of being a clown) and how he wears us down over time (look at how often he used the term “crooked Hillary” or how consistently he calls CNN “fake news”). He is quick to attack on the slightest discrepancy, then act like the victim on the slightest attack against him. He is unafraid to use big emotional words like “tremendous” “huge” and “beautiful” while also being unafraid to use ugly language like “nasty woman” or “Little Marco.” The effect is disorienting.
Trump is using an entirely new set of rules for communication, and no one yet seems to know how to respond. We cannot simply mock him (he is better at it than we are) and we cannot simply argue with him (for reality is interpretive to Trump). We cannot rely on people to speak up because everyone is confused by what is happening. From a rhetorical standpoint, he is winning the battle for the narrative.
Here is one example of how he is doing this from his tweets:
Most of the response to this has been on the absurdity and pettiness of the tweet. People have mocked him for both delegitimizing his own election results and for blatantly making up facts. None of that stuck, and I want you to see why:
Donald Trump is king of primacy and recency or the “serial position effect”, the ability grab an audience’s attention by putting your most salient points at the beginning and end of your statements. The rhetorical structure of this sentence is designed to leave you with authoritative affirmations (“in a landslide” and “I won the popular vote”). The use of “In addition” is a way to get you to roll from “winning the Electoral College” to “in a landslide” which in turn gets you to land on the declaration “I won the popular vote,” as if it were a fact. “If you deduct” is a nice way to posit how he arrived at the fact that he won the popular vote because it leaves it up to the reader to choose, which can appear to be reasonable.
When he ends with “illegally” it not only feels like a true statement, it is also closely associated with the “people who voted.” Language like this is simple, clear and evokes feelings people often have about unfairness in the political system (see complaints about 2000 election results). This tweet is a wonderful example of how simple rhetorical tools can be used to confuse and redirect the public’s attention. If you agree with him, you are assuaged. If you disagree with his reality, then you are confused.
If you are rolling your eyes because it is just a tweet, you are missing the point. This structure works every time. Ask advertisers, salespeople and (yes) political consultants who have used primacy and recency to persuade and convince people to feel and think a certain way. This is a rhetorical device that communication experts teach people to keep their main points in the audience’s mind, and it works.
Match a device like this with the willingness to cause confusion, and you have a powerful tool. No amount of fact checking will work because he will simply create more confusion by denying ever having said it.
This isn’t about politics. It is about control, confusion and power. Language is the key and he is using it masterfully.
Politicians and reporters keep trying to act like things are normal, but this is not normal. The rules have changed. Confusion is the game.
A gaslighter wants you to hold others accountable while leaving himself blameless, and he wants you to doubt everything that you believe to be true. Pretty soon we will all be grateful for him to tell us what reality is, if just to be relieved of the confusion.
We are being manipulated by a master, and Trump is using the power of language and the illusion of authenticity to do it.
We cannot exaggerate, we cannot ridicule, we cannot win at his game.
The only way to win is to verify a common reality, name his bad behavior without shaming him (he is the master of shaming) and be absolutely clear about what we want and what we believe to be important. We must be brave and we must be impeccable if we are to avoid going too far down this path.
We have to learn to hold him and ourselves accountable before we lose our ability to tell what is real.
I have written a few times about the workshop I did with Keith Johnstone so you may recall me mentioning his work in improvisation and performance before. This post is another reference to a request that he made that continues to rumble through my mind. He said to us on the first day, “I ask you not to do your best. It just doesn’t work.”
(Me trying to understand this concept)
This idea that doing your best leads to poor performance created a lot of dissonance in my brain. It went against everything that I have believed about performance, self-motivation and excellence, and yet I could also see the truth behind it. Doing your best often leads to all kinds of problems.
(For those interested, here is his TEDx talk on this subject)
What kind of problems?
Trying to do our best is a way to put more pressure on ourselves to perform at a higher level and achieve a better outcome. It seems to make logical sense that the bigger our goals, the more pressure we should put on ourselves. If I want to do well on the exam, all I need to do is to work hard and do my best, which sounds easy and actionable until we think about what “doing my best” really means. Often it simply means exerting more effort, which can be counter-productive in moments when we need to be relaxed in order to be our best selves.
Keith points out that “doing our best” is more of a performance than it is an action-item. We want to show the world (and ourselves) that we are trying hard, so we tighten our muscles, scrunch up our faces and act like someone who is working hard at something.
(I will remember the quadratic formula!!)
What I could never quite understand when I was a kid was that the harder I concentrated during a test, the worse I did. I was a notoriously bad test-taker in high school and college, and I would often overthink, second-guess and doubt myself into a mediocre grade, regardless of how much I studied. I was a good student overall, but tests caused me a lot of anxiety. It was always my intention to do my best, but I never experienced a positive correlation between that intention and the outcome.
The same was true for me as an actor as well. When I went into an audition or a scene with the intention of doing my best, I often left feeling like I did the opposite. Doing my best always felt disconnected from the process, but it made so much logical sense that I never really questioned it.
I suppose the problem lies in that disconnection from the process itself. Doing my best on an exam or an audition is not actionable. In fact, the idea of “my best” is pretty vague. What does that even look like? When I have let go of the expectation that I have to do my best, and focus instead on the process of what I am doing, I am much more successful and am capable of doing some of my best work.
When I get up on stage with the expectation that the audience will think that I am funny or talented, I lose my connection to the process of the work. I become disconnected and as a result, mediocre.
Performance and Expectation
Don’t just take my word for it. I am currently reading a book about performance and excellence in baseball by H.A. Dorfman and Karl Kuehl called The Mental Game of Baseball: A Guide to Peak Performance.
For those who don’t know, Dorfman and Kuehl have been mental performance gurus for baseball players since the early 80s. They are sports psychologists who break down the mental process to achieving peak performance. While the book is focused on baseball and gives a lot of anecdotal information that would not be interesting to the casual fan, I recommend it as a tool for understanding how top performers are able to get over their own mental hurdles.
This is a quote from the second chapter: “A person who is encouraged to ‘just do your best’ usually doesn’t. He doesn’t clarify what his best might be; he doesn’t extend himself to find out. Setting personal goals is essential for gaining control of potential, of success–of self.”
While wanting to do “your best” may seem like a productive thought, it actually takes you out of your process and focuses you too much on a future you instead of meeting yourself where you are.
The Externalization of the Self
Okay, what happens when you project onto the future some ideal performance? Well, for starters you get to feel like you are in control of the outcome. If you do your best, then why wouldn’t you get hired? Why wouldn’t the audience love you? Why wouldn’t you be successful? Makes sense, except that it detaches you from your own process.
Think about a time when you have been most successful and most creative. Most likely you have experienced something akin to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (psychological researcher) means when he talks about “flow.”
(Warning: Boring presentation but interesting research.)
Flow state is an engaging process where we forget ourselves and how we are being perceived. We lose the feeling of self-consciousness and instead become intensely aware of our intuition. Artists and athletes talk about this state all the time (often referring to it as “the zone”), but many of us have had the experience of this in work or life at some point when we have given ourselves over to the process.
When you create an external version of yourself (what I consider to be your “future successful self”) you create the illusion of an actual target. The advantage to thinking this way is that you get to feel like you are in control of the outcome, the disadvantage is that you lose control over the tools that allow you to be successful.
Actors who try too hard often turn off an audience by being too filled with tension and worry. The same is true for people who are trying to hard to be liked or to be respected. Often they get the opposite response than what they wanted.
Stay within yourself and in your process.
Don’t try to control other people’s reactions to you and focus instead on your own process.
Let go of the idea that you can control what other people think.
That last one may be the hardest, but it is worth leaning into it and putting it into practice. The more that you are able to stay inside yourself, focus on the steps needed to accomplish the task, and believe that you belong, the easier it will be to let go of what other people think.
In the end, the goal here is to be our best selves, which is fundamentally different than trying to do your best. Being takes no stress or tension and requires us only to present who we are. Trying to do our best forces us to imagine a different, more perfect self.
When you are present and connected you have a chance to shine your light on world and do great things. When you are straining to be something more than what you are, you profoundly limit yourself. Let go of the expectation that there is a perfect external self and trust the process.
Stuck in your career, stuck in your relationships or stuck in your own growth?
If so, good for you for being awake. While feeling stuck is not fun, knowing that you are stuck allows you to do something about it. Knowing is the first step to being able to change.
When I talk to people who find themselves in this position, there are a few common elements, regardless of the specifics of their situation:
Have a powerful story about why they have to be stuck.
Firmly believe that they know their future.
A tendency to both pathologize and suppress the negative emotions they feel.
Together these ingredients create a kind of paralysis of the mind wherein the same thoughts and beliefs keep running into each other, and nothing is able to change.
(Dramatic recreation of actual experience)
In the past when I felt stuck in my job or in my creative life, I would resort to my usual tools: working harder, ignoring my feelings and changing things outside of my control.
Turns out, those things don’t work.
In order to get yourself out of a sticky place, I have learned that you need to be willing to examine (and question) your story about yourself. Many people find it easy to create a story about themselves that supports how they want to be seen in this world. In contrast, I have noticed that successful people tend to tell stories about how they are “lucky.” Believing you are lucky is a great story to have.
There are also people who have committed to the story that they are “cursed” in some way. These people believe that no matter how hard they work, the universe will figure out some way to screw it up. (See: Boston Red Sox fandom from 1918-2004.)
I believe that we perceive barriers that exist primarily in our mind. For years we believed that the four minute mile was physically impossible to break. And many scientists and engineers believed that breaking the sound barrier was not only dangerous but impossible. Before Roger Bannister and Chuck Yeager, we thought we understood the limits of what was possible. After these barriers were broken, many people followed their success and continued to shatter those barriers.
One theory of why this is so important is in how our brains are designed to imagine the future. In the book The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler, Kotler points out that our brain (specifically the neocortex) is designed to try to predict the future. When we are limited by what we think is possible (i.e. the story that we tell ourselves about our potential) we will become stuck. In his study of extreme athletes who consistently break the boundaries of what is considered possible for human beings, Kotler found that “if we really want to be our best, we don’t just have to rethink the path toward mastery; we need to reconsider the way we live our lives.” (Italics are mine.) In my experience that means calling into question what we consider our limitations and our weaknesses. Essentially, being open to the idea that we don’t actually know what we are capable of doing.
When we let go of the story of who we are, we open up the possibility for profound change. Without the story that we are limited, we can recognize what we already have. The challenge is to be willing to see beyond the story. Watching someone stuck in a false story is like watching someone get soaked even though they have an umbrella. It creates cognitive dissonance.
Maybe it is because of these stories that many of us believe we know exactly how things will turn out. For those who have a positive outlook on life (the ones who believe that they are lucky), this usually means that the future always seems bright and optimistic.
Those who tend to focus on the negative have been rewarded by being right. It is easier to play the negative outcome than it is to imagine the extraordinary. This is the mindset of “I will definitely fail this test” because either way I will be either pleasantly surprised or I get to be right. This is a limiting mindset.
Here’s another way to think about it: Nobody knows what’s going to happen.
People have ideas, hunches or even maybe an educated guess, but the future is not an open book. When you believe that you know for certain what is possible for yourself, you limit yourself in a significant way. This doesn’t mean that you should all go about your lives blindly making choices because anything is possible. What it means is that you have the opportunity to look at your worst case scenario and ask yourself, what if that doesn’t happen? What if you make change and it works out? What would that be like?
Develop the skill of being open to the possibilities available to you in the present, and you will begin to see how uncertain the future really is. The more awake we are to the choices we have and the various surprising outcomes that may come about, the more freedom we have when trying to imagine the future.
A few weeks ago I was listening to the one of the Startup Podcasts featuring Alex Blumberg, which talked about his most recent 360 review and some uncomfortable emotions that came out of it. (It is a powerful episode, and I urge people to check it out if you have a chance. You can listen to it here.)
What struck me the most was how willing he was to lean into the uncomfortable emotions that came up during the 360 review. Rather than give in to the idea that these emotions are negative and should be avoided at all cost, he was willing to go deeper to understand them. Just like Kotler said, “reconsider the way we live our lives.”
Our emotions are not your identities, nor are they facts. They are, however, clues to what is going on inside of you and where the resistance to change is.
I know that for myself, these are real challenges. Everything that I recommend for you is something that I have to work on for myself. In the end, I too want to be free from the story that I am limited. While I recognize that I’m no heart surgeon and the Red Sox aren’t calling me up to play shortstop anytime soon, I can see how I unfairly restrict my own growth when I believe that I know exactly what is possible for me.
This writing and this work is about stretching that understanding and beginning to open up to the possibility that my story and your story can grow and change.
I have had a few responses to my last post Stop Trying So Hard that centered around two questions:
What about practice?
What’s wrong with pushing for excellence?
I love these questions because they point to both the paradox of the message behind trying too hard and trying to improve our skills. I made the title purposefully provocative, but I didn’t mean to confuse people. This article is an attempt to address both of those questions, but feel free to write me with more if you want.
(Sorry, I feel like I can’t talk about practice without Allen Iverson)
In order to really talk about practice and trying hard, I had to go to an expert in this field. David Shenk wrote a book back in 2010 called The Genius in All of US:
In this book he cites a ton of research on genetics, intelligence and excellence. He goes much more in depth into Ericsson’s 10,000 hours of research than we got from Malcolm Gladwell’s books, and he outlines some specific important elements of practice. I won’t go into all of them (please read the book if you are interested in this kind of stuff), but there are two in particular that strike me as important (beginning with 4):
“4. Practice style is crucial. Ordinary practice, where your current skill level is simply being reinforced, is not enough to get better. It takes a special kind of practice to force your mind and body into the kind of change necessary to improve.
5. Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment. Many crucial changes take place over long periods of time. Physiologically, it’s impossible to become great overnight.”
He goes on later to describe this as “deliberate practice.”
“Deliberate practice requires a mind-set of never, ever, being satisfied with your current ability. It requires a constant self-critique, a pathological restlessness, a passion to aim consistently just beyond one’s capability so that daily disappointment and failure is actually desired, and a never-ending resolve to dust oneself off and try again and again and again.”
When I said “Don’t try so hard,” I was not referring to deliberate practice. I was referring to the habit of trying to “get it right” or to “prove” that you belong. This type of practice is about leaning into the process of failing and learning. It is a different type of driven, and people who practice like this are not watching themselves or worrying about what others may think about them.
When I was in high school one of my best friends was a ballet dancer. Every day after school he would head over to the studio to dance. He pretty much never had a job, or any money and couldn’t really hang out except on certain times during the weekend. We loved him, but I could never really understand that kind of devotion. Years later his hard work culminates into this:
(We are basically the same age, except in terms of physical abilities)
Christian danced his way into the School of American Ballet (think Harvard for ballet) and has had an amazing career as a dancer and choreographer. Every bit of it has come from the work and sweat that he has put into it. What I may have thought was weird at sixteen, was actually deliberate practice and drive.
2. What’s wrong with pushing for excellence?
Nothing. Nothing except that you will probably make others uncomfortable.
Anyone who tells you to stop dreaming or stop pushing yourself is only talking about themselves.
In David Halberstam’s book Playing for Keeps about Michael Jordan’s rise to becoming the greatest basketball player ever (also cited in Shenk’s book), there are stories about how weird and driven Michael Jordan’s practice habits were. Jordan would constantly compete against his teammates, always trying to push himself to improve his weaknesses. If by some chance a teammate would beat him in a game, he wouldn’t let him leave until they played again and he won.
That was probably really annoying to be around, yet it also led to six championships…
There are two things that I think are important about pushing for excellence that I learned from Halberstam’s book.
We are capable of things that we almost cannot imagine. All it takes is putting our minds to it.
Striving and attaining excellence won’t fix you.
I guess that second part is what I want to stress the most. If you really want to be excellent at something, then go ahead and work towards that goal. Work hard and sacrifice your free time. Lean into your weaknesses and push yourself to learn what your limitations are.
Just don’t chase it because you think it will make you a better person or a whole person.
I had a client say to me once that he couldn’t understand why athletes cheated. What’s the satisfaction in knowing that you didn’t win legitimately?
I suppose that this is what happens when people think that winning is something that changes them. They want so badly to achieve a goal that they are willing to give up on their integrity.
I am learning to seek and to trust the process. My desire is to be more authentic, to love myself more and to trust myself implicitly. To do this does take practice because there are always situations that take me out of myself. I also want to grow into the person I am meant to be. The same can be said for what I want for my clients.
So practice, push for excellence, but know that you are also enough. If you never did another thing beyond this day, you would be enough.
After watching all of the Rocky movies in one week, my son decided that he wanted to learn how to box. We found out that there is a famous boxing club right here in Portland, Maine and that one of their teachers and contenders for the middleweight title lives across the street from us. Seemed perfect.
(I can almost hear Burgess Meredith yelling from here)
My son wouldn’t do it unless I joined him, so now I am learning to box.
I have no instinct for boxing or fighting, so this is really new territory for me. And while it is fun to punch a bag, the work is also really hard. We are drenched in sweat by the end of an hour and I am usually feeling frustrated with myself for not being able to master the simplest of movements. This frustration has led me to see a connection between boxing and the work that I do around communication.
Don’t try so hard.
Maybe that sounds counterintuitive, especially if you visit the boxing club and see how hard people work, but it makes sense. Here are three reasons why trying too hard can take you farther away from your best self.
It makes your body tense
The improvisation teacher, Keith Johnstone has taught and written for years about the absurdity of trying hard and how it can adversely impact our performance.
(A photograph of Keith from a recent workshop I attended)
He even did a Tedx talk titled “Don’t Do Your Best.” Keith’s point about trying hard is that it ends up being more like a performance than an action. You learn as a young student that when you show the teacher that you are trying hard, he/she will praise you and maybe even help you succeed. You want to signal to the world that you are trying because that will keep you safe from criticism when you fail. Rather than make you perform better, however, it makes you tentative and forced. For example, if you are presenting or speaking publicly, this tension forces your larynx to constrict and your diaphragm to contract, which makes your voice to go thin and eventually hoarse. If you are punching a heavy bag or learning something physical, this tension actually makes your body awkward and off-balance. When you watch some of Muhammad Ali’s fights, you can see how loose and supple his body is. He looks relaxed in there, never mind that someone is trying to punch his head off of his shoulders.
(He looks like he could take a nap)
2. You start watching yourself
The act of learning something new can trigger us to be more self-conscious, which switches on the judgmental and critical part of your brain. When you become self-conscious, you think that you can see yourself making mistakes. Why is this bad? Namely because we are unable to be objective about ourselves in any moment, and thinking that we can do this leads to bad information. When you try to imagine what other people are seeing and thinking about you at any given time, you are doing that entirely from inside your mind. It is impossible to watch yourself, and to do so makes you self-conscious and awkward. You can see this in public speakers or politicians who are thrown off their game by something that they didn’t expect (often for speakers it can be something as simple as the projector or the microphone not working). When you are relaxed on stage and not thinking so much about how you are being perceived, you are much more relaxed and (ironically) in control.
3. You are no longer present
I cannot stress this one enough. As soon as you go up into your head and start thinking about what you are doing, you go blind to the moment. In the case of a performance, when you are standing in front of a room of people or in a boxing ring, you can quickly become overloaded with the information around you. Our brains will want to make sense of all of this information, and we may quickly want to switch from our fast thinking brain (the intuitive part of our brain) to our more slow, analytical brain (the part that wants to analyze and judge). As soon as you move to the part of the brain that solves problems, you lose the ability to react to things immediately as they happen. (Daniel Kahneman wrote about this in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow.) You will naturally be slower because your focus and your energy are on trying to figure out the future rather than deal with the present. This is just fine when you are trying to work out a math problem or figure out where to seat Aunt Joanie at the wedding, but it doesn’t do you any good when you are standing up to give a speech. Or when another person is trying to hit you in the head with his/her fists…
(Rocky’s advantage is that he doesn’t think)
When you are learning something new, you have to reconcile the gap between what you intellectually know you need to do and where you actually are in the process. When you try too hard, you take yourself out of the present moment and into a future place where you are already “good” at this skill. This thinking can stunt your learning because you are more focused on trying to push past the awkwardness than you are in learning how to get better.
In the end, what I am learning about boxing is how important it is to be in my body and how often I am not. The physical movements are not natural to me. Each practice is an opportunity to let go, get out of my head and focus on the problem at hand.
I also get to enjoy the experiment. No matter how hard I try, it only gets harder. Better to let go and trust in the process.
Earlier this summer I was sitting down to lunch with a friend of mine who is an avid cyclist, a great listener and an all-around good guy.
When we settled in I slid this card to him as a joke:
He had recently taken a position as a board chair and I suggested he might want to carry the card with him to meetings. If anyone droned on too long, he could slide the card to the speaker with a wink. He chuckled and put the card in his pocket.
A few minutes later we were talking about how my cycling was going. I was preparing for the Pan Mass Challenge, which is a 192 mile ride across Massachusetts to raise money for Dana Farber cancer research. I had done this event once before and found it inspirational, emotionally powerful and physically difficult. The problem I was having this year was that I still felt unprepared. When my friend asked me how the training was going, I started to talk about how I was worried about my speed and my pace. I knew that I could do the ride, but would I be able to keep up with my group? Would I be able to beat my time from the previous year? I shared with him that I was worried I might embarrass myself by not doing my best.
While listening to me, he reached into his pocket and slid this card over to me:
It took me a minute to realize what he had just done, and when I finally did I laughed so hard I practically spit my drink all over the table.
I believe in fencing they call that “Touchè”
His point was that nobody cares how fast I ride because this isn’t a race. I didn’t sign up for the PMC because I wanted to show off my cycling prowess. I signed up because I wanted to do something, anything to fight back against cancer. What my friend was able to do at that moment was to gently and humorously hold a mirror up and illustrate how self-centered I was being in that moment.
With this newfound realization, I was able to relax and go into the weekend with a more carefree frame of mind.
I did finish the ride, and I did ride faster than I ever had before, but it turns out that it didn’t really matter. It was never about me and my performance. It was about being a part of something bigger.
When I thought about this moment, I came to the realization that we can confuse ourselves by believing that we have to perform to a level of expectation that no one assigned us. How often are you afraid to do something that you have never done before because you are afraid to be bad at it? Have you ever studied a foreign language only to choose not to use it because you are afraid of making a mistake and being laughed at?
Have you ever stopped yourself from learning something creative like playing the piano or dancing because you are afraid of looking foolish or “getting it wrong?”
This approach isn’t about doing a good job at something that you are supposed to be good at. The heart surgeon and the tightrope walker train and practice to get better at their skills. Their anxiety is often less about what people think about them, rather it is about the problems in front of them. Being a beginner, however, is entirely different and can bring up anxiety and paralysis for many people.
I have begun to ask myself what it would be like if I did new things and didn’t care what people thought about it? What would it feel like if I could fail happily?
So I started a “nobody cares journal” for the purpose of exploring this idea.
I have taken it upon myself to do at least two sketches in this journal every day. I try to sketch things that I see, and I try to let go of the need to be good at it.
(Case in point, here is my “best” drawing.)
I really have no idea what I’m doing and that is kind of fun.
Here is my premise: I do these drawings to experiment with the idea that no one really cares if I am any good at drawing. I might discover that I like it or I might discover that I learn how to get better, but no one is depending on me to perform.
And that is something that I think that I see people struggle with when it comes to communication. We want so badly for others to perceive us in a certain way that we lose sight of the fact that most people are not thinking about us at all. All of my worry about whether I will be going fast enough for the group, or someone else’s worry that he/she won’t do a great job in the presentation interfere with us being 100% present in the moment. This worry takes us out of ourselves.
My recommendation is that we all start our own, “nobody cares” journal and see what comes of it. Maybe you might like to write poems, draw or paint. Who knows? The trick is to do it without the pressure to be perceived as being “good” at it. Leave that alone. You have permission to be absolutely average at whatever you do. Just explore what it feels like to do it.
I am deeply appreciative of my friend for his humor and honesty. Learning that not everyone is as concerned with us as we are with ourselves can be a humbling pill to swallow, but the positive impact is that we get to be free from the belief that everything we do matters so much.
Once we are able to let go of the expectation that we have to be perfect, we can be free to discover new things about ourselves that we never knew.
In the past I have been asked to give my thoughts on the communication styles of certain public figures. There is no better place to observe a person’s tics, tone and relatability than a Presidential debate.
(This smile says “I’m very uncomfortable”)
Debates are rarely moments when we learn important policy information or get a transparent look into what people really think. What we do learn is how we feel about the candidates.
Pundits and journalists will often talk about “the narrative” of a political campaign (so much so that it pretty much kills the meaning of the word for other things). What they mean is that there is a story that the candidate wants told about him/her and one that the opponent wants told. Each campaign is fighting for supremacy of their story.
For example, in 2004 the Bush campaign was trying to paint John Kerry as a “flip-flopper” who couldn’t be trusted to make the hard decisions. This impression would benefit the Bush narrative that he was “the decider.” Then Kerry came out during a debate and said this:
“I actually did vote for the $87 billion (wartime funding bill) before I voted against it.”
That and this photograph was all it took to make him seem less serious:
(because apparently the majority of America doesn’t windsurf)
George H.W. Bush was attacked on the narrative that the economy was suffering because he was disengaged. That feeling was cemented by this moment in the debates:
Whatever the case, candidates see the debates as a way to either solidify their positives or reinforce the negatives of their opponents. These debates between Hillary and Donald will be no different.
What to watch for:
Donald wants us to know that he is a successful business man who isn’t afraid to “tell it like it is.” He wants us to feel like he is the only solution to any problem that we may face.
In my opinion, the stickiest negative narrative is that he is both unpredictable and racist. (In his defense, he doesn’t seem to care too much about people thinking this about him.)
She wants us to feel that she is the most qualified for the position. Her temperament and her experience are the keys to her success. (Her team will also want to capitalize on being the first woman nominee, but that is difficult to gracefully work into the debate. She almost needs to draw attention to it by not drawing any attention to it.)
In my opinion, the stickiest negative narrative is that she is not truthful and she is physically fragile.
As you watch the debate, look for the ways that each candidate might try to goad the other. The best example of this is when Chris Christie took out Marco Rubio in one of the debates by mocking his robotic answers to questions. Rubio responded by repeating his usual talking points in the same tone as always, playing exactly into Christie’s point.
The danger of this kind of play is that it can be a kamikaze moment on stage, as it was for Christie who took Rubio down with him in the polls. Don’t expect to see that happen with only two candidates on stage.
Instead, I expect to see Hillary try to get Donald to say something outrageous about Muslims or women. Donald will have been coached to be civil and “presidential” (which I take to mean less crazy) during the debate and I think he will hold off on taking any bait from Hillary (people rarely do at these things). He might, however, give some off-the-cuff crazy response to one of the questions from the moderator, which would accomplish Hillary’s goal.
Expect to see Donald play the alpha male on stage. He will break the “plane” of the podium, showing that he is not afraid to be bigger than the box, and he will most likely address anyone in the audience as a way to show how comfortable he is connecting. These traits were used to great effect against the other Republican candidates, but I am not sure how it will be read on a stage with just Hillary. The danger for his campaign is that it might create sympathy for her.
Watch for Donald showing his bottom teeth. This is a classic sign of aggression and power (once you see it happen, you can’t un-see it in all the alpha-male leaders out there). He will show it when he smiles sometimes, but mostly when he talks. If he does it too much, it can give the impression of being a bully, which is something that I actually believe plays well with his base but will most likely turn off the independent voters who want to see him play nice.
Watch for Hillary’s smile. When she is comfortable and feels like she knows what to expect, she will relax her eyes a little and smile in a genuinely warm way. If she feels attacked or senses that she is being asked a question that is a trap, her eyes will become distant and her lips will purse into a tighter smile. The more physically tense she is, the harder it will be for her to stay away from the negative narrative.
Finally, Hillary needs to make fun of herself. If she can make a joke at her own expense and create the impression that she has a sense of humor, she will go a long way to getting people to like her. For example, if she began her remarks with “And I really hope that you have some questions in there about those emails…” This may seem like a risk, but she knows that she is going to be asked (every single time) and she might as well accept it and enjoy it.
Donald’s biggest strength is that he doesn’t seem to care about losing. He is the opposite of calculating. He is 100% reactive. My guess is that if he just stays good-natured and doesn’t try to eviscerate Hillary, that he will come across as “likable.” The problem for him and his team is that no one seems to know exactly how he will behave. Worst case scenario for him is that he comes out trying to show that he can contain the crazy, only to make him look crazier.
When I was 17 years old I got a job being a breakfast prep cook for a small restaurant on Cape Cod. The head cook (let’s call him ‘Bob’) was an ex-semipro tackle who weighed about 300 pounds and had the unfortunate job of teaching me everything he knew about cooking. His teaching methods were simple:
Yell at me to do something.
When I didn’t do it correctly the first time ask me “WTF were you thinking?”
Yell some more.
(Ah, brings me back to middle school)
The more he yelled, the stupider I felt. I spent about two weeks “training” with him and every day I was more of a confusing mess.
Then one day I came into the restaurant and he wasn’t there. The owners came down from their upstairs apartment and announced that I was now the head cook…
Needless to say that that first day was pretty uncomfortable.
After a few days though, I relaxed and taught myself how to cook diner food for over 200 people.
Over the years I have wondered why it was that I was an idiot when Bob was around and yet able to run the kitchen when he was gone? I knew that I was scared and that his yelling didn’t make me any better, but I have since realized the impact of our emotions on the people who work under us. While most leaders are not yellers, I have seen people react in the same way as I did at seventeen when asked to do things. I also have experienced myself in situations where I was supposed to giving instructions but only managed to make someone feel a sense of panic.
(Like, maybe teaching someone how to drive?)
My theory about Bob is that he knew exactly how to cook, but he had no idea how to teach anyone how to cook. After reading books on how our brains interpret emotions from other people through something called the “mirror neurons” I have a better understanding that my panic was in part his own panic. What I mean by that is that I wasn’t just responding to the yelling, rather to something much more primal inside of him that is feeling fear. Our mirrors neurons are so powerful that our emotions can actively impact the people around us, which is especially true for those people who look to us for guidance and leadership. When they feel fear, we all feel fear.
Fear of what?
Fear of making a mistake.
Fear of being embarrassed.
Fear of losing control.
As a human being, we probably experience at least one of those feelings every five seconds. If you work in a high-pressure job, you probably experience all three every second of the day. Why?
I think it is because we believe that we are supposed to be in control.
The illusion that we can control an outcome of a situation leads us to feel fear when that outcome doesn’t emerge in exactly the way that we expected. Most of the time this doesn’t matter because the stakes are low, but when you add in that your team, your employees and your peers have to perform a certain way in order for you to be successful, that can cause people to lose their minds.
Many people seem to think that they can mask their fear from the people around them simply by smiling or acting calm.
The trouble is that, even if you are good at masking your fear (and your negative thoughts), the muscles in your body won’t lie. They will reveal tension that is hidden to most of us but not to the mirror neurons in our brains. For example, if you are watching someone give a presentation and you believe that he will screw it up, your body will tense and you will give off the vibes of fear (or judgment). Some people are not even that subtle about it.
(The woman on the left thinks things are going really well…)
What can we do about our fear?
What if you practiced the discipline of not playing into your fear and the fear of the people around you and instead just see what is happening?
Try these step.
Regulate your breathing (2 seconds in, 2 seconds pause, 2 seconds out, 2 second pause, repeat).
Chose a set of muscles on your body, tense them as hard as you can for 30 seconds and then relax.
Bring your awareness to your body (feel your feet on the ground, your seat in the chair, etc…).
If you are able to do those three exercises, then you will have calmed down your mind a little. From this calm place, try to look again at the person you are coaching/leading. You might see someone making mistakes, but you also might see them making certain victories. Focus on the victories and comment on them.
If you can be more present for the people on your team and in your office, you will be able to create an environment where real learning and growth can happen. You will be triggering people less and they may even begin to surprise you with their abilities. The goal is to create the right kind of space for them to be successful.
Most importantly, when you do give them critical feedback, you won’t be communicating it from a fearful place. You won’t be inadvertently “screaming” at them with your tension, and they will have a better chance of hearing you and integrating what you want them to learn. You might even begin to see the progress they are making rather than focusing only on the struggles they are having.
What we hope for is to create an environment where people get to be their best selves.
“You may believe yourself out of harmony with life and its eternal Now; but you cannot be, for you are life and exist Now–otherwise you would not be here.” Alan Watts
The above quote is from Alan Watts’ book Become What You Are which is a series of essays about the nature of enlightenment, meditation and the Tao.
What makes Watts unique in the world of mysticism and Western/Eastern religions is that he is fairly cantankerous and gives a somewhat stark view of the search for enlightenment that many people seem to be on. (Note: check out the self-help section of any bookstore.)
Here is another quote that shows his lack of sentimentality in this work: “Life is not going anywhere; there is nothing to be attained. All striving and grasping is so much smoke in the clutch of a dissolving hand. We are all lost–kicked off into a void the moment we were born–and the only way is to fall into oblivion.”
(Feel free to use that at your next dinner party. It should really get things rolling.)
What I love and admire about Alan Watts’ teachings is that he strips all the niceties and mysticism from the work, yet his message is ultimately optimistic and freeing. The belief that we can somehow perfect ourselves, or rid ourselves of those parts of us that we don’t like is akin to being in a prison of our own making. We are our own jailer and we can be cruel.
Most of the work that I do with individuals has to do with changing their behavior so that they can better function within a system. Coaching can sometimes leave the impression that it makes people “better” through some methodology or practice, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. Self-help books are also hot sellers right now because they offer us a vision into a world in which we do not have to suffer our own weaknesses. While I acknowledge the attraction to anything that suggests a complete answer to the problem of the human condition (suffering, insecurity, fear, death), I have yet to see anything that is so tidy and complete. In fact, at this point I feel distrustful of anyone making such a claim.
It has taken me awhile to recognize that the strength of our communication and ability to connect/inspire people has as much to do with our inner life as it has to do with how we speak (perhaps even more).
If you want to be free of the habits that interfere with your communication and that send the wrong signals, then you will need to surrender the desire to be perfect.
“Lesson One is: ‘I give up.'” – Alan Watts
Look back at the quote at the top of the page and notice that it says “for you are life and exist Now” which is a puzzle in its simplicity.
Think of a river and a waterfall for a moment. When the waters are high, the water moves through with a kind of violence and power that is both beautiful and terrifying. When the waters are low, we might experience the waterfall and river as being tame and relaxing. Regardless of how the waterfall is, it is neither good nor bad. It just is. I imagine that there are people who go around judging nature as either meeting their expectations or disappointing them, but nature doesn’t care. It keeps running regardless.
With people it is more complicated in a way because we are so relational in spirit. We exist as a species in no small part to our ability to communicate, cooperate and read social cues. Unlike the waterfall, it matters to us what other people think of us.
Freedom through responsibility
While it may matter to you what others think of your performance and your behavior (think job performance reviews or customer satisfaction scores), their opinion has no bearing on your “you-ness.” When people get confused by feedback because they think that it reflects on their essential being, then all kinds of problems can arise. When you take responsibility both for your behavior and for your right to exist in this world, you can be free to grow into the person that you already are. You get to become the best version of yourself.
It is possible to change your behavior without denying your true selves.
This type of work requires that you surrender the belief that you need to be fixed in some fundamental way. Will surrendering suddenly rid you of all the faults and weaknesses that you see in your being?
Nope. To do that would require giving up your humanity.
Will surrendering to the Now make you immune from the fear and insecurities that often plague us at work?
Probably not. As Watts says, “A person who did not feel frightened at the threat of danger would be like a tall building with no ‘give’ to the wind.” But what it will do is to relax the jailer of your mind. You may begin to feel less inclined to agitate yourself and interpret dangers from places where no danger exists.
When you get a performance review or feedback that suggests that you could improve or that you are falling short, rather than integrating that information into a story about who you are and who you should be, you can take what is useful from it and apply it to your own person growth.
You are here now and you are alive. Trust yourself. Take responsibility for yourself and your behavior and you will continue to grow into who you are.
How do we communicate our best self to the world around us?
How can we go into a job interview, an audition or an important pitch with confidence that we are giving our best?
Working in the field of communication has brought me to a better understanding of the ways that we interfere and interrupt the channel between our value and our audience. So many of us just can’t seem to get out of our own damn way.
Last year at the Oscars, Bryan Cranston (he of Breaking Bad fame) was asked what advice he would give to young amateur actors. The gist of his advice is, “know what your job is.” Your job is not to “get the job” or win the interview. He says “you’re not going there to get a job, you are going there to present what you do. You act.” Once you focus your energies on the things that you can control, and let go of the belief that you can control the outcome, you are empowered. You are powerful.
(You can watch the interview here)
While this advice is helpful to young actors, it can also be incredibly valuable to the rest of us who are trying to communicate our value to the world around us.
The message that our “trying too hard” might be interfering with the value of what we can do is not new. People have been giving this advice for years.
“Just be yourself”
Maybe not always the best advice to give, especially if the person we are right now is someone who is extremely anxious and fearful that he/she won’t be appreciated. That kind of authenticity often creates a feeling of neediness and a lack of confidence. Probably not a good idea to double down on that strategy.
It also doesn’t work to suppress those emotions before going into an important meeting or job interview. Why? Because even though we may think that we are repressing the feeling, burying the fear and the anxiety deep down inside, that emotion still leaks out to the room. People can sense the fear and the neediness even when they don’t see it on the surface. (For more information about how emotions do this, I recommend you read Daniel Goleman’s work and Heidi Grant Halvorson’s research.)
Fact is that the emotions leak out without our knowing it, and the suppression of them can lead to weird behavior. I often think that a lot of arrogant behavior comes down to repressed fear and overcompensation:
At any rate, if you are thinking that you can fake your way out of it, that too won’t work.
What to do?
Answer: Show up
Bryan Cranston’s advice is accurate. Just focus on your work and forget about the rest. When we are able to communicate our excellence without being self-conscious, we give people the best chance to see who we are and what we can do. When you let go of the absurd expectation that you can control the outcome of a situation simply by willing it to happen, you free up your brain to focus on the task at hand.
And what is your job in an interview, a pitch, or an important Q&A?
Communicate your best self.
How do you do that?
First recognize that you are dealing with another human being (or beings) who are completely unknowable to you. You have no control over them, nor any way to make them think or do what you want. Let that fantasy go the way of the Tooth Fairy.
(Enjoy that image by the way…)
Second, remind yourself that you are here because you have something to offer. I’m going to assume that if you are at the interview, the pitch, or the Q&A it is because you have certain qualifications and talents. Live in the reality of those qualifications and talents, rather than try to convince others that they exist. The first is empowering, the second makes you dependent on the audience’s validation.
Third, practice, practice, practice. Do all of your work beforehand and then let go. No matter how good you are at winging it, you are probably not that good. The gift of practice (when it is about the work and not about the outcome) is that it gives you the confidence to trust your skills and to know who you are. People who know themselves and trust themselves can say “I don’t know” with confidence. They can be vulnerable because they don’t feel like they will be found out. They know their strengths and weaknesses. They focus on their work and let the chips fall where they may.
All of this is hard because we want to believe that we are in charge of the outcomes. We want to buy the story that if we use all of our persuasive powers we can convince people that we are of value. Bryan Cranston’s point in this interview is simply: that isn’t how it works.
What would it mean to you if you held the keys to remove the biggest obstacles to your success?
What if the biggest obstacles getting between you and your deepest and most meaningful desires were inside you and your thoughts?
Finally, what if the most important key to envisioning a successful future depended on your willingness to focus on an element of your behavior that you would have to overcome?
Would you be willing to change?
Recently, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain. The host, Shankar Vedantam, was interviewing social scientist Gabrielle Oettingen about some surprising new research around positive thinking.
Turns out that just thinking positive thoughts about the future is actually anti-motivational.
(Sorry Tony Robbins.)
Turns out that something called “mental contrasting” is a more effective way to motivate ourselves and activate our desire to work hard. When we only think positively about an outcome (like winning an award, getting into physical shape, or going to graduate school), our brains tend to react to the positive visioning as though we already accomplished it, which then steals our desire to work towards the initial goal.
In the Hidden Brain interview, Oettingen outlines four basic elements to her concept of mental contrasting, which she refers to as WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. (If you are curious about it, you can download the free app on iTunes or check out her website.)
While I don’t know if WOOP really works (I downloaded the app myself and am trying it out), I was deeply struck by something Shankar brings up near the end of the interview. Oettingen’s research is surprising in that it doesn’t focus on the obstacles in front of you, but rather it forces you to look at the obstacles within you.
The obstacles within you, (while being a perfect title to an unpublished REM song) seems to me like the ideal way to describe almost all of the ways that we interfere with our true selves.
When someone tells me that they are “terrible at public speaking,” I often ask them what evidence they have of this.
(Side note: some people really are terrible at speaking in public. It’s just the people who “know” they are awesome at it are usually the worst.)
When asked about evidence, most clients will point to moments when they gave a talk that people “said they liked” but that everyone “really thought was terrible.” Even when people gave them compliments, the clients often “know” that those are not to be trusted.
And how do they know that the compliments are not to be trusted? Their brain told them so.
This is how we create obstacles within us and how they impact our ability to be great at something like communicating or presenting.
Belief: we believe in the idea that we are limited in a fundamental way (like a curse).
Warped Lens: we look for evidence to support that belief, sometimes turning positive feedback into negative.
Negative storytelling: we take our experiences and make stories out of them. We then tell these stories to others and ourselves, reinforcing how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen.
If we instead start with a belief that eliminates the possibility of a curse or a fundamental flaw, then we open ourselves up to more possibilities to change.
Let’s take a job interview as an example.
If I begin with the belief that I am equally qualified for this job and that I belong here as much as the next person, that eliminates the need for the “warped lens” or the “negative storytelling.” I still might not get the job, but I won’t be looking for evidence to support the belief that I am not worthy of this position.
When we are willing to look closely at the obstacles within us, we are able to remove the very things which keep us from being our best selves.
Inauthenticity is often the result of not believing in the value of our true selves. The value of mental contrasting is that we get to focus our energy on things that we can actually control, rather than on obstacles outside of ourselves.
Michael Jordan famously spent hours focusing on his weaknesses during practice. He would make up rules like he could only shoot with his left hand or from twenty feet out. Every time an opponent found a weakness or a reporter would make a remark about something missing from his game, Jordan would make that his obsession. The result was that he became one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He was a fierce competitor who seemed to win through a mixture of awesome talent and indomitable will. (For more about how his approach helped shape him, I recommend the book by David Shenk titled The Genius in All of US.)
Michael Jordan employed a technique where he focused on the obstacle that was internal (his ability to shoot jumpshots) rather than on the things that were out of his control (what reporters thought were his limitations).
To return to the public speaking example, when we think the thought “I am terrible at public speaking,” we have to ask ourselves if it is true or it is is part of a fundamental belief. If it is true, then we can work to improve. Public speaking is just like anything else, you can get better at it with practice.
If it is a belief, then that becomes the obstacle. As long as we believe that we are this, we will always be looking for evidence to support it.
Challenge the belief that you are broken, focus on what you can control and transform the obstacles within you into positive outcomes.
I’m going to assume that there have been times in your life when you have encountered friction during a group discussion. Maybe it had to do with a disagreement about where to eat lunch, or perhaps it was a bigger decision about how to approach a project or best ways to handle a client. Regardless of the situation, I imagine that you have experienced times when the tension felt uncomfortable and abrasive.
(Unless you are a Teletubby)
We often look at those moments when there is tension in a room and when we meet resistance as though something were going wrong. This is especially true if we are trying to lead that group towards a specific goal. That resistance can seem both frustrating and counterproductive. I find that there are two basic responses to that kind of friction:
Most managers and leaders who fall on the “directing/domineering” side of the leadership spectrum tend to choose force or coercion as a tool to get the team to “get on board” or to “move the ball forward.” If you have ever sat in on one of those meetings, you know that they are usually confusing, scary and unproductive. At their best, they tend to create a lot of “yes” people who don’t have any clarity about what they need to do or why.
The managers who capitulate to a group fall heavily on the “enrolling/engaging” side of the leadership spectrum and tend to worry about losing the team or seeming like a domineering boss. They tend to acquiesce when there is push back or when the team shows a lack of enthusiasm for an idea. These meetings can be easily derailed by one member who challenges the vision, but who doesn’t actually speak for the rest of the group. The result can be a feeling of a lack of leadership and a sense of pointlessness to the meetings.
These extreme approaches to communication and influence can be dangerous to leadership and group dynamics; learning how to hone these skills is much like learning the proper way to sharpen a knife.
Too Much Resistance:
If we try to sharpen our knives by scraping the blade directly on the stone, we will inevitably dull the blade and make it useless. The intuition that more force will solve the problem (coercion), actually creates the opposite intended effect. Force alone will not sharpen that knife:
The same is true if we avoid that resistance altogether; you can’t sharpen a knife if you don’t ever touch the stone. When we try to avoid any conflict at all, we run the risk of never changing anything. People will lose their focus and the group will feel unformed and rudderless. A good leader has to be comfortable with a certain amount of conflict and with resistance to his/her ideas.
How Best to Meet Resistance:
In truth what matters the most is how we meet the resistance. For example, in gestalt training therapists and facilitators are taught to focus on the feeling of a discussion, rather than on just the content. It is through the investigation of any resistance that they find in a discussion that allows them to help groups move through transformational change (both individual and organizational).
To hone your own ability to gauge how you meet resistance, try cultivating and nurturing the following skills:
Awareness – notice when you begin to feel resistance both in yourself and in the group. Just as with sharpening the knife, the more aware you are of the impact on the blade, the better able you are to adjust the pressure to make it sharper.
Curiosity – stay open to what is happening in the room. When we let go of the assumption of what the resistance means (example of assumptions: people are lazy, they don’t like your idea, they are not smart enough) and instead get curious about what they are hearing and experiencing, real transformation becomes possible.
Empathy – once you are open to what is really happening with the resistance, learn to have empathy for everyone in the room, including yourself. While that may sound strange, there are a lot of feelings that can come up when we meet conflict, especially when it is in reaction to our idea. Notice those feelings, be curious about them and have some compassion and empathy for them. There is no right and wrong in that setting, only what is.
The better you get at practicing these skills, the braver you will feel when faced with any resistance in a room. The ability to transform that friction into positive, transformative power will enable you to become a more impactful leader. You will learn to use that energy to sharpen your vision and improve the collaborative spirit of your organization.
So rather than meeting resistance with either coercion or capitulation, we instead become curious, both of what our internal resistance is and what is happening in the room. That curiosity will lead to better skills when communicating with and leading a group.
If you have ever gone out to eat at a fancy-ish restaurant, then you have most likely been cajoled, coerced or otherwise persuaded into eating dessert.
(“No thanks, really I am full.”)
And if you have ever waited tables before, you know that the ability to convince a table to order dessert is seen as a source of pride and prowess. Think of it as the advanced level of sales that goes beyond just the “you should totally buy the most expensive thing on the menu because it is awesome.” There is something particularly skillful about getting people to shell out another fifteen dollars for cheesecake.
What we are essentially talking about here is persuasion in its purest form. Why would someone choose to buy a dessert, assuming that they did not initially come there with the intention to eat something sweet? What does it take to bring a table along? And what backfires?
(You’re in luck. This dessert does have over 5000 calories!)
Most of us have to use some form of persuasion during our day to day lives. Even if you are in a business that has nothing to do with selling, you will most likely find yourself trying to convince someone to make a choice about something. (If you have small children, you know that this is an every day, hour to hour occurrence.) But have you ever stopped to think about what works best with persuasion versus what backfires almost every time?
You should eat this cake!
Imagine if your server came to your table with the tray of desserts and pointed to a slice of cake saying “You should totally eat this cake!”
(No caption needed)
Most of us would recoil a little, regardless of how great the cake looked or whether we already knew that we wanted it. Why?
Usually this term refers to dog’s, but the basic psychological elements apply to humans as well. When we feel like someone is pushing us in one direction, we tend to automatically feel an aversion to that direction. We instinctually want to go in the opposite direction. The more we feel pushed toward the cake, the less attractive the cake will appear. (The only time that this may not be true is if we came to that restaurant just for the cake. In that case, we don’t care what the server says, as long as he/she brings that cake.)
Think about the times that someone convinced you to try something that you didn’t think you wanted. Whether it was to read a book, see a movie or try a new food. Why did it work? What did they say? I can tell you from my experience when I was a waiter, telling someone that a dessert was good was not nearly as effective as telling them which dessert I liked the most.
Think about how these two book suggestions sound to you and how you might react to them:
Person A: “You have to read this book. It is awesome!”
Person B: “I like mysteries, and this was one of my favorite books of the summer. I highly recommend it.”
There are three things that go into persuasion (from Aristotle’s point of view).
The logic of the suggestion
The emotional connection
The credibility or “likeability” of the person making the suggestion
When we focus only on the logic (This cake is the best!) and forgo the other two, we run the risk of alienating our audience. Again, the logic-only approach works great with people who have already decided that they want it. If you want to bring people along who might be resistant, you will need to take another approach.
Sell vs. Share: When a server tells me that he/she likes a certain dessert the best, it no longer feels like a “sell” and instead feels like a “share.”
Context is King: I once had a server say something like “When I am having a bad day, I splurge on this dessert because it always makes me feel better.” Adding the detail of the “bad day” is a great way to help the audience understand the context in which that person enjoyed the dessert. It is a way to gain trust in their opinion.
Trust not Manipulation: This is the toughest one for many people. It isn’t about how to “get them” to buy the dessert. It is about creating an opening to help them think about the dessert. Manipulation is when we make people buy something they don’t want. Trust is when they are open enough to actually see the offer as a possibility. The more you build trust, the more likely they will follow.
In communication in general, we have to understand that what we say is not so important as how we say it. While that might be annoying to those of you who like to think that the content matters more than the style, that isn’t usually how persuasion works.
If you want to have influence over your organization, your family and your peers, pay more attention to your server the next time you are out to dinner. You might learn something new.
What motivates you to make a different decision than you originally intended?
What makes you more open to new possibilities?
Why do you trust one person over another?
Apply those learnings to your own communication style, and you will be surprised at how much easier it is to be trusted and have influence.
Step into almost any organization at any time, and you will most likely find a meeting taking place.
(Hopefully with Vince Vaughn in attendance)
There are lots of reasons to have meetings (reporting, brainstorming, reviewing, etc.), but the core reason is communication.
And yet it is astonishing how little communication seems to happen. Often meetings seem to grind away without any real purpose or goal, just wave after wave of deadly Powerpoint slides. This on top of the fact that we live in a culture that likes to have a lot of meetings.
Daniel’s blog piece focuses more on the lack of structure and the general waste that goes into meetings (he makes the point that some meetings are actually meetings about future meetings), and how much salary is tied up in those hours that are spent discussing whatever. I want to focus more on the lost opportunity.
What is this meeting for?
Do we really know?
I try to ask this question before every meeting. Not because I like to be annoying, but rather because it helps to identify the framework for the conversation. Another way to think of this is “what are we hoping to get out of this meeting?”
Here are three things that usually come up when this question is asked.
Build Consensus: there is often some issue or problem that requires the managers or team leaders to get up to speed, weigh in and agree on a strategy. This is a perfectly good reason for a meeting, unless “consensus” is code for “just go do it.” Confusion around whether the leaders of the meeting actually want input or are just looking for agreement can be a blow to morale and mangle the process in the long run.
Generate Ideas: brainstorming sessions or problem solving discussions are important parts of teamwork and allow for creativity within an organization. While we might have an idealized vision of how brainstorming sessions work, they are usually a mess unless there is a clear articulation of the problem and the materials we have to work with. Shouting out random ideas produces a lot of randomly bad ideas. Focus the discussion on a goal and clearly outline the challenges. Also, make sure that you are actually interested in generating ideas and that you aren’t really trying to build consensus or inform. A team will feel demoralized if they find out that the process was not genuine, and that will lead to an overall resistance moving forward.
Inform: there are times when upper management or leaders need to educate the rest of the group on what is happening and why. While these meetings can often be helpful, they don’t work if they are framed incorrectly or if the information is simple enough to have been put in a memo. If the information is complicated enough to spend time in a meeting, then you also need to give plenty of space for challenging questions. It’s okay to transition from a meeting that is focused on informing to one that tries to build consensus, but a group can’t get to the second part if they don’t fully appreciate and understand the first.
Process vs. Direction?
Sometimes much of the inefficiency in meetings can be defined by a tactical confusion between “things that we have to process” (i.e. discuss) and “things we have to do.”
Process is messy, but it implies collaboration and creativity, so we often default to it even when there isn’t any room for discussion. It would be helpful if the team leader made the call beforehand about whether this meeting is meant to be a process-oriented meeting or if it is more of a reporting/directive meeting.
What’s the difference?
Direction is for giving out clear and actionable orders. For example, if you want everyone to wear the color green on Tuesday (for whatever reason), then you give the order and answer the clarifying questions that come.
(Is that okay?)
When leaders make the mistake of presenting something like this as though it were a discussion (usually because they want to “build consensus”), they will move the group into process, which is going to make it messy. In other words, the group might interpret the directive as a choice or that it is up for discussion.
Process is for topics or problems that require expertise from around the table so as to develop a clear strategy. In this case the problem needs to be clearly articulated (team morale is low or our products are getting stale) and then open it up for discussion, looking for each group member to contribute his/her perspective.
Be aware that if you have already decided on a course of action before the meeting, don’t make the mistake of asking people for their input. You need to change this to one of direction and feedback. Again, the team will feel underappreciated and disregarded if they get the sense that you had the answer all along. The clearer you are with them (and yourself) up front, the more likely they will be engaged and understand the objective.
If we can only accomplish one thing, what would we want that to be?
Finally, if you are a leader of meetings, ask yourself this question as you plan the agenda. You might even want to write it down on the top of the page. The more focused the room is on the goal, and the clearer everyone is on the intention (process vs. direction), the more efficient you can be and the more engaged your teams will feel.
What makes some leaders capable of handling themselves under pressure?
What is the secret?
Many books portray leaders like this as being somehow immune to extreme emotions. They seem to just move through their day without letting anything bother them or knock them off their beam.
The trouble is that we are often looking at these types of leaders through an historical lens. For example, George Washington was often depicted as a stoic, courageous General who experienced no fear. It was said that bullets seemed to be afraid to strike him on the battlefield because he was so noble. The truth is that he experienced frustration, fear and embarrassment as much as the other guy. He was just better than most at managing his emotions in front of his troops. (George Washington’s reasons for fighting in the American Revolution basically came out of his anger of being rejected by the British military elite. For more information, check out this biography by Joseph Ellis.)
(“My only fear is that people will tell apocryphal stories about my teeth.”)
People also base leadership and courage on a myth built up from literature, television or film:
(“My character eats fear for breakfast.”)
However, if you want to understand how to handle emotional stress better and be perceived as a cool and collected leader, you are going to have to get in tune with your emotions and how they are connected to your thoughts and your body.
As Danny Musico says about fear and boxing, “Guys who chicken out, who panic, are in most cases guys who are trying to hide from their feelings. Tough guys feel that fear; they embrace it. Experience what’s happening inside you, accept it, and keep going.”
The key is to experience the feelings, even if they are uncomfortable. The problem is usually not so much the feelings themselves, but the reactions that we have to them. When we feel fear, we begin to create stories about not only where that fear comes from, but all the ways that the fear will never leave.
Imagine if you were standing on a beach for the first time and that you had no notion of the ocean or tides. When it first starts to wash over your feet, you can imagine feeling a kind of panic. If you have ever seen a toddler react to a wave rolling up to him/her, you can have a sense of the panic that can set in. The sensations are new, the information is strange (there wasn’t water and now there is) and the pattern is not entirely clear (to the toddler).
The same can be said for emotions. When you feel a wave of emotion come over you (especially a negative one), do you let that emotion wash over you or do you react like the toddler?
The truth for many people is that they don’t often know that they are being flooded with an emotion. They feel the stress of it, but they try to suppress it because that is what we think that real adults are supposed to do. “Real adults” don’t let emotions affect them because they don’t have emotions:
(Except for rage. “Adults” seem to have a lot of that these days.)
There is a lot of talk about mindfulness in business and the term has become one of those buzzwords that seems to suck all meaning out of it. (While maybe it is helpful to tell someone to “give mindful feedback,” it still seems to annoying.)
That being said, the goal of mindfulness is to become more aware of how feelings affect our bodies and our thinking. It is helpful to better understand what you are feeling and how that feeling impacts you because then you have a chance to change. Here are a few things you can practice to help you stay calm and manage your emotions during difficult times.
Identify the feeling as you have it. This might be easier for some than for others. Many people have difficulty naming a variety of feelings. (If you need a list to pull from, here is one.) The idea is to be able to pinpoint a feeling and identify it, rather than search for the impetus outside yourself. As they say “feeling is healing.” (It’s true because it rhymes)
Locate the feeling in your body. When we have feelings, we usually experience them in our body. The more intense the feeling, the more intense the physical reaction. If you feel it in your gut, for example, focus your attention to that area and just keep it there without judging it. Notice how it changes and shifts. You will probably begin to notice that the feeling eventually recedes (like the wave at the beach) and with that comes the realization that it isn’t permanent.
No judgment. The worst thing we can do with feelings is to critique them as “good” or “bad.” When we do that we are trying to control them rather than let them wash over us. Using judgment in this way is like trying to swim by thinking that the water is the problem. We just end of thrashing away at it while we slowly sink. Better to give ourselves up to it and just float.
Pay attention to the stress behind thoughts. Feelings often are connected to thoughts, which will feed the feelings. For example, when I try something new and fail I might think “I am terrible at this” or “I suck” which are thoughts that compound the feeling of disappointment I get when I can’t get something right. If I disregard that thought as being unproductive, and focus instead on the process of learning, I will be able to understand the feeling as being temporary. If your thoughts are suggesting that you are the reason for the feeling, they aren’t very trustworthy thoughts.
If you practice these elements, you will find that times of external stress or emotional upheavals won’t be as difficult to manage. While you won’t be impervious to fear or other negative emotions, the temptation to let them sweep you away or the desire to suppress them (and thus make them more acute) will be lessened. It gets easier the more you practice.
Eventually you will be perceived as a leader who is able to keep calm when all others are losing their heads.
You might not realize it, but you spend a lot of time broadcasting your story to the people in your life.
Every time you share that you are “not good at” something like public speaking, taking risks or being courageous, you reinforce a narrative about yourself and how you want people to receive you.
Maybe that is what you want people to know about you, but imagine if you meet someone for the first time and you introduce yourself only to hear that person say, “Oh, yes. I’ve heard about you. You’re a terrible public speaker.”
Sounds pretty awful, right?
(Yeah, he could use a little work)
What’s interesting to me is when I hear people undermine themselves through their story as though it were a badge of honor. (I see this most often with speaking in public, but it can happen in a lot of ways.) The most interesting moments come when a friend or colleague says something contrary like, “Don’t be ridiculous, you did a great job in the meeting yesterday.” The question then becomes whose story is correct? Which one will you believe?
Now, perhaps you aren’t a strong public speaker, or perhaps you do struggle to speak up in meetings. You might be shy or feel insecure in certain settings. All that could be true, and you still don’t need to tell that story.
Why is that?
For starters, it might not be how people perceive you. We tend to be terrible judges of what we are “good” at. We either assume a level of excellence that isn’t there or we undermine our actual abilities. Rarely do we just own what we can do or can’t do without putting it into some sort of context.
Let’s say for example that I am tall enough to dunk a basketball.
(I am not, but this is my fantasy world, so there.)
If you ask me if I can dunk a basketball, then you are asking me for information about my abilities that are limited to “can I or can’t I” without any real context.
If I hear in the question a deeper question of “are you a great basketball player?” then I might conjure up this image in my mind as comparison:
When I put your question into this deeper context, I might give an answer that is vague or unclear. For example, I might answer the question about dunking a basketball with “depends” or “sort of” because I don’t want you to think that I am comparing myself to Lebron James. Unfortunately, if you don’t know that is my comparison, then you are left to draw your own conclusions.
(Like this, for example)
Why would I automatically assume that you were asking me this bigger question?
And, why do we sometimes make simple questions so complicated?
The answer is often that we try to see ourselves through the eyes of others, which is an imperfect lens.
We think that we have a good sense of how people perceive us and how we are in the world, but the truth is that we cannot see outside ourselves. We can never know what others think about us, mostly because they are not really thinking about us at all.
Many people are in fact terrible judges of themselves in part because they only see themselves through the lens of comparison.
Which comes back to the story that we tell.
Ask yourself if you have been telling a story that puts you in a negative light either at work or in relationships. Do you share stories that illustrate your characteristics as being clownish, insecure or “less than”? Perhaps you have a story that you have to be right or that you always win? Does your general story limit your ability to grow in that organization and affect how people perceive you?
If so, then perhaps it is time to get a new story. It is not as difficult as it seems, although it will take some unwinding of habits and behaviors. If you have had the experience of having your old story told back to you in a performance review or by a friend and didn’t like hearing it repeated as though it were a foregone conclusion (“you’re just not leadership material” or “you’re just not trustworthy”), then perhaps you are ready to take some steps to make profound changes in your communication of who you are.
See the Bait: begin to notice the situations when you feel most compelled to tell your old story, especially if it is a negative one. What triggers you to tell that story and what are you hoping to get out of it? As soon as you start noticing the bait, then you can consciously resist the temptation to share something that might not be true.
Identify Co-conspiratorsand Separate: the sooner you are able to recognize the people who encourage you to minimize your abilities or who keep you down, the sooner you will be able to take your focus away from the negative story. Anyone who reinforces your feelings of inferiority is not someone you need in your life. If you are able to identify this person, stop seeking him/her out.
Tell a Different Story: this does not mean that you switch from saying that you are “terrible at public speaking” to saying that you are “awesome at public speaking,” rather it is a way to change the story to something more manageable and actionable. Try saying instead that you are “working on improving your public speaking” or that speaking up in a meeting is “challenging.” In these two small ways you are changing your story from being passive to being active. The more potential for change in your story, the easier it is for people to see your growth.
The goal is to craft a story that allows both you and others to see your own growth in a more factual way. If we continuously tell the story that we can’t change or that we are stuck in this place, then people will have no choice but to believe us.
After all, who is supposed to know your story better than you?
What do you do when you have to speak in front of a large group of people or when you are expected to present information at a high-stakes meeting?
There are three basic steps that everyone has to do in order to prepare themselves to be at their best when presenting in front of a group:
Know what you want them to hear.
Outline the “story” of your presentation.
While these three steps are crucial to present your best work, they don’t deal with the most insidious destroyer of people’s confidence and ability to connect: expectation.
What’s the problem with having expectations?
There is nothing wrong with having the expectation that you will do your best or that you will work hard. That focuses your energy on things that you can control. When you have an expectation for an outcome (like an audience’s reaction), then you are not being present in the moment. You are living in an expectation of results that you cannot actually control. This thought process brings us out of the present and into the future.
In my opinion, the most powerful speakers (and leaders) are the ones who can be fully present in front of a room.
When I have coached speakers who are preparing a TEDx talk, one of the first challenges they face is letting go of the pressure that this talk “has to be great.” While it is admirable to want to give a great speech, it is important to ask ourselves an important question:
What do we really mean when we say “great”?
Comparing it to other great speeches: Often we are comparing it to some speech we have seen or some ideal in our head. Either way, the comparison and the expectation is pointless. You can’t play to it.
For example: one of the hardest roles for an actor to play is Stanley Kowalski from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Most young male actors yearn for the opportunity to play the role, in part because it is one of Tennessee Williams’ finest plays, but mostly because this guy made it famous:
(That’s Marlon Brando making undershirts sexy since 1950.)
Any actor who takes on this role has to deal with dual expectations. First he has to deal with his own expectations on what it means to play Brando’s most iconic role, which creates a lot of pressure. Second, he has to deal with the expectation by the audience members who are often overly familiar with the Brando performance. The result is usually some form of disappointment on both sides.
This is not to say that the role could not be improved or that actors should just give up trying to play the part ever again. Not at all. Rather, the point is that if the actors performs with the expectation that he has to measure up to Brando, then he will always be caught in his shadow. When actors focus instead on the part itself, they are more likely to be present to the challenges within the part (things you can control), rather than trying to manage the perception that Brando left behind (things you can’t control).
Take TED talks for example. There are many different kinds of TED speakers who have been extremely successful. (Here‘s a list of the top 36 most viewed talks.) If you are a TED fan, you have probably watched most of them already. The thing that strikes me the most about these is not what is most similar between them, rather what is most different. Amy Cuddy is nothing like Ken Robinson or Benjamin Zander. It would be silly for them to try to be like each other. Not just silly but counter-productive. I have seen speakers try to be give a “TED talk” and what comes out is like a shiny empty shell. It ultimately reads as inauthentic.
“Don’t expect applause”
I once heard this saying a few years ago and it has had a powerful impact on me since then. What happens when our expectation of giving a “great” speech is actually an expectation that the audience will give us an ovation? Mainly that our focus becomes less about the talk and more about the outcome. Worse, it becomes entirely about how the audience receives the talk, rather than on how well we give the talk.
One could make the argument that a great speech will get great applause, and that is mostly true. However, there is a distinct difference between speaking from a canned, performative place (one in which is trying to engender a response from the audience) and speaking from the heart. Communication that comes from the heart and is genuine will usually outweigh the slickest of performances.
There is an added benefit as well to giving up the expectation of applause and that is the lowering of anxiety.
Anxiety: This can be a useful tool when we are preparing a major project or speech. It helps us to focus, it motivates us to work hard and it keeps us aware of things that might go wrong. It is not, however, helpful when it is applied to things we cannot control.
And we cannot control an audience’s response.
You may remember me saying in my last post that a helpful tip is to believe that the audience loves you already. This is still true, but it isn’t helpful to have the expectation that they will love you more after they hear this speech. That only creates added pressure.
The only way to build our confidence with our communication skills (and to gradually project more confidence) is to focus our energies on the process and on engaging the audience in the present. We can certainly use the feedback that we get from an audience in real time, but we are better off not getting attached to what that feedback should look like.
And if you are thinking that a good trick would be to just assume a negative reaction, you would be wrong. When we do that we tend to flatten our voices and present in a “hurt” or “damaged” tone of voice (much like Eeyore).
(Remember, nobody really listens to Eeyore.)
The best practice is to focus entirely on what we want people to hear instead of what you hope they will do. Picture the impact that you want and build your communication backward from that. While it may sound like a lot right now, it will get easier the more you do it.
It is also important to become more aware of how you feel about your message and about your audience. If you have high expectations that your audience will applaud your message, then you may be communicating either a kind of arrogance or neediness. Remember that the goal is to make your message clean, without any hooks or snags to get in the way of what you want them to hear.
The more we work on clarifying and refining our story, and the less of an expectation we have on the outcome, the more of an impact we can have on our audience.
Clear the noise, lead authentically. Our goal is to help individuals and organizations to have clarity with their message, be more genuine while communicating that message and in turn become powerfully resonant leaders in their field.