Become a more inspirational and resonant leader by fully aligning who you are with how you communicate.

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Also known as the place I write words.

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:

  1. Know what you want them to hear.
  2. Outline the “story” of your presentation.
  3. Practice.

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:

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(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.

What is it about movie stars and famous people that allows them to command a room with so little effort?

What can we learn from them about projecting confidence and commanding attention?

For example, what does Scarlett Johansson have that other people don’t have?

(Okay, maybe she is a bad example.)

How about someone a little less gorgeous:

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(yeah, that will do.)

While Paul Giamatti is not going to light up a room with his good looks, he does command a lot of attention on the screen. While he is definitely a strong character actor who is committed to his craft, he is also able to hold our attention for sustained periods of time. His intensity is mesmerizing. How is he able to do that?

Politicians are also this way, and the more successful of them are pretty much considered celebrities when they move through a crowd.

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Bill Clinton is a good example because he is often held up as this iconic model for all wannabe celebrity politicians. We have to remember that he once looked like this:

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(Nice turtleneck)

The assumption that we often make is that people are either born with presence or they are not. Remember, we don’t usually get to see people in their ugly duckling stages. Rather we experience them in all their fully-grown celebrity-ness. While I think that it may be true that some people do develop a natural ease in the way they communicate, it is not true that only those people are able to project confidence. A confident presence is something that can be learned (as Amy Cuddy writes about in her new book).

So what is different about politicians, CEOs and celebrities who have learned to walk into a room and command attention?

(Just like this)

Here are a few things that will help anyone have more presence and project confidence, regardless of the situation or the setting:

  1. Believe that everyone here loves you. While this may sound silly, it is probably one of the most powerful reasons why some people are able to resonate confidence in any situation. Famous people are told all the time that people love them, so they don’t have to work so hard to believe it. If you aren’t sure what I mean, just imagine how you feel when you think that people love you  versus how you feel when you think that people hate you If you can tell yourself that everyone in the room loves you (even if you have to lie), then you will go a long way to making yourself look and feel more comfortable.
  2. Act like you belong. If you look at people who command a room, they always seem so comfortable in their space. For some people this might just be how they feel, but I can speak from experience that it doesn’t have to be that way. A big part of acting is about learning to be present and ignore the self doubt. Think of how you enter a room. Do you poke your head in first to see if you recognize anyone or do you stride in confidently, expecting to see someone who will recognize you? The fact is that the way you enter a room can dictate both how you feel about yourself in that space and how the people in the room perceive you.
  3. Be a professional. If you had a chance to watch Beyoncé’s dance at the Superbowl halftime show, then you may have seen her fall down at one point: Or maybe you didn’t see it because she just kept on moving. In the world of performing, the ability to deal with challenges on stage without letting it affect your performance is considered “being a professional.” Almost anyone can do a good job when everything is going right, but it requires something special to be able to stay present and confident in the face of uncertainty. It is common to walk into a meeting or into an event feeling like you are trying not to make a mistake or get noticed. Movie stars just assume that they will get noticed. Some of them are even a little clumsy and still seem to make it work. The key is to keep going and not make a huge story out of it. If you make a mistake, just be professional.

Finally, the key to having more presence is to understand that you are no different from anyone else. Movie stars and famous people are buoyed up by the attention they get, so we don’t always see their humanity (their fear of rejection and insecurity), but it is there.

Choose someone you admire, someone who is everything that you wish you were.

Picture that person in your mind and pretend for a moment that you are her.

How does that person carry herself?

How does she take up space?

Where does she look when walking into a room?

How do you imagine that this person feels while entering a room?

Pay attention to how you feel when you imagine that you are this person and allow that feeling to spread to your body. The effect will be that you will seem more confident. Your presence will grow.

The only thing that you have to lose is a low self-esteem.

I had been thinking recently about the difference between “Haters” and “Critics,” and I decided to write a little about how I define them and why. While I think that most critics will blur the lines (think pundits on television shows and some bloggers), the difference is important to the rest of us who are trying to make things happen and get better at what we do.

Let’s begin by looking at what we usually mean when we say “haters.”

Most of the time haters are people who are eager to put us down, tell us that we can’t do something or that we shouldn’t do something. They are the ones who are getting together to throw a big parade to celebrate if we fail. If you work in a big organization or work in the public sector, you might know a few of these people:

(Trolls. They are often referred to as trolls.)

They are the people who imitate the Middle School behavior of pointing to something that you are doing or something intrinsically about you and make fun of it.

The point of the laughter is to make themselves feel bigger by making someone else feel smaller. Haters by nature want you to fail so that they can feel better with their lot in life. (I’ve never seen a genuinely happy person tear another person down just for the fun of it.) The trouble with haters is that sometimes they might point to something true.

(Oh really? I missed that field goal? Thanks.)

Their derision can seem like valid criticism or like they are making a constructive point, but they are not. The only goal is to make you feel small. Any attempts to integrate their feedback will only result in low self-esteem or impotent anger.

Critics are another story altogether. While we tend to conflate them with haters, their role is decidedly different (at least in the ideal).

In the movie “Chef,” Jon Favreau plays a chef who gets a terrible review from one of the top food critics in the country. The critic accuses him of getting stale with his menu, losing his creativity and just becoming another bad celebrity chef. The main character loses his mind over the review, attacks him on Twitter and then publicly embarrasses himself in the restaurant and online. He also loses his job.

His anger toward the critic (played wonderfully by Oliver Platt) is understandable because he has called him out as being mediocre. This movie then becomes about redemption and how the chef finds his way back to his integrity and his love of cooking. The critic in the end becomes a kind of hero for the chef, rejoicing in his success and his come back. (Uh, spoiler alert?)

Ideally the critic wants the artist to be the best that she can be so that the art is the best that it can be. This is why we need to take the time to listen to the critiques (the ones who are not confusing hating with critiquing), no matter how painful it might be.

Perhaps you have a few critics in your work? You might have a boss who gives you a lot of feedback about your performance that you don’t like to hear. Never mind just your hurt feelings, it’s the injustice of how this critic only focuses on your negatives without looking at your positives. We can all understand how much of a bummer that can be.

Turnaround:

No matter how painful it may feel, take the time to look at the criticism objectively. If it doesn’t align with how you see yourself, play a game that allows you to be open to the criticism.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Is the person giving the feedback someone I respect? Do I think that they care about the quality of the work?
  2. Is the criticism about me or is it about them? (Examples of it being about them: “I never should have trusted you with this account” or “I wouldn’t have done it that way.”)
  3. Is it true? If so, is it actionable?

This last one is the most important in my mind. Actors get feedback all the time about how they are being on stage or how they should be on stage. Sometimes they joke that the feedback amounts to “you should be taller,” which could be both true and not actionable. Actors have to trust themselves and know their limitations if they are going to utilize criticism to the fullest extent. The best feedback (and the bravest) is when a director calls you out for “not being brave enough” on stage. That stings, but it is also often true and actionable.

If we can tell the difference between the haters and the critics in our life, then we can begin to improve our performance in many ways. The only reason to listen to feedback is because we want to fulfill our full potential in something. We can’t do that if we are only looking for appreciation and we can’t do that if we turn our attention to trying to accommodate the haters. We have to be open without being a doormat.

If you desire to improve and grow as an artist and a worker, then it is important that you find the kind of critics who are brave enough to give you the feedback to make you better.

Ignore the haters and seek out your critics to reach your full potential.

If you are not from New England and you are even a mild football fan, my guess is you probably hate Tom Brady.

(I can’t imagine why)

And if you are even a mild sports fan, you probably know of and respect Peyton Manning:

(and with one gif, the myth that white people can’t dance is destroyed)

This blog post is a look at how their styles of communicating affect the way that the public (and the media) perceive their intentions and their trustworthiness.

Here in New England we are pretty sensitive about the whole Brady versus Manning story, especially when it comes to how the two are perceived by the national media (specifically ESPN).

If you have followed even a little bit of football in the past year, you may have heard about a controversy regarding deflated New England Patriot footballs called (wait for it) “deflategate.” It dominated the news and television throughout 2015 and even made one former NFL quarterback cry on national television because of the harm Tom Brady was doing the sport by “lying” to the public. The commissioner of the NFL even compared the deflated footballs to using steroids, thereby justifying the punishment of a four game suspension. (If you want a full breakdown on the silliness, click here.)

Meanwhile New England sports fans went bananas the past few weeks when Peyton Manning was mentioned in an Al Jazeera America story that he was among a number of NFL and baseball players to have taken Human Growth Hormone (which is to athletes what spinach is to Popeye). What made the fans lose their minds is that the national media was pretty quick to give Peyton Manning the benefit of the doubt when the accusations started to fly.

So to recap:

 

 

To be clear, I don’t care which side of the argument you come out on, what I’m interested in is why the difference in perception. As Chad Finn (Boston sports writer) writes in his column, there is a cognitive dissonance for Patriot fans that Peyton Manning (number one in the draft and part of football royalty) gets to be considered a trustworthy “every-man” while Tom Brady (drafted 199th and never was a starter in college) gets considered to be the “golden boy.”

And here we come to their communication styles.

Tom Brady is notoriously competitive. He models his press conferences after his coach:

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(okay, maybe with less surliness)

His objective when he talks to the press is to give nothing away and stay focused on winning. Winning is all that he wants and it has kept him motivated and at the top of his game despite being on the wrong side of 35.

He openly works the refs during games, screams at his players when they mess up and can be seen sulking even when his team is up, if he doesn’t think they are playing as well as they could.

In short, Tom Brady commits the sin of naked ambition, which is something that people in general are very uncomfortable being around. It’s why we secretly hate the lab partner in school who complains openly that his 91% on the test will bring down his average, or how we feel about politicians who seem to want to be President more than anything in the world.

Fact is that we have trouble with “strivers” or people who display their need for success so clearly. While we may champion their success, we typically can’t wait for them to fail.

On the other hand, people love to see their athletes, politicians and leaders be humble and have a sense of humor about themselves:

Yes, they need to be successful and yes they should work hard and try to win, but don’t embarrass us by wanting us to see how hard you work!

My hypothesis is that this is why people who are born into privilege are often seen as leaders, regardless of their experience, education or capabilities. They feel like they belong, always.

George W. Bush was often mocked for being under-informed on the issues (he famously said that he doesn’t read any newspapers. Even if that is true, you probably shouldn’t admit it), but he was masterful at working the crowd and making others feel at ease. He gave nicknames to reporters and joked with them in a way that made him seem likable and friendly. He did not seem like the guy who wanted the “A” more than having a good time with friends.

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(Unlike the guy on the left)

In summary, what we can learn from the comparison between Brady and Manning, as well as from the general public perception of them (outside of New England) is that naked ambition can interfere with how you are perceived. The more apparent your need to be seen as a winner is to others, the less likable, trustworthy and relatable you are to others.

In no way does this mean you should swallow, dampen or lose that ambition. Just know how it can impact you. If you have an awareness of your ambition, then you will also have an awareness of your inner fear that you might not get what you most desire. The secret is in wanting to be successful while also having joy in who you are and what you do. You can be authentic and ambitious and loved.

This was the secret to Larry Bird, an athlete who was visibly ambitious and who also didn’t grow up in privilege. He learned how to show his joy while also wanting nothing less than a championship. His press conferences were always awkward, but they were also authentic. You never got the impression that he was trying to make you think something about him. He just was.

Maybe in the end, that is what trips up someone like Tom Brady. We see him trying so hard to be perceived as a sports icon and a winner, that when he trips up or when a scandal (no matter how silly) comes his way, we want it to stick. The same can be said for certain politicians, leaders and celebrities.

Let go of the need to be seen as a winner and just be a winner. The perceptions will take care of themselves.

This is a clip from this summer’s Spielberg movie, “Bridge of Spies.” If you haven’t seen the movie, the clip takes place during the trial of a Russian spy Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) and captures his conversation with his attorney James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks).

In it James Donovan asks Rudolf if he ever worries about anything.

His response: “Would it help?”

Worrying is one of the biggest gremlins when it comes to communication. It is the demon that creeps into our minds, telling us that we are going to make a mistake, slip up, and embarrass ourselves. The higher the stakes, the more worried we become. The more worried we become, the more afraid we are of making a mistake and being “found out.”

The fear that we are going to make a mistake and the thinking about how we don’t want to make that mistake actually causes our brains to go into a kind of paralysis. Even the simplest of questions can trip up an expert when he/she has allowed fear to take over.

In his book Stress Test, Timothy Geithner describes his first speech as Treasury Secretary as being “an unhappy passenger on an unsteady ship.”  His lack of experience with public speaking not-withstanding, he articulates a common experience for people who have a fear of speaking in front of crowds:

“Ever since high school, I had dreaded public speaking. . . . I swayed back and forth, like an unhappy passenger on an unsteady ship. I kept peering around the teleprompter to look directly at the audience, which apparently made me look shifty; one commentator said I looked like a shoplifter. My voice wavered. I tried to sound forceful, but I just sounded like someone trying to sound forceful.” – Timothy Geithner, Stress Test

This sounding like someone “trying to sound forceful” and looking “shifty” is what happens to us when we allow our worry to overtake us and infect our thoughts. It is what golfers mean when they talk about the “yips” or what happens to baseball players like Chuck Knoblauch when they suddenly can’t throw to first base.

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(This ball ended up in Hawaii)

This comes up in acting as well since it involves a combination of memorization, motor-coordination and collaboration with others. Actors talk about “going up” on their lines, which means forgetting them, in front of a live audience and all of their fellow actors.

(It’s a terrifying feeling)

Okay, so what can we do about it?

My first suggestion is for you to look at the amount of worrying that you are doing in your head. Worry is an important process as it can sometimes prevent terrible things from happening:

(Like, maybe I should be a little worried about putting my hand in this shark’s mouth…)

Then there is the type of worrying that we do which gives us the impression we have control over outcomes. When we put worry into things that are out of our control, then we set ourselves up for panic and paralysis.

Just in case you are unsure of what the difference is between things you can control and things that you can’t, I have made a list.

Things that are not within your control:

  • Other people (including what they think, do, say or how they react)
  • The weather
  • Laws of physics
  • Your family (same principle as “other people,” but I felt like it needed its own section)
  • Your boss (see “other people”)
  • Other governments
  • Other businesses that are not your own
  • Wild animals (and even some domestic animals)
  • Your spouse/partner (see “your family”)
  • Thoughts/feelings

What you can control:

  • Your behavior and your reactions to your thoughts.

At times it feels like most communication advice centers around how to make people think, feel and behave a certain way. Marketing has evolved to the point where we believe that we should be able to manipulate people into feeling and thinking almost anything, but that isn’t how it works in normal communication  (unless you want to leave people feeling used and manipulated).

While worrying might feel as though it were productive, it often serves to undermine our confidence and our spontaneity. If you want to convey confidence and a sense of presence when speaking in front of a group, prepare yourself emotionally as well as mentally by following these steps.

  1. Know your material. Actors talk about having the lines “in their bones” which is just a way of saying that the material is not only memorized, but integrated. It doesn’t mean that you have to know the answer to every question, but it does draw on the correlation between understanding the subject matter and self-confidence.
  2. Drop the perfectionism. The goal of being perfect is what is going to cause you the most worry. Why? Because you have no control over the process of communication. It isn’t like measuring a piece of wood or drawing a straight line. There is no such thing as a “perfect conversation,” rather there is a flow and give and take that we are seeking. Much like surfing a wave.  (Or so I’m told)          
  3. Imagine the audience filled with people who love you. Seriously. When we focus our attention on the negative, we find plenty of evidence to support our worried brain. There will be one person in the audience who is rolling his/her eyes or who looks bored. Don’t focus on that person. Pay attention to the people who are engaged. If you can’t find them, imagine that they exist. The less time you spend looking for the negative and the more time you spend believing that the audience is there to support you, the less the worry can eat at your confidence.

When you feel the pull of anxiety and worry, ask yourself “is this helping me move forward or holding me back?”

Worry that focuses on outcomes rather than on preparation is never going to be helpful because outcomes are rarely under your control.

“All you can do is everything that you can do.” – Someone wiser than me.

Have you ever been in a situation where you are trying to communicate something important to another person, only to find that the more you talk the less they understand?

If your answer is “no” then I’m going to assume that you have never tried to teach a teenager how to drive a car.

No matter how critical or clear you are in your advice/instruction, the driver will have a difficult time hearing it if she/he is not in a good place. Perhaps this is an obvious observation to make. It follows that when we are in times of stress, information is difficult to hear. Brain science has proven that when our nervous system is triggered into a flight or fight reaction, we can’t think clearly.

The emotional centers of our brain (the primal, animalistic part) flood our brain with hormones that essentially shut down our ability to use our pre-frontal cortex (the problem-solver part).

“Okay, that’s great about panic, but what does it have to do with regular communication?” –says the interior audience-voice in my head.

So glad that you asked. Space is something that all animals need and that we (as animals) secretly desire from one another.

(Okay, maybe not this kind of space)

What I mean when I say “space” is the feeling that there is plenty of room to move and to think.

Think of what it feels like on a cloudy or particularly windy day (this image will work better for those people who are more environmentally sensitive). If you have ever experienced an overcast day that suddenly and unexpectedly opens up to sunshine and blue sky, then you have a sense of what a relief space can give. The same is true for windy days. The feeling we get when we turn a corner and get a break from the constant blowing makes us realize how harried we were a second ago. The relief is palpable.

We can give people the same feeling in meetings and in presentations when we take the time to be more methodical and even-paced in our delivery. Often people think that by speaking quickly they will get more across (especially if they are super smart), but the opposite is actually true. The faster they speak, the more likely people will tune them out.

This isn’t about speaking slowly because people are stupid:

The reason is because it gives people a chance to absorb and settle in to what you are saying. The more they trust you (and themselves with you), the less you will have to say to one another in order to convey the intention.

This idea is essentially the premise behind a horse-whisperer. The power of that kind of training is that it involves treating space as a reward for animals, giving them a chance to feel more comfortable with the trainer and allow for a slow closing of the space between them. The same can be done for conversations.

Here are a few basic things that you can start doing right away to gain more trust and be clearer in meetings.

  1. Speak in an even cadence. What this means is that you try to imagine that you are speaking in a 4/4 time rhythm. It is fast enough to keep everyone interested, but not so fast that people get lost. Kind of like the waltz of communication versus a Miles Davis experimental jazz. If you feel that you are rushing, just slow down the cadence without drawling your words. You will notice a difference in your audience.
  2. Open up your body. While it may seem silly, the more closed your body is, the less space there is in the room for your audience. If you want your audience to feel open and spacious (and you do), then you will need to take on a physical presence that reflects that openness.
  3. Meet them where they are. The biggest mistake I have seen people make in meetings and in communication in general is that they tend to make leaps and assumptions about the audience’s understanding or level of interest that are either wishful thinking or flat-out wrong. This is a “feel” part of the work, but basically it follows a lot of the same elements in the horse-whispering world. If the people in the room seem to be retreating (i.e. checking out or getting frustrated), then you need to back up and reset. You can’t force them to get where you want them to go, rather you have to coax them to the place by meeting them exactly where they are.

(You know what I’m talking about)

The result will be greater presence, more trust and a greater likelihood that you will effectively communicate what you want them to hear.

The challenge will be in cultivating your patience and trusting in your audience. Remember, just like teaching a teenager to drive, you aren’t able to control the wheel at all times and the goal is to instill confidence and a clear sense of what you want them to do. The more spaciousness you can give to them in that moment, the more successful they will be in the long run.

 

Have you ever felt shy? Have you ever felt like you wanted to crawl into a ball and shrink from the crowd in front of you? Have you ever felt that you weren’t up to the task at hand? If so, then you are not alone.

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There is an important moment in The Odyssey where Odysseus’ twenty-year-old son Telemachus has to speak to a king of another island for the first time. He complains to the goddess Athena that he feels like he can’t go through with it and that he will make a terrible fool of himself.

Athena’s response to his complaint is profound:

“Telemachus, no more shyness, this is not the time!

…some of the words you’ll find within yourself,

the rest some power will inspire you to say”

(The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles, Book III. lines 16, 29-30)

The message is essentially “Get over yourself and trust yourself. It will be okay.”

(If you want more of a synopsis, check out the summary here.)

This quote from Andrew Dubus III is another important (but challenging) balance to this.

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 In my experience, shyness comes from two powerful beliefs.

  1. That I have nothing of value to offer.
  2. That people actually think more about me than they do about themselves.

Both beliefs are misguided and delusional, while also being powerful and seductive.

If we understand that shyness comes from these two beliefs (feeling unworthy and a lack of perspective), then we can begin to do the real work.

So before we do anything more, let’s acknowledge one major fact of life:

Everyone has value.

No exceptions.

If your immediate response to this statement is that some people are better than others at doing things, then you are confusing value with talent. Everyone brings value. Not everyone has talent:

(Yeesh! That’s why you wear a helmet)

This is the premise of improvisational technique in theater and why authenticity is so important to leadership and communication. At the end of the day, trusting your own value will communicate confidence, presence and calm, while doubting that value will create dissonance, anxiety and uncertainty.

If you are a particularly shy person (I am, even though I have been an actor on stage and given talks to large groups of people) then you might be able to use some of these tips for overcoming that shyness and making stronger connections.

  1. Act like you belong. Scott Adams (the cartoonist who draws Dilbert) writes in his book How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big that the most important key to overcoming his own shyness was to pretend to be someone who was confident. Think of someone you think of as being confident, preferably someone you admire. US-Beyonce-1_067and pretend that you are that person at the party or event. How would that person feel in that moment? How would she/he act and see herself/himself there? Imagine for a minute that everyone at that event loves you, they just don’t know it yet. This thinking will radically change the way that you approach social settings.
  2. Ask questions and be interested. The biggest mistake that many shy people make is that they believe they have to be interesting in order to keep people interested. You don’t. While it is nice to share an exciting or wonderful new story with a group, it is much more valuable to people if you can relate or connect with them. To be interesting you only need to be interested. If you aren’t sure what to talk about, ask questions. Be curious. Fact is that most people are fascinating if you give them half a chance. And they will be so grateful for the opportunity to talk about something other than their job or politics. Active listening is the secret weapon of shy people everywhere.
  3. Learn to tell your story. Scott Adams also talks about this in his book, and storytelling is one of the oldest and most important ways to connect and to communicate. Storytelling is a skill that can be learned and mastered, but you need to understand the spine of it. If you want to tell a story about how you got engaged, how you moved to your house or how you got your job, you need to set up the story. Here is a good TED talk about the elements of story and how it works. The important element is that you are succinct, that the conflict is clear and the resolution is something people understand (needs to make sense). Practice telling the arc of your story and you won’t feel so self-conscious when you are asked questions about your life.
  4. Know that you’re not alone. Walk into a crowded room full of people and you might feel awkward and self-conscious. You might become overly self-conscious and believe that everything you say and do is being scrutinized, judged and found unworthy. Welcome to the rest of humanity.

(Speaking of awkward)

Pretty much everyone feels awkward all the time. The difference is in how good they are at acting like they belong. You can act like someone who feels comfortable even if you don’t feel comfortable. You may feel like an impostor, but to the rest of the world you look like this:

(More or less)

In all seriousness, when we project calm and confident behavior, we can both resonate a calm presence and (this is the key bonus) ultimately feel more confident in the end. Act calm and people will project confidence on you. Project all that anxiety you feel internally and you will only get that anxiety reflected back at you. The most important fact for any shy person is that no one can see how you feel.

If you can have the courage to step through your fear and trust that you are enough and that you belong, then the world becomes a bigger and more welcoming place for you. If you are a leader, your ability to persuade, connect and inspire will be increased. You will begin to feel more confident, learn new things about people and grow into the person you are meant to be.

Just like Telemachus in The Odyssey, you will begin to trust the voice within you and only good things will come from that.

What can we learn from the recent Volkswagen public relations disaster and how can it shape they way we motivate our employees?

I recommend that you read this article in the NYT if you haven’t had a chance to get the full picture of what happened.

The summary is that Volkswagen, in an attempt to attract the fuel-efficiency/hybrid market, rigged their diesel cars to fake low-emissions testing while still spewing tons of contaminants into the air. Basically, they cheated the system.

All of this can be tracked back in some ways to the CEO’s challenge to the whole organization to top 10 million car sales by 2018 and be the number one car manufacturer in the world. And they succeeded well ahead of their goals. They topped 10 million cars by 2015 and were number one…for about a minute.

(Whoops)

Ambition can be a complicated and powerful motivator and one that can lead organizations and people down some fairly dark paths.

Shakespeare even wrote a play about this once:

5A_macbeth-1948-2

(Macbeth. The play is Macbeth.)

In this play a Scottish lord (Macbeth) chooses to kill the king while he is sleeping in his castle so as to usurp the crown and live out the destiny promised him by three lying witches. In an attempt to keep the crown, he makes a series of decisions that go from evil to crazy and that leave him without anyone to support him. (Spoiler alert: He dies. Everyone dies. Here is the plot summary for those who don’t remember 10th grade English class.)

While we can all feel a little superior when someone who has a huge ego gets his/her comeuppance

(Still waiting on this guy)

the key to the play Macbeth is that the tragic character was actually a noble and successful warrior for the king. The reason the king is at his house is to celebrate their recent victory over an enemy of the crown.  The genius of the play (especially for the modern world) is that it works off of the aspirational dream: “why not me?” We can relate to Macbeth’s audacity to dream of being king, just as we can (and did) applaud Volkswagen’s desire to be number one.

The problem is with how you go about it.

Why is this so much more of a news story? What makes Volkswagen’s cheating any different than the many other companies who get caught cheating the system?

Maybe it is because Volkswagen owners, especially those who owned a TDI, feel like they are jilted lovers. They feel betrayed.

I owned a Jetta TDI Sportswagen for a few years and loved it. It was a great car to drive; it was versatile and got excellent gas mileage. I eventually traded it in because I wanted a car that was more suitable for Maine winters:

(Dramatic recreation)

Fact is that I, much like many of the other owners of TDI cars, loved my vehicle and felt a kind of pride over it. We trusted Volkswagen and the promise that it made of lower emissions, better gas mileage and impressive performance. Who cares if the technology didn’t make sense? Volkswagen is magical. “Fahrvergnugen!”

Now that trust is gone. While Volkswagen will most likely be able to pull themselves out of this, the question will remain what the impact will be on their brand.

When Toyota had their credibility taken away a few years ago because of their braking and gas pedal issues, their brand took a hit. That company decided to put its head down and humbly go back to making very reliable cars and stop chasing the headlines. Will Volkswagen be able to do that? Time will tell.

The lesson, however, that the rest of us can take from this is important. How well we understand our brand and our value ought to dictate how we approach ambition. If our brand is integrity and we have to sacrifice it in order to be king, then maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when that comes back to haunt us.

When you set ambitious goals for your organization and your team consists of exceptionally competitive people, make sure that you are clear about protecting the integrity of your brand. You can’t just give them the goal of being number one. The smartest people in the room are not always the most ethical, which can lead to some pretty bad outcomes.

lehman-brothers-sign-007

When good companies try to manipulate the game, they tend to lose the thing that made them loved and successful in the first place.

Aiming for great heights and pushing your organization to be exceptional are good things. We just need to know what we are not willing to sacrifice and what is at stake. There are lots of stories about companies that eschewed integrity for the quick win:

enron

Those that trade their brand (or their essence) for some cheap success are likely to be punished for it in the long run.

This rule does not apply to all organizations. Those that the public already deems “necessary evils” can’t have their reputation dinged too badly by cheating or breaking the law. Time Warner Cable or Comcast will not suffer from a story that they cheated customers out of millions (difficult to be hated more than those two). Nor is it all that surprising that GM might be embroiled in a scandal given their struggles with communication and integrity since the 1960s (didn’t we go through this already with Ralph Nader?).

If your organization is known as a company that can be trusted, be careful how you choose to motivate your employees and leadership teams if you want to keep that reputation intact. Be clear about who they are and what winning should look like.

John Wooden won 10 national NCAA basketball titles with UCLA in a 12 year period. He is thought to be one of the greatest coaches of all time. He was also a deeply spiritual man who imbued in his players a sense of self-respect and respect for playing the game right. His teams dominated and his players loved him.

You can be ambitious and successful without losing the very essence of what makes you special. You just have to know what that thing is, believe in it and be able to communicate it to others.

Seth

Every time I fly, I am struck by these instructions:

oxygen-mask

(is it me or does that child look like Sean Astin?)

This idea that we can’t help anyone if we can’t breathe ourselves is both true and completely counter to how we often behave.

Which brings me to my question.

How is your oxygen?

When you go through your day, helping those around you, trying to connect the dots and solve problems, are you breathing? Or are you holding your breath? Most leaders hold in their breath as they try to push their way through one crisis to another because their needs always seem less important than the needs of others.

If your job is to motivate, inspire and lead a group of people, and if you are trying to persuade those above you to follow a certain new or braver tack in your business, check in with yourself if you have enough oxygen. Most people who find themselves in these situations have little awareness of how they are breathing and most are either holding their breath (more often) or are breathless:

(I just had to get John Ritter in there somehow)

The key is to understand that when it comes to successful communication and persuasive speaking, one has to have enough oxygen in his/her body to calm the emotions, relax the throat and increase the resonance. All of these things will increase your presence, help those around you to calm down and actually hear what you have to say.

When we hold our breath (especially when we do it unconsciously) we create a tension in the room that can radiate a dissonance or mistrust among those we are trying to reach.

holding-breath-22222222222

It has the impact of communicating anxiety and lack of confidence, even if we feel like we are very confident in what we are doing. It also has the impact of limiting our ability to think clearly. We know that breathing is capable of reducing stress, but it is also capable of calming our emotions.

You don’t, however, need to be a yogi to get the benefit of deep breathing. You just need to put in the practice of doing it in order to reap the benefit.

The more space you make for oxygen, the more space there is in the room. The more space in the room, the calmer and more open people tend to feel.

leia_trash_compactor

(Otherwise the conversation feels like this)

How do you breathe more deeply?

You might want to lie down on your back for this, as it could make you feel lightheaded at first.

  1. Take a deep breath into your belly. Try to imagine your breath going into your thighs and filling your hips and your legs. The deeper you can drive the in-breath, the greater the oxygenation of the blood.
  2. Imagine yourself expanding with each breath, getting bigger and more in focus, like a balloon filling with air.
  3. Relax your shoulders and your neck (you could have your head on a small pillow) and allow your body to relax into the floor.

This may sound like it doubles as a relaxation exercise:

(That’s because it is a relaxation exercise)

The obstacle to breathing more deeply is often tension and stress related. We allow our diaphragms to get stuck in a contracted position (defensive), which causes us to feel a higher level of stress, which then resonates that stress outwards when we speak.

Breathing or oxygenating your body can have the impact of releasing stress, relaxing your vocal chords and making you come across as more confident and relaxed.

The more space you have within you (i.e. breath) the more space people feel when you speak.

outer space stars galaxies nasa 1916x1079 wallpaper_www.wallpaperhi.com_2

(well, maybe not that much space)

If you are leader of an organization, a team or even someone trying to facilitate a small discussion, your willingness to take the time to create the space within (getting oxygen in your blood and your lungs), will profoundly impact how people perceive you and how they feel about your presence.

But don’t just take my word for it. Try it yourself. Before going into a difficult conversation or trying to give a challenging talk, take the time to breathe deeply and soften your body. You may be surprised how powerful your voice is and how impactful your presence can be.

Seth

“Be here now.”

A friend who recently passed away from cancer used to say this to me whenever he saw me. It wasn’t a command for me, so much as it was advice he used to give himself whenever he felt overwhelmed by life.

The result was that he was rarely overwhelmed by life, even as the cancer began to get the better of him. He did his best to stay present and connected to those around him. He will be sorely missed.

I want to honor his life by passing along something that I learned from him about communication.

Want to get better at presenting material in a way that is both understandable and interesting to an audience?

Want to improve your ability to be persuasive, trustworthy and credible?

Want to keep yourself from being overwhelmed by situations, people and places?

Start with this mantra and work from there.

The biggest obstacle to being able to connect with an audience or a client is that people are often thinking about either what they are going to say or what they already said. In other words, they are living that moment in the past or in the future.

(okay, maybe not that far in the future…)

I have had clients and friends ask me what it takes to get better at public speaking, interviews or running a meeting. While there are many important skills that people can learn about speaking to a crowd and communicating clearly, most people are already familiar with them:

  1. Practice, practice, practice.
  2. Organize your thoughts into a story.
  3. Fill the room with your voice and your presence (especially if you are on a stage).
  4. Speak at a slow and even pace.
  5. Keep the language simple (no jargon).
  6. Use your tone to indicate what is most important for the listener.

And while these are certainly helpful and important to being a more successful communicator, they are nothing without your presence.

(This is a typical audience response)

The fact is that what people most want from each other is their full, undivided attention.

heaven+scent+3

(Okay, maybe not that much attention)

It is remarkable how rarely we actually experience being in a room with someone who is giving us their full attention and who is present while they are talking or while they are listening. Most of us are in the habit of watching ourselves talk, completely disconnected from our audience.

The result is that our words fall flat and come across empty to the listener. No matter how hard we practice, our ability to communicate will never dramatically improve because we will be focusing more on the performance of what we are saying and less on the connection we are building.

Sound a little too much like “Mr. Rogers”?

mr_rogers_thumb

Okay, maybe. Fred Rogers built his television show on the premise that children just want someone who will speak to them like real people. He believed that a television show that showcased a gentle man talking directly to the camera and being present for a full conversation was valuable to a young generation.

And he was right. We can’t begin to understand the impact that being fully present can have on other people, because we are so busy as a culture wondering how to get other people to pay attention to us. So, here is an experiment that you can do in your spare time.

The next time that you are in a conversation with someone, regardless of what’s at stake (even if it is a cocktail party), tell yourself “be here now.”

Every time you feel yourself drifting away, thinking about the future or the past or trying to imagine what the other person is thinking of you, remind yourself, “be here now.”

You may have to bring yourself back to the present fifty times in one five minute conversation. It doesn’t matter. Just bring yourself back as gently and as firmly as possible.

Pay attention to not only what you are saying, but also why you are saying it. Pay attention to how you are standing, where you are looking and what you are feeling.

Look at the person across from you and see them, really see them. Are they nervous? Are they tired, sad or happy? Watch how the words that you say land on their face and notice when they are drifting away or are eager to talk.

Focus on the connection between you in that moment.

If you do all of that (even if it is only for a few minutes), you may experience something new.

  1. The other person may be very grateful for the attention you have paid him/her.
  2. You will feel less anxious about yourself, less self-conscious.
  3. Conversation will feel less like a battle with winners and losers and more like a dance.

If you can do this multiple times throughout the day, you will begin to notice that people tell you more, they trust you more and they want to be around you more.

Because all we want from other people is their full selves, everything else can be put into an email.

Try this experiment when you have the chance and let me know how it goes for you and what obstacles you encounter. Being here now is not easy, but the payoff is better communication and the ability to connect regardless of the situation or place.

 

I’m not sure what comes up for you when you hear the words “take a chance” but I can imagine that it is something that you have been wanting, meaning and hoping to one day do with your life.

Maybe it is something concrete like learning a new language, writing that book or hiking a mountain.

Everest-closeup

(You know, just any mountain…)

Most of us, however, are haunted by something less concrete and more fundamental to our core. The “chance” that we need to take, the big risk that we are avoiding is within ourselves. It is in trusting ourself and believing in the value of our own human-ness, regardless of all the warts and weaknesses. The leap that many of us are avoiding and wanting at the same time is the leap into our own authenticity.

There are so many people out there selling an idea that we can fix ourselves, as long as we push ourselves to do and be more. Selling the idea that you can fix who you are is a big business.

Tony-Robbins

(This guy has made a pretty good living)

Authenticity is even being sold as a commodity, as though it were a thing that could be consumed. We have authentic Mexican food and authentic Chinese. I even once owned a pair of jeans that proudly stated that they were “authentically stitched.”

Blackpaper4_web_thumb-475x282

(So I’m told.)

So what do I mean when I say “take a chance” as it applies to our authentic selves?

At the core it is about taking the risk to stop trying to be something that you think people want you to be.

It is about letting go of the belief (and it is a kind of fanatical belief) that there is a “perfect” you out there, if only you could learn how to juggle chainsaws or write a best-selling novel.

(Although the flames add a certain special touch…)

The risk is in trusting that who you are is enough. All people really want from any of us is our true selves. That is the greatest value we have to offer this life.

Now, that’s a risk.

As I have written before, nobody really cares where you went to school or how many push ups you can do. (#nobodycares) While those things can grab a person’s attention at first and maybe it opens some doors to new opportunities, it doesn’t, however, make you a better person. It doesn’t make you any more you.

When people ask “what do I have to do to be more authentic?” my first suggestion is to stop thinking that authenticity is a thing you have to achieve. When we operate from the premise that there is something wrong with us, we are inherently going to communicate inauthentically.

Think for a moment, what you would do or say if you believed in your core that what you had to do or say was of value, regardless of what others might think? What would communication look and sound like if we all just dropped the pretenses, the defenses and the stories?

A couple of years ago I was working with an acting coach at Shakespeare and Co in Lenox MA. (His name is Dennis Krausnick and he is one of the founders of that organization and a great teacher.) We were working on a text from Richard II and after I flailed around for awhile trying to get the language exactly “right” he said something to me that has stuck ever since.

“You’re going to have to be a little braver.”

I was trying so hard to show that I belonged with these words and that I was enough for Shakespeare’s language, but the truth was that I was underselling myself. When we hide from ourselves by trying to be perfect or when we create an expectation of ourselves that insists that we need to be more, we are operating from a smaller, more frightened space.

When we take the risk of embracing our true selves, regardless of all the tics, stutters, accents and whatever else we deem “less than,” we begin to speak from a braver place and a fuller place. When we make friends with the embarrassment we might feel about our true selves, we begin to grasp a bit of that “authenticity” that everyone supposedly craves and needs.

Most importantly, we feel the freedom of trusting ourselves completely, regardless of how goofy our dance of joy might be.

Summary:

  1. Notice if you are trying to be something for others.
  2. Be a little braver: Who would you be if it were okay to just be you?
  3. Take the risk of embracing your whole self, warts and all and see what happens.

 

Summary: An apology is an important way to earn trust, show responsibility and signal understanding (as long as it isn’t an apology for who you are).

I was at a party once and found myself in a conversation (lecture more like it) with an individual who wanted to share with me his interpretations of what makes for good leadership-communication. His number one advice? Never apologize.

“Never?” I asked.

“No matter what the situation.”

Wow.

(Sheesh. Even O’Reilly will sort-of apologize sometimes)

Okay. First of all, I disagree with this advice. However, let’s begin with a few possible reasons why anyone would think that apologizing is wrong.

1. It shows weakness.

2. Demonstrates a lack of self-control

3. It admits fault (duh)

I can understand that in an alpha-male environment apologies might be perceived as some sort of weakness, but perhaps that depends on the type of apology. I do think that there is one type of apology that will always reduce your credibility and perception and that is when we apologize for who we are.

Self-apologies

Self-apologies are those apologies which ironically deflect blame by claiming some sort of deficiency of self. For example, when someone shows up late and says, “I’m sorry for being late, I’m terrible at keeping track of time.” Or when someone makes a mistake, “I’m sorry for making so many mistakes on this document, I am terrible at editing.” We could go on for awhile on these types, but I’m sure that we all know what I mean.

These types of apologies are an excuse and tend to diminish our credibility and signal a kind of incompetence. They are usually used as a deflection and an attempt to pass along responsibility. They often don’t really believe that they are deficient; it is just a good excuse. If you ever want to test this theory, when someone apologizes for being terrible at something like showing up on time, just affirm it and see what happens.

(Most likely this)

Truth is that most people don’t want to hear others (especially those we expect to be leaders) to apologize for who they are. It is confusing and creates a kind of helplessness. So, what’s a good kind of apology?

Superfluous Apologies

As long as you are not apologizing for existing or using “I’m sorry” as a passive-aggressive deflection, you might actually be able to use it as a tool to seem more trustworthy and likeable.

In Heidi Grant Halvorson’s book No One Understands You And What To Do About It, she cites a recent study that shows how superfluous apologies (meaning apologies that aren’t about you or anything that you are responsible for) can earn you greater trust.

Example: “I’m sorry about the rain.”

How does this work?

From her book:

“Researchers at Harvard Business School and Wharton had a male undergraduate approach sixty-five strangers in a large train station on rainy days and ask to borrow their cell phone. Half the time, he included the superfluous apology ‘I’m so sorry about the rain!’ before asking, ‘Can I borrow your cell phone?’ A remarkable 47 percent of those who received the superfluous apology gave him the cell phone, compared with only 9 percent who did not.” (No One Understands You…, Heidi Grant Halvorson, pg 70-1)

Uh, I’m not a statistician or anything, but a 38% difference seems like a lot.

 Okay fine, you say. That makes sense when I apologize for things that have nothing to do with me. What about when I apologize for my own mistakes? Won’t I look like a total weenie?

Jan25th-Weenie

(Sorry, I had to get that in there for some reason.)

The answer is no, no you won’t.

In fact, the research suggests the opposite. As Halvorson points out: “Recent research shows that people who are willing to take responsibility for their own failures and for the failures of the teams in which they work are perceived to have greater character, more personal integrity, and more positive intentions toward others–all powerful facilitators of trust.”

For those who are keeping track of this, Jim Collins has been talking about this in his research and his books like Good to Great. The main key ingredient to all successful leaders, other than drive (which many have) is humility.

Cover_Good_2_Gr8

(This book has sold about a kagillion copies, so there must be a LOT of humble leaders out there…)

As in most assumptions, the thought that leaders can’t be vulnerable is really an obstacle to better success. It keeps us from the fact that taking responsibility and ownership of a problem and tackling it with humility and honesty is more important than being right.

Besides, what’s the point of being right if no one trusts you or wants to listen?

(We know it is true because it was on television)

So go ahead and apologize for the rain, the Red Sox and the egg salad not tasting quite as fresh this week.

Go ahead and take responsibility for the team under-performing or for sales being less than the projections, as long as you don’t make an excuse or apologize for existing. The focus will be more on you for a bit, but you will earn more trust and credibility if you are willing to be responsible and actually do something about it.

What does it take to trust?

(because trust begins with “hope”)

Yes, I realize that the title is a tautology (at least I remember something from that Logic class I took in college), but we often focus so much on one side of trust that we don’t realize how just asking for someone to trust us is not enough.

There are a lot of theater exercises that center along the theme of trust. I have done a few of those “trust falls” like the video above and luckily they have all ended well. The idea, however, that you can do a trust fall with a group and that it will solve all of your problems is just plain naive. While that doesn’t mean that such exercises are useless, they cannot possibly stand in the place of looking at and understanding all the ways that we undermine trust in our relationships.

The more that I do work with communication, the more I understand that it is all about trust.

How can I get people to trust me more?

How can I get them to trust this process?

How can I get them to trust each other or themselves?

How do I convince them to trust that we are going in the right direction?

 

These questions are at the heart of every problem that organizations and groups face when they are trying to work their way through a challenging situation.

When Marissa Mayer first took over for Yahoo!, she gained the employees trust by being transparent and clear about the problems that the company was facing and the layoffs that it would be doing. She instituted a weekly meeting to answer questions and clarify uncertainty. People loved it and trusted her. When she stopped doing it, people started to grumble and complain that they were in the dark. They were (are?) beginning to lose their trust in her.

Mary Barra is facing a similar situation, I imagine, at GM. She is trying to change a culture that has been siloed, distrustful and arrogant for decades. She will have to not only gain the trust of the employees for this change, but also the trust of the consumer (and of congress).

Paul Levy, the once-celebrated CEO of Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, was lauded for his ability to gain trust and help transition that struggling institution by gaining the trust of the staff and the board. A full review of how he managed to do that and why it worked can be found in this Harvard Business Review article from 2005.

So, if trust is the key to success, how do we get more of it? How do we earn the trust of our clients, our staff, our board and our peers?

Here are a few things that we can do to influence and build trust:

1. Outline a clear, achievable goal

Whether we call these “vision statements,” “strategic plans” or “Big Hairy Audacious Goals,” we have to make sure that the language is clear, concrete and actionable. Chip Heath and Dan Heath talk about this in their book Made to Stick, and Robert Cialdini talks about this in his book Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. The more that you are able to integrate what people experience as the value of your organization into the core of your message, the easier it will be to develop that message.

 

2. Manage your emotions

There is a difference between managing emotions and controlling emotions. Those who try to control their emotions tend to wind up with “leaky faces.”

20121116ibexpression

(What? No, I’m fine. Why?)

Leaders who feel frustrated with their teams and try to suppress their frustration will communicate that frustration and cause dissonance because everyone will know and no one will be able to talk about it. Again, Daniel Goleman talks about this a great deal in his books on emotional intelligence and resonance. The key is to acknowledge your feelings (to yourself first), see if they are about something you can control (usually no), and then breathe through them while letting go. Sometimes just saying out loud, “I am feeling frustrated with this situation” is powerful for a group and can lead to more trust (because at least they know what is going on with you).

3. Listen, listen, listen (but don’t try to please)

Listening continues to be one of the most important leadership tools for gaining trust and one of the hardest to learn. If you are a doer who is used to solving problems, then listening is going to be challenging. It isn’t impossible, but it will feel hard. That is because the majority of the listening that we have to do isn’t about solving problems. It is about meeting people where they are. When we listen and try to solve their problems we end of playing a game of whack-a-mole, which is frustrating for everyone involved.

(Unless it involves kittens, and then it is just cute.)

When we think that everything we hear is a problem that we should solve, we become part of the problem. Sometimes listening alone is all that is needed to build trust and move things forward.

4. People will reflect back to you what you give them

Maybe this is obvious, but it is really hard to trust someone who doesn’t trust you. And it is really hard to trust someone who doesn’t trust him or herself. If you are a leader of an organization or a team and every time you talk about them you are talking about how they fall short of your expectations, then you are going to erode trust. It isn’t that you can’t talk about their failures or limitations, it’s just that those cannot be the sum total of who they are to you. They will complain behind your back that you “micro-manage” them or that you won’t let them be successful, when all you want is for them to be successful and to not have to constantly stick your hand in their business.

The best way to deal with this is to make a list of all the things that you value in your team (and for the team to make a list of what it values in themselves as individuals). See where those lists overlap and begin there. Tell them the story of why you trust them more often than you tell them the story of how you don’t trust them.

Stop worrying about control (see step 2), and focus instead on the best sides of your team. People will reflect back to you what you offer them, and if you offer them a better story about themselves and their ability to change, then you will be started in the right direction.

Side note: Sometimes we have team members who are just not trustworthy. Sometimes we have legitimate reasons not to trust. Okay, but if you have someone who won’t catch you in a trust fall, then don’t do the trust fall. In fact, get a different team. Just don’t confuse lack of control over behavior with inability to perform. Ask yourself if what you are perceiving is fact or just your perception. The clearer you get at discerning the difference, the more effective you will be as a leader.

You have a choice.

How often do you hear people say, “I’m just not a public speaker” or “I’m just not wired that way” when they are asked to do something outside their comfort zone? How often do we feel helpless in the face of our own perceived limitations? While I know that personality traits and the idea of being genetically predetermined has been fairly popular for some time, we are meant to grow and we are capable of change.

People often tell me that they struggle with communicating their value because they’re “just not a sales-person” (which I’m convinced is a kind of humble-brag because most people think of sales-people to be like Kurt Russell’s portrayal in the movie Used Car).

used-cars

(Because that guy was a “great” sales-person)

We also throw around the term “authenticity” as a crutch to explain or excuse our challenges and our weaknesses. We claim that it isn’t our authentic selves to speak up in meetings or it just doesn’t feel natural to claim our space.

(Swimming also wasn’t something that felt natural either)

I have come to learn that everyone has a right to believe in their own shortcomings and in the power of their crutch. No one has the right to take away anyone’s low self-esteem.

That being said, if you are tired of feeling less-than or small, you have a choice.

If you are tired of having limited influence in your communication, you have a choice.

If you are finally fed up with the paralysis that comes from thinking that you have obstacles that are holding you back from being your true self, then recognize that you can choose to be a different way in this world.

Here are four things that we can all do to help ourselves actively choose to grow and change. Think of this as the four steps that will guide you through your change to a new behavior. Whether it is that you want to be braver at work or you want to have more confidence when you speak, you can take small steps to changing your patterns and improving your impact.

1. Gather awareness

Nothing changes unless you know it exists. This is the most painful part of the process. We are terrible judges of our own behavior and impact. The more aware we become of how people really see us and what they want from us, the more probable change is. The trouble with awareness is that it will come right up against the stories that we have told ourselves for years. When we get used to our crutches and how they make us feel, even knowing that we don’t need them or that they no longer serve a purpose can not only be upsetting, it can be threatening. This leads us to the next step.

2. Learn to let go

We all have these behaviors that we hold on to because they served some purpose at some point in our lives. We make ourselves small when confronted,  go aggressive whenever challenged or try to please people when they are upset. Whatever the crutch, we have to learn how to let go. The ego (how we think of ourselves) won’t like this at all and will do everything to hold onto those crutches because they seem crucial to its existence. They aren’t. You can let go of these habits and patterns and live to tell about it. In fact, you will be happier and more effective than ever before.

(Just in case you never saw this…)

3. Be kind to yourself

Of all the things that I wish I could do for myself and for my clients, this is it. When you become aware of your habits and your patterns and when you start to let them go, you are going to feel really icky at first. The trouble with adulthood is that many of us don’t put ourselves in positions where we have to be beginners all over again. Even if we are that type of person, there is something so naked and raw about stripping away those habits from our communication that can leave us feeling incompetent and embarrassed. Not sure what I mean? Have someone take a video of you talking at a party or in front of a group of people and then sit and watch that video with your friend or co-workers. If you don’t immediately feel judgmental of yourself and embarrassed, then congratulations, you are in an ultra minority.

(“Hey awesome, I’m being embarrassed on camera!” says no one)

If we can see ourselves in that raw state and not be judgmental, rather be kind and gentle with what we are seeing, then we have the opportunity to change. The only way that we will allow ourselves the space to grow is if we stop thinking that we are growing wrong. Trust yourself, and then…

4. Trust the process

The problem with process is that it is not always clear what the outcome will be. The act of changing behavior means that we will be in a transition phase for some time before we get mastery of the new behaviors. It can look and feel like we don’t know what we are doing or that we will ever arrive somewhere good. When you find yourself in the swamp, it can feel like you will never get out.

The process is there for a reason. It takes time to learn and that learning is ugly. Here is a video that you may have seen before about a man who taught himself to ride a “backwards brain bicycle.” Watch it if you want to see some comedy and learn something about why it is so hard to change.

If you are willing to trust the process and know that it will be ugly, you may find that you are able to change the way that you look at situations, feel about people and places and that (ultimately) you have a choice about whether you want to be stuck with the same old patterns and expectations.

For many of us, we have a choice. Let’s be a little braver and choose to let go of those things that hold us back and begin the path to learning a new way of being.

Take the leap.

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Summary: If we only focus our energy and our attention on things that are negative or that distract us from our big objectives, then we will create an environment ripe for failure and frustration.

The other day I was riding my road bike on a narrow country road and something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head slightly to see what it was (nothing), only to realize in horror that my bike was now pointed straight for a mailbox.

After I recovered (barely), I began to think about how important it is to remember that wherever I look, that is the direction my body wants to go. Wherever we put our gaze, whether intentionally or not, that becomes our destination.

This is also true for our communication (both internal and external).

The more aware we are of the power of our attention, the easier it is to redirect back to our intentional goal before anything bad can happen. We might even have the discipline to resist the temptation to look away if we understand what we are risking in the process.

This understanding can affect your public speaking, your organizational culture and your personal sense of self. Here are a few examples.

1. Public Speaking

Whenever you give a talk, whether it is to a handful of people or a hall of hundreds, you are going to see all kinds of behavior in the audience. Some of that behavior will be positive and interested:

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And some of it might be disinterested or flat out bored:

(maybe even a little hostile?)

The question that you have to ask yourselves as presenters is to whom will you be speaking? Where do you want to put your focus? If you choose to focus on the person who is bored (or who is showing disdain), that is going to affect your nervous system and the way that you talk. Regardless of whether you were giving a bad talk, you can pretty much be assured that you are now.

Without getting into detail about why we do this, try this instead. Just stop looking at them.

Look at the interested people. If there is one person disinterested and everyone else is interested, it’s not you. Stop focusing on that person and you will feel better and your talk will be better.

If everyone looks bored, then it really is you. (Sorry.)

2. Organizational Culture

We can say all we want that we want a culture that is okay with making mistakes, but if leader is focused only on looking back and trying to figure out why a mistake happened and who is to blame for it (rather than refocusing on how to move forward from here), guess what the culture is going to be about? Fear about making mistakes.

(Sure thing, Bob, easy for you to say. You don’t have to talk to the board.)

As leaders we have to be vigilant about where we are looking. Just like the driver of a bus passing a big accident. No matter how badly you want to look, you have to stay focused on the road ahead. As long as you do that, everyone on the bus will come safely with you.

Want a culture that focuses on the solution, not the problem? Turn your gaze toward the goal rather than the obstacle and the people will follow.

3. Personal Sense of Self

This is one of the hardest because the very act of awareness brings into focus all of our negative traits and behaviors. The more we know ourselves, the harder it is to ignore our shortcomings.

Peanuts

The trouble is that when we only look at our shortcomings, that is all that we see. The question that Charlie Brown is asking above is actually not a helpful question. Being aware of bad behavior, a misstep or a lack of knowledge does not imply a lack of worthiness. There is nothing actually “wrong” with anyone, just as there is nothing actually “wrong” with anything in nature.

It is only when we choose to focus on the negative that we begin to doubt ourselves and our ability to accomplish great things. When we choose to fixate on the reasons that we can’t make it or that we aren’t enough, we tend to find plenty of evidence (even if in the big picture the evidence is slight).

While it is important to be aware of it and see it, you can’t stare because you will lose your way. Just as the image of the bus driver seeing the accident but not staring at it helps to deliver the passengers safely, the same can be said of ourselves.

When we focus all our attention at avoiding failure, we end up finding failure.

When we are obsessed with avoiding mistakes, our lives are filled with mistakes.

When we look for examples of our own unworthiness, that is all we will see.

We have to be able to see the whole picture and put our attention on who we want to become and how we will get there, not on all the ways that we fall short every day.

There is nothing simple or easy about this. This takes discipline and willingness to notice the things about ourselves that we do not like, to see the weaknesses and the failures and not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Where we put our attention matters.

Where we focus our gaze as leaders and as human beings informs our behavior.

And it helps to remember that our bodies tend to follow the direction of our eyes, so stay vigilant and pay attention to what you are looking at:

(because you are probably heading right for it…)

I recently took my son to see the new Pixar movie Inside Out and was struck by one scene in particular that is the example of how great listening works. Here is Amy Poehler talking in a recent NPR interview about the character of Sadness and her ability to be empathetic to another character:

POEHLER: It’s such a funny opposite energy to Joy, who is literally jumping up and down. And Sadness just wants to lie down and kind of feel her feelings. And there’s a beautiful moment where Sadness sits down next to a character, and he’s upset about something. And Joy’s first instinct is to kind of distract him and cheer him up and talk over him. And Sadness sits down next to him and says I’m very sorry that you lost something that you love. That must make you very sad. And frankly, it’s like a pamphlet on how to speak about loss because it’s just someone sitting next to you and saying I’m very sorry that you’re sad and you lost something that you love, and that must be hard. The end.

 

(This is Sadness)

 

(or how I feel about the Red Sox’s season…)

 

What was fascinating about the movie is how well it shows the way that our emotions can drive our reactions and how powerful it can be when we take the time to really connect with where people are at emotionally.

I think that most of us (I include myself in this) don’t listen to other people when they share something upsetting. Most often we seek to make it better or rush to change the subject. Sometimes we might even get in an argument, saying something akin to “Don’t be so melodramatic” or “There’s nothing to be worried about.” We deflect, placate, ignore and humor, all so that we don’t have to be flooded by their emotions.

 (So many emotions…)

Most of us would like to be heard when we talk. Maybe we even complain about this after a meeting at work or when we go out to dinner with our family or friends. If you have ever had someone really listen to you, someone who didn’t disregard or fix what you were telling them, then you know how valuable and unique an experience it is.

How can we get better at it?

Well, there are a few things that we can do to improve our listening skills, and our relationships both at work and at home. Practice these a little each day, and you will be surprised at how quickly you become a better listener.

1. Stay physically open

The more that you can be neutral and open in your body language, the more likely the other person is going to feel safe with you. Pay attention to closed, “clutching” body language that could signal impatience, disappointment and disinterest. This can also be in your tone of voice and in the way that you urge people to continue talking (as though you just want them to get it over with).

2. Seek to clarify

When people tell you things, listen for understanding and repeat back to them what you have heard. Most people are so accustomed to not being heard that they speak in generalities or use vague language.

Example:

Person A: “There’s just a lot of stuff going on right now.”

Person B: “There’s a lot of ‘stuff’ going on? What kind of stuff?”

Person A: “Well, for starters I got demoted at work…”

I believe that one of the reasons we let people get away with being vague (and why people are often vague) is because we just don’t want to know. Too many feelings to feel. I just want to talk about this hamburger, dammit.

hamburger

3. Have the courage to feel the feelings

There is a great quote from Danny Musico who is a former boxer and current Hollywood trainer about courage and emotions. He says, “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.”

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(And wear a $4000 Armani suit. That helps too.)

The real problem with listening is that you have to hear what’s going on in other people, and that can be upsetting. We experience so many emotions: jealousy, fear, anger, disgust, and sadness. We might even have to experience someone else’s joy, which can cause any one of those feelings above to be triggered.

The times that it is most difficult are when those feelings and the person we are listening to are directly in conflict with us. THAT is challenging. And for that, we need to…

4. Take a deep breath and seek to understand (don’t take it personally)

When someone is angry at us or when people give us feedback that we might not like, it is easy for our vision and our world to become very, very narrow.

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(This is a dramatic reenactment of what it feels like to get negative feedback)

One way out is to trick yourself into being an objective observer. Become curious about the other person’s intentions (and ignore for a moment your own emotional freakout).  Listening is not an abdication, nor is it an admission of guilt. You are merely trying to understand. If you can take a deep breath (almost like a sigh without the sadness) and force your body to stay open, you will often find that the other person will be less triggered as well. If the two of you can settle down, then you will be able to seek a common understanding. Or at least talk about it like rational beings.

In short, listening is about staying open, reflecting back what you heard and being curious about the other person. The obstacles are our thoughts (or assumptions), our aversion to feelings and our non-verbal body language. The more that we can seek clarification and not judge, the more that we will hear and learn about people and the more connected and trustworthy we will become to them.

Give it a try. What’s the worst that could happen?

(Okay, that would be pretty bad, but unlikely)

While there is so much talk in business and culture about authenticity (like here, here and here), there is very little talk about what it takes to get it.

It’s a little like the advice you’d get as a kid before going to a big interview or asking someone out on a date: “Just be yourself.”

Yes! So easy. I will do THAT!

And then, you end of being this:

Or worse, you try too hard and come off like this:

(Yes, I know. I look like him.)

The truth is that being authentic is difficult. It requires a lot of practice, discipline and trust. Meryl Streep is one of my favorite actors because she makes every character she plays seem authentic. She is one of the most hardworking and talented actors I have seen, and I admire her because she never seems to take a movie off.

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(Well, almost never)

The fact is that she didn’t get there just on talent alone. The hardest thing to do is to “act naturally” on cue. Some people are good at doing it in extreme situations, but few are able to do it with the consistency that she does.

The other person who I admire in this way is Ira Glass.

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(Hi, I’m dorky and sexy.)

Ira is a radio personality who hosts the NPR radio show This American Life (maybe you’ve heard of it?). I recently saw him live and was struck by something that he shared with the audience as part of his discussion of radio and his career. He said that it took him ten years to be able to speak like a normal person on the radio. He played clips of himself from his early days, which had him speaking in that staccato, “important” “newsy” type of voice that we are used to hearing from our news casters and anchorpeople. What struck me about this was how unbelievably natural Ira sounds now when he speaks in front of an audience or on the radio. He just sounds like a normal person. It never really occurred to me that he would have to work so hard at it.

I’m not sure if that is comforting for some of you or if it depressing, but I like to think of it as a more realistic and hopeful perspective.

Here are some takeaways that I think of when it comes to authenticity and speaking:

1. No one is “natural” at acting natural in front of an audience 

Even Marlon Brando worked at being so natural on stage and on screen. He just happened to also be really, really talented. The sooner that we realize that being authentic in front of other people is not a given, the easier it will be to begin to work at getting better at it.

stanislavski-poster-1

Another way to think of this is that the more you understand yourself and your own body and voice, the easier it will be to be open, natural and authentic in front of any crowd.

2. You must understand the difference between being self-conscious and self-aware

When we are self-conscious, we become rigid and awkward. We basically try to watch our own movements and judge them while we are talking and moving. This usually creates a mini delay and stiffness in our motions which often become cartoonish.

(Pretty much how my first real dance went.)

The more self-aware we are, the more willing we are to look at ourselves and see the ugly parts and the awkward parts. The less likely we will be trying to hide those ugly parts (which basically highlights them) and instead focus on the parts of us that we love.

This may be the first time I have ever said this, but I think that Jim Morrison said it best:

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And he should know, because he also did this:

3. Stop trying to be perfect

Just think about that for a second. Why is it that we have the expectation that we can be authentic and perfect? How is that even possible? The very nature of being authentic is that you are somehow showing your true self, warts and all, and that you are okay with them. Trying to be perfect, especially in your communication, is like setting yourself up for failure at being yourself.

The trouble with the intention of wanting to be perfect is that it also creates the experience of judging yourself in the moment. If you are looking for ways to be more genuine when you speak or when you lead a meeting, then you will need to trust that the people in the room are more concerned with what they are doing and how they are being perceived than they are with how you are doing. The more perfect you try to be, the less authentic you will be and the less persuasive you will sound as a whole.

The whole talk will come across like an actor from a bad 80s television show:

(This is what “suave” looked like circa 1988.)

4.  Practice it as a conversation, not as a performance

Whenever we think of speaking as a performance, we get tied up in all the things that we assume that means. Even actors struggle with this tension. The key is not to focus on the performative part, but rather focus on what you want people to hear. Think of it as a normal conversation over crumpets and tea. The more that you can think of what you’re saying as part of a flow between you and the audience, the easier it will be for the audience to see and hear you as your genuine self. It is only when we try to perform that we end up feeling and seeming awkward or unnatural.

So, go ahead and be yourself and trust yourself, but also know that this is not an overnight thing. Authenticity takes time, practice and discipline. And with that, I leave you with another note from Ira Glass as he talks about the work and what it takes to do something well (summary: be willing to suck at it for awhile).

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There is this moment in theater and in film where the actors and the director get together for the first time as a group to read through the script out loud. It is very chummy and people are often excited and a little nervous. They ask questions and talk and talk and read and talk. It’s probably the moment in the process when people are the most excited and the most hopeful. Anything is possible.

But at some point the director has to say “okay let’s get started,” and most people (if they are being honest) secretly dread that transition, and many resist breaking free from the table.

The problem is that as long as you are sitting in the circle and talking about the script, reading the script and asking questions, everything is fairly theoretical and clear. As soon as you take the action to put it on its feet, everything gets messy. We are exposed. Everyone is vulnerable. That perfect picture might not come about.

I like to call that moment of stepping away from the table as stepping into the swamp. No matter how prepared you are, you are going to get messy.

(maybe not that messy)

That moment when we step away from the planning table and step into action is not unlike every time we try to enact change in an institution. The director (or CEO) can talk all she wants about what needs to happen and what the vision is and how great this is going to be, but none of that can inoculate you and the organization from the mess of the process.

In fact, I would argue that the more the leader tries to talk away the mess, the deeper ingrained the mess becomes and the more complicated the swamp can be.

It’s one thing to have to walk through a swamp, it is entirely another thing to have to pretend that it is just a another day at the beach.

(smooth)

When you as a leader decide to institute a major change in the organization or when you begin the complicated process of starting a new project, the temptation is tremendous to try to shortcut the more challenging parts of the transition. Most of us would like to cling to that actor’s table where everything and anything is still possible.

Cultural change is perhaps some of the messiest kinds of change that we can do. It involves changing the way that we think about our work, our coworkers and (most importantly) how we behave. The reason that cultural change often stalls or regresses is because everyone tries to shortcut the process and jump to the result.

(With pretty much this result)

Here are some basic things that we can all do to help deal with the transition into action and make sure that we come out the other side.

 1. Accept that the only way through it is through it

There’s that great children’s song and book, Going on a bear hunt that captures this perfectly.

Were-all-going-on-a-bear-hunt

(And if you have kids, you probably have this memorized)

The main point of the story is that regardless of the obstacle that the family faces on their way to catch a bear, their only option is to go through it (never mind the questionable thinking behind taking your family to catch a bear). If you really want something to happen, then you will need to just go through the process to get there.

This sentiment is also articulated in the song “Go Through it” by Griffin House, which is more about heartbreak and dealing with pain:

(but you get the point)

2. Recognize that it will be messy

As I said earlier, the important thing to realize is that no matter how much preparation that you put into the process, the process is going to be a little messy. Just like that image of walking through a swamp, there is no way to do it without getting wet, muddy and smelly. The sooner you realize that you are heading into the swamp, the easier it will be to just keep moving until you come out the other side.

(This is what green santa claus does…)

Think of a toddler taking its first steps. While there is definitely a celebration of the triumph, those steps are often wobbly and clumsy. Nobody just stands up and starts walking perfectly the first time. (Seriously, your parents were just trying to boost your self-esteem when they said that.)

If we can let go of the expectation that the transition will be flawless, then we can focus our energies on the goal of the process.

3. Trust the process and remember the Big Picture

If we know that we have to go through it and that it will be messy, then we can begin to trust the process and keep the end goal in mind as the reward. When organizations become paralyzed it is usually because they get stuck at the table trying to cover every possible misstep, or because they forget the end goal and get fixated on the process. This is like baking a cake but spending the entire time trying to get the mixing bowl just perfect:

(just perfect)

4. Be present

If you are the leader of the group, it will be tempting to step out of the room and want to return when the mixing/process is done. This is very important. Your presence is needed. I can’t really explain why. Anne Bogart talks about how we as directors (or leaders) have to pay attention to the process because it is our attention (and our intention) that helps shape the outcome. This doesn’t meant that you are required even to say anything or do anything during the process. You might help summarize at the end or nudge in one direction or another, but on the whole your greatest gift to the transition is your ability to listen, be present and patient. (You can always try leaving and coming back at the end, but I don’t recommend that.)

When you step into a big cultural change or start a new project that will require your team to behave differently, use these four elements and give yourself the space to be present and the faith that they process will bear fruit in the end.

Want to know the secret to great authentic communication?

Be interesting

Be Curious

(This is also the secret to innovation and confidence, but we will focus primarily on how it works with communication.)

I was listening to a new podcast recently called the Mystery Show wherein the main woman is trying to solve minor mysteries for people. The first podcast is about figuring out what happened to a video store and the second podcast is about trying to ask Britney Spears a question about a book she was seen carrying. The premise is intriguing and fun and Starlee Kine (the detective/podcaster) is personable and fun, but that isn’t what struck me the most. A big part of the show is Starlee calling up people connected to the case and asking them questions, and what is amazing about this is what they choose to tell her. She is able to get very deep with every interview, regardless of how random the connection is. In the second podcast she gets a customer service agent from Ticketmaster to talk about himself in a way that is sweet, vulnerable and deeply human.

How did she do it?

She was curious. Genuinely and appropriately interested in these people’s lives, which was the key to having them open themselves up to her and talk about themselves to a complete stranger.

(I guess they never watched the after-school specials)

The trouble with curiosity is that it can’t be faked.

Or rather it can be, but the results are usually flat and uninteresting. Sometimes it is even painfully awkward and uncomfortable.

Think Chevy Chase’s ill-fated bid to do a late night talk show in the 90s:

(You can watch it if you want. I already lived through it once.)

Why are Chevy Chase’s questions so flat? Why is the mood so uncomfortable? It’s mostly because he has no curiosity in Goldie Hawn. He really doesn’t seem interested in what she has to say.

This is radically different from what can happen when someone is really curious about you. The invitation to share something about you and your background, where you came from, what you like, what motivates you, what scares you, is one of the most generous invitations you can give another person.

If you are interested in knowing how to make connections, be seen as a confidant and feel comfortable when talking with people, learn how to be curious about them. And then learn how to listen.

(or not, your choice)

What does this look like?

1. Is the question borne from curiosity or from judgment?

Often questions like “where did you go to college?” and “what were your SAT scores” and “what do you do for a job” are the lamest conversation starters. Not only are these genuinely boring questions, they are essentially competitive in nature, an attempt to learn where people fit in the social hierarchy and a way to identify who we think they are.

When we ask questions from a place of judgment, the other person will often get defensive or closed without really knowing why. Questions borne out of curiosity usually open doors and get people talking about themselves. They are devoid of judgment because curiosity is open to the uncertainty of not knowing. People who are curious want to learn.

2. Everyone has at least one fascinating story that would break your heart if you knew it

They might not know that they have an interesting story or rather they might be so used to people asking questions and not listening to them, that they will block you at first. Ask people about their first loves, what they would do if they didn’t have to work, what their parents were like or where they have traveled and they will most likely tell you more than you could imagine.

When was the last time someone really asked you a question that was an invitation for you to share something important about yourself? (Therapists don’t count)

Bob-Newhart

(nor does Bob Newhart)

For those of you who are nervous about striking up totally random conversations with strangers at parties or at company events, take some comfort from this small fact. Most people (even those who say that they don’t) like to talk about themselves and will if given the opportunity. They just need the right kind of invitation.

3. Being curious takes courage

The act of asking someone a real question (like what Starlee Kine does in the Mystery Show) is a vulnerable act for the questioner as well as the person being asked. We have to step out of our norms and risk being exposed to someone else’s beautiful mess of a life. It takes courage because to be truly curious means revealing something about ourselves and what interests us. You will know what questions I am talking about when you take the risk to ask someone something personal that feels just a little outside the comfort zone. You don’t have to pry or ask nosy questions, but you do need to be willing to take the risk of telling someone that you see them and that you will listen.

4. Listen

This is perhaps the most important part. If you are going to be curious, and they are going to share, then you had better listen and stay open to what they are saying. People have amazing stories inside of them that they keep hidden because they figure that no one really wants to hear what they have to say. If you are willing to be one of those people who listens, then you will both experience the conversation as a gift.

Curiosity is the key to making connections, earning trust and feeling more engaged. Whether you are in sales, client relations, learning to network, interviewing for jobs or just want to make friends, your genuine interest and willingness to listen will help you differentiate yourself from the countless others who are only out there talking about themselves.

(I’m sorry, was I yawning?)

Be different.

Be genuine.

Be curious.

Here’s the thing:

When you suppress your emotions, those emotions usually squirt out somewhere. That somewhere is bound to be either your body language, your tone of voice or (most likely) your face.

(See? Leaking all over the place.)

We tend to think of our emotions as something that can be compartmentalized into our mind and buried, never to be seen again. The trouble is that emotions are like water seeking the source, it will find a way out eventually. The easiest path is usually our faces, which are incredibly expressive and can silently tell a complicated story.

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(Well, maybe not that complicated…)

Ah, but what is that story and how are other people reading it? Well, first we have to understand that our faces reveal a great deal about how we feel about a situation and the people we are with. A slight downturn of the mouth, a tight smile without the crinkling of the eyes, a subtle bow of the head and our eye contact can all transmit a feeling that we don’t intend.

(Like painful awkwardness)

Why is this a big deal?

Well for starters, you may be trying to be nice to someone who is really, really annoying you. You say “thank you” and “that’s great” and “so glad to see you” and you pat yourself on the back for being able to hide your feelings and be so generous.

(but the disdain just leaks out anyway…)

The trouble is that the other person won’t be able to necessarily know exactly what is going on. They will have a sense that something is not quite right. In a work environment, especially one where you are the leader/manager of a team, how you feel about that team will leak out. Seriously, they know.

Why?

Well, it has something to do with what Daniel Goleman calls the “open loop” of emotions. That is that, unlike our thoughts which are stuck in our heads and only affect us, our emotions have a tendency to permeate a room like perfume. According to Goleman’s research (and others), if you put two people in a room with different strong emotions and just make them sit next to each other for fifteen minutes, whichever emotion is the stronger one will infect the other. (Both will become anxious, sad, angry, joyful, etc…)

What can we do about it?

Well, for one thing we can stop suppressing the emotion. The most certain way to assure that we will leak emotions unconsciously is if we try to stuff them down somewhere deep inside ourselves. Not only does that not work in communication, I’m pretty convinced (and research seems to be bearing this out) that suppression of that kind can lead to some serious health problems. (Here’s one paper on that, if you are interested.)

Tom+Cruise+Jimmy+Fallon+Jaw+Jut+Anger+Inward+Lip+Roll+ILR+Suppressing+Emotion+Side+View+Nonverbal+Communication+Expert+Body+Language+Expert+Speaker+Keynote+Las+Vegas+Los+Angeles+Orlando

(Unless you are Tom Cruise for whom suppressing emotions is the fountain of youth)

 

1. Be aware of your emotions

If you can start to recognize what you are feeling, you are less likely to have those emotions leak out inappropriately. Often just admitting to yourself that you are having an emotional experience (and we all are–all the time) will help to alleviate the stress of trying to stuff that emotion away.

2. Breathe

If all we did was take a deep breath when we were gripped by a strong, negative emotion, we would be so much better off. The tension in our faces, our bodies and our voices would go away. This deep breath is not to be confused with a sigh, which can communicate annoyance, frustration and general ennui. None of which are good unintentional signals.

(Sometimes though, they are good signals to give intentionally)

3. Stay open

This is probably the most challenging piece of the puzzle. The more that you recognize what your face is doing and what you are feeling, the easier it will be to relax those parts of you and stay open. The more open you are, the less likely you will send unwanted signals to the room. An open and relaxed face (and body) will tell the other person that you are present and that you are not judging them.

ari-gold

Ari Gold (from the show Entourage) is perhaps a great example of a character that does both. He does a great job of opening his body and face when he wants to charm, but the endearing part of Jeremy Piven’s character is that he can’t hide his anxiety and frustration. (Be open like this, but don’t be like Ari Gold).

4. Be direct

If staying open is challenging, then this one is just outright scary for most people. Fact is that when we are direct with people regarding what we are feeling in that moment, we are usually clearer and more persuasive.

For example, if someone comes to you with a question just as you are about to sit down to do some much needed work, you can diffuse the situation naming it. Say “I may come across short because I am feeling pressure about getting my work done” and the other person might decide to come back later or they might align with you in your feeling of pressure and ask a quick question. Either way, you have met them directly and clearly.

This also helps them realize that your reaction to them is more about your situation than it is about your character (or how you feel about them personally). The better we are at articulating what is going on for us in the moment, the less likely our intentions will be misunderstood.

And not being misunderstood is the key to better communication.

Follow these steps and let me know if you have any questions about “leaky faces” and how we might convey the wrong messages.