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779: How to Unlock Greater Potential through Unlearning with Barry O’Reilly

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Barry O’Reilly shares his strategies on how to unlearn the mindsets and behaviors that hold us back.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The key to breakthrough improvement 
  2. How to identify what you need to unlearn
  3. How to overcome the fear of change 

About Barry

Barry O’Reilly is the founder and CEO of ExecCamp, an entrepreneurial experience for executives, and the management consultancy Antennae. A business advisor, entrepreneur, and sought-after speaker, O’Reilly has pioneered the intersection of business model innovation, product development, organizational design, and culture transformation. He works with the world’s leading innovators, from disruptive startups to Fortune 500 companies.

He is a frequent writer and contributor to The Economist, Strategy+Business, and MIT Sloan Management Review, as well as a coauthor of the international bestseller Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scaleincluded in the Eric Ries Lean series and a Harvard Business Review “must-read” for would-be CEOs and business leaders. He is also an executive advisor and faculty member at Singularity University.

Resources Mentioned

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Barry O'Reilly Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Barry, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah, no, it’s a pleasure to be here, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your wisdom about your book Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results. Could you kick us off by sharing a key thing that you’ve unlearned that has proven quite valuable in your own career?

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah. Well, even writing the book is probably one of the best examples. I have a solid history of D minuses in English literature through school. I’m dyslexic. I think if I told my teacher that I managed to write one book, never mind two, that they wouldn’t actually believe me. So, it was kind of, for me, one of the big unlearning I had to have is actually how to write a book.

And as conventional wisdom, I always say that writers sort of sit there by a roaring fire with a perfect velvet jacket on and a glass of wine, and just like tearing out pages and pages of content. Believe me, I tried that but it didn’t work for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Too hot?

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah, not too good. And, yeah, I would sit there for hours just with writer’s block and I couldn’t quite get the words on the page, and it was really frustrating because I felt like I was doing everything, the tips that people told me. And it’s a real challenge. So, then I started to think about, for me, “Well, how can I sort of reframe what I’m looking at? My existing behavior is not working, so, therefore, I need to unlearn. I’m not getting the outcomes that I’m aiming for writing whatever it is, 10,000 words, 10,000 words a day. Whatever I’d set myself.”

So, I started to actually think about, well, reframe my thinking away from just typing as the only way to create content, and I actually started thinking about content. It’s actually really like creating a book is content. And there were suddenly many ways to create content. Typing is just one of them. So, I started to think about other ways to create content. I could record it. I could speak it. I could interview. I could have someone help me.

So, I landed on the idea of actually talking because that was the most natural way for me to share my stories. And what I did is I got a journalist to interview me. So, we would write down, like some bullet points that I wanted to cover in each chapter, and a journalist would interview me, and I would just tell stories about what the chapter would be about. And we would record it and transcribe it using an AI transcription service.

So, we’d speak for 45 minutes, and I’d get in the region of 20,000 words, record it and get a copy of it in text very, very quickly. And the journalist would then sort of go through that copy, edit it really fast, and send me like this sort of early version of a chapter that was sort of relatively raw but it was edited. And it gave me something to react to. It’s like an MVP or minimal viable product or chapter.

And, suddenly, as I would read through it, then I’d be like, “Oh, no, that doesn’t need to go here,” and I’d remember things I’d forgotten to say. So, we got into this iteration really fast. And that literally got me there. I actually unlearned how to write a book by learning how to speak about the ideas that I wanted to talk about.

And the product of that is Unlearn. And then, yeah, many people are often surprised when they realize when I say I didn’t write hardly any of it. I spoke most of it and I got somebody to work with me, and an AI to transcribe it, edit it, and ship it.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. So, you unlearned the notion of what writing a book looks like. And in so doing, you found an approach that worked for you, and that’s beautiful. Well, tell us, when it comes to zooming out a little bit and broadly speaking about people and unlearning, any other big surprises or aha discoveries you’ve made while researching and putting together Unlearn?

Barry O’Reilly
Well, the notion of unlearning was the thing that probably struck me the most. So, the first book I wrote was Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate at Scale. It was part of our recent series, or the lean series, and it was more successful than I could’ve imagined, to be honest. And when we released that book, a lot of, sort of medium to large scale enterprises or scale of startups were sort of saying, “We’re not a startup. We’re actually scaling our business, so what do we need to put in place to make us successful?”

And, suddenly, I was in the room with like Fortune 500 executives or startups in Silicon Valley that was scaling rapidly to work with them, to help them grow and innovate their businesses. And I was fortunate to spend time with these people, some of the most competent talented people you could ever hope to meet. And what I kept discovering was that while learning new things was hard, what was even harder was letting go of their existing behavior, especially if it had made them successful in the past.

So, the unlearning even in itself was a big aha moment for me, is that the real skill is not learning new things; it’s actually recognizing when your existing behavior and thinking is actually limiting your success, and then how do you find ways to adapt or innovate yourself to meet the sort of changing market or situation that you’re in.

And that was really my big inspiration for sort of writing Unlearn and the stories and the examples and so forth that are captured sort of within it, and have just sort of been really the things that have driven me on continuously to sort of do this. And for many people, it’s interesting because unlearning is sort of an act of, if you will, sort of vulnerability. You have to sort of say that, “What I know is actually limiting my success, and, really, I have to sort of shift out of it.”

And for many people, that’s very difficult because their success is tied to their behavior. Their behavior and actions are tied to their identity. You’re asking someone to change their identity, in a way, and that is extremely difficult for people.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you maybe walk us through an example that illustrates the unlearning process that would be helpful for professionals looking to become all the more awesome at their jobs?

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. So, probably sort of one of the classic examples that I cover in the book is working with a senior executive from a Fortune 100 bank, and she took over the role or went into the role, and everywhere she went, first day, people just kept asking her to make decisions, everything from what direction should the company go in, right down to what paperclips they should order. Every single person was just turning to her to say, “What do we need to do here? What do we need to do here?”

And, for her, that was a signal. She was like, “There’s a decision-making problem here. I shouldn’t be worried about what paperclips we’re ordering. That should be people are confident and inspired enough to do that. Like, why is everything from paperclips right through the company direction landing on my desk and everyone freezing?”

Now, the process for unlearning is it’s a three-step process. It’s first about this recognition to unlearn, identifying or diagnosing where your existing behaviors are not working. In fact, the way I defined unlearning is it’s a process of letting go, reframing or moving away from one’s useful mindset and acquired behaviors that were effective in the past but now limit our success. So, it’s not forgetting, removing, or discarding your knowledge or experience. It’s the conscious act of letting go of outdated information and making space for new information to come in to inform your decision-making and action. So, the first step is a diagnosis.

So, straight away, this executive could diagnose that nobody was making decisions, and that is not the outcome that she was aiming for. She wanted to have a high-performing organization where people could take responsibility and have an accountability to make decisions at the appropriate level, depending on the decision to be made. So, that was a signal for her.

And so, I sat down with her, and I got her to say, “Well, let’s describe it. Let’s describe what success would be. If this is the behavior that needs to be unlearned, how could we talk about division or the objective or the outcome you’re aiming for the people would be achieving?” And I got her to sort of write a story about it, write a vision statement for what would be true in the world if they had unlearned this challenge.

So, she wrote down things like people would be making safe-to-fail decisions, that they’d make small decisions to understand. If they had to make a big decision, they’d break it into smaller parts and learn along the way what works and what doesn’t. And this sort of learned helplessness to make decisions would be removed, and all of her direction would be what success is and why it matters. None of her direction would be how to achieve it. The teams would offer opportunities on how to do that.

So, writing this sort of story, it gave her these sorts of outcomes that she talked about, the learned helplessness disappears, her direction of what success is and why it matters. She wouldn’t be saying how to achieve it. And, straight away, we wrote those down in an unlearning statement that would basically say, “The company would’ve unlearned when 100% of her direction is what success is and why it matters. Zero percent of her direction is how to achieve it. Zero percent of people displayed this learned helplessness when making decisions.”

So, suddenly, she had sort of had this statement that would encapsulate this unlearning of decision-making as a problem within that company, and she actually shared this with a bunch of her team to sort of for them to understand as like what would be success criteria for unlearning it. And then the next step is to sort of re-learn. It’s like getting people to try new behaviors to try and move towards these objectives or outcomes that we’ve described.

And so, I always get her to sort of like pick one of these outcomes that she originally had described to sort of focus on. So, there was the learned helplessness, how to achieve a decision, or what success is and why it matters. And we picked actually that this one, zero percent of her decisions would include how to get there.

So, she took this sort of very bold sort of stance. And I often say to people, “If you want to re-learn, it actually means you have to do something uncomfortable,” and people mostly write down like simple things that they would try that they’re used to, like just be quiet for a moment, or don’t be the first to speak when someone offers a problem, or let all the team speak before she did.

But the one she chose was even more uncomfortable. She said she wasn’t going to make any more decisions. So, if someone came to her and asked her to make a decision, her immediate reaction would be, “What do you think?” So, introduce this tiny little new behavior. Now, you can imagine when you’re a Fortune 100 executive, and you sort of announced that you’re not going to make any more decisions. It would cause panic across the company.

But the way that we made it sort of safer, rather than just sort of never make a decision again, she was just going to try it for one day. So, for one day, make it sort of safe-to-fail, she’d think big but start small about trying to conduct this new behavior of not making decisions, and asking people what do they think.

And this is sort of the moment that we call a breakthrough. So, a breakthrough is literally when you start to get this new information, new behavior, new action, and the results that actually give you a feedback statement that you should keep doing what you’re doing or do something different. So, literally, she went into work, I think it was on a Tuesday. I think it was a Tuesday. And every time one of her team came in to ask or to make another decision on something, she sat there and said, “That’s interesting. What do you think?”

And what that did was something really magical. It allowed her to learn. It allowed her to learn about the people and what help they might need. Because some people, when she asked somebody, “What do you think?” would freeze, would be sort of “Ah, I don’t know. I really need you to make this decision. I don’t have enough confidence or control to do it.” So, she could realize straight away that person would need coaching.

But other people, when she asked, “What do you think?” would say, “Well, we’ve got three options. We can do option A, and here’s the pros and cons of that. We could do option B, here’s the pros and cons. Here’s C and pros and cons. I think we should do C, and here’s why.” So, instantly, she could go, “Great. Let’s do C,” because she could see the rigor and the thinking that her team had actually performed, and it gave her confidence to say, “Right, that’s the direction we should try. Let’s do it.”

So, this simple act of just not making a decision and asking people to sort of say what they think sort of revealed all these insights about who is able to make decisions and should be encouraged to make more, versus who was hesitant to make them and needed coaching and support to sort of get there. And instantly then, she just gets this uplift in performance because once she starts doing that, all her teams start replicating that. And then, suddenly, you’ve got this big performance improvement where you can start to eradicate decision-making problems.

So, that’s an example of a sort of unlearning statement and going through the diagnosis of decision-making, the re-learning of actually thinking big and starting small, defining outcomes, and taking a small new behavior, which was not to make decisions, and ask people what they think. And then the breakthrough was seeing this insight or learning from the team about who could respond well and who needed help. And that sort of informed her to keep doing, and that’s literally the cycle of unlearning.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, thank you for that story. That’s really cool. And I’m curious, as we zoom into individuals listening here, are there any key questions or prompts you find super useful to surface, to highlight, to assess, to diagnose, “Aha, I may have an outdated or suboptimal belief or practice or mentality that I would do well to unlearn”? Like, what’s sort of the canary and the coal miner, some key indicators that I should be on the lookout for?

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. And the simple question many people that ask is, “How do I know what I need to unlearn?” And to diagnose, there’s a set of questions that I ask people. It’s basically getting you to think, “Is there a situation where you’re not living up to the expectations of yourself? Maybe there’s somewhere you’re not achieving just sort of outcomes that you desire. Maybe you sort of tried all the things that you can think of and you’re not getting a breakthrough. Or, maybe there’s a situation that you’re avoiding altogether because you just can’t think, ‘How am I going to tackle that?’”

These are all the sort of signals that your existing behavior is not working. So, not living up to your expectations, not achieving the outcomes you’re aiming for, situations you’re avoiding or struggling with, or maybe you’ve tried everything that you can think and you’re still not getting a breakthrough. I’d even ask you that, Pete, and you probably can come up with four or five answers straight away. And these are all signals that our behavior is not actually helping us achieve the outcomes that we’re aiming for. And, therefore, we have to unlearn, we have to try something different.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And as you’ve seen a lot of workplaces, are there some common examples that pop up again and again and again in terms of, “Oh, these are some things that would be great to unlearn”?

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. So, I think like risk-taking is always a big one, like people’s risk aversion, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, trying new things, being willing to fail. These are all decision-making. It actually comes up quite a lot. These are sort of like the commonalities, I guess, that I hear from a lot of people, is how to help them sort of get those breakthroughs, is trying new things that they’ve never done before.

A lot of it is about, I think, when people perceive that there’s risks for both personal and perception, that if they try something and it doesn’t work, how they’d be perceived. That one really comes up a lot, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s juicy. And so then, if I was working on that, how might you help coach me through that emotional stuff?

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah. Well, first of all, it’s just a recognition, people diagnosing that that’s the heart of the issue. Most people sort of write it up as, “My boss won’t let me do something,” or, “We’re stuck in the status quo. We’re struggling to do new things. We don’t innovate in my business.” Like, a lot of people would sort of deflect it off to company not allowing them to do things.

And a lot of it is sort of then helping people recognize, well, first of all, you have agency and you can try. So, how do we make it safer for you to try? Or, you feel safer that if you fail, how you’ll be perceived? And one of the mantras in the book was this notion of thinking big, start small and learn fast. So, it’s important to have a big aspiration or big outcome that you’re aiming for because that allows you to sort of shift your thinking and your behavior, potentially, to get there.

But the way when you’re trying to make big changes is you don’t take big leaps. You take small steps and learn your way through. So, when somebody has a big idea to change their business, what I often say to them is, “Right. Well, write down that big idea.” Amazon has a famous practice where they get people to write press releases to describe what the world would be like if their product was in the market in two to three years’ time, what would be fantastic about it.

Now, with the way that they start is they don’t do a huge big project. They start small. They run some experiments with small customer bases to see what works and what doesn’t, and then sort of grow it from there. So, what I often say to people is if you have a big idea to change the way your company works, don’t expect that you can walk up to the CEO and get millions of dollars of funding and a new team, and then just sort of start working on it.

Do something small to start testing if that idea is going to work. Pick maybe one or two customers and sort of show them a very naïve version of the product that could work or could not, and get feedback and show that it’s working or not. And even if it doesn’t work, it’s okay. You will have learned something from those one or two customers about what success could be or what’s the right product that they’re looking for and iterate it.

So, these are the ways that you can think big and start small, to start tackling uncertainty and be successful as you try new ways of working new products, etc. And so, that’s what we do most of the time is just coaching people how to think bigger but start smaller so they can learn what works and what doesn’t in a safe-to-fail manner. And once they sort of get into that habit, then they’re able to take on these more audacious goals as they sort of see success moving towards it.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, tell me, Barry, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Barry O’Reilly
No, I think, like the message from me always with this is, like I experienced that I’ve got to unlearn stuff all the time. It’s tough sometimes to recognize the actual reason you’re not being successful is yourself, that you can’t get out of your own way. So, I think a bit of humility, a bit of not trying to beat yourself up too much when you’re not getting the success, I think, is quite important, and recognize that a lot of this is a sort of journey, a learning journey, if anything, a constant iteration and experimentation on yourself. And if you see it like that, it can be a fun journey to go on rather than beating yourself up along the way when things don’t work.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Barry O’Reilly
One of my favorite ones, and people will have to buy the book maybe to find out what chapter was this one, is that something always gives up. Either the problem gives up or the person gives up. But if the person doesn’t give up, ultimately, you’ll get the breakthrough that you’re looking for.

And that was really interesting for me as a notion to sort of think about. It is a little bit of a battle of wits between the problem you’re trying to tackle and the person, or yourself, trying to tackle it. And, really, half of the way to succeed is to keep showing up. If you just keep showing up, something will give. Either the problem will sort of give and you’ll get past it, and, hopefully, before the person gives up because then the problem wins. So, that’s always motivated me to keep being persistent and to keep showing up, and I really enjoyed that quote.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Barry O’Reilly
Well, I think my favorite example in the book is Serena Williams, and her story is just purely phenomenal. She’s sort of an against-the-odds story. And also, the success that she had and continues to have is sort of totally unheard of and a total outlier for the sport that she plays in. She actually is getting better as she gets older, which is sort of unheard of. Most tennis players retire at the age of 27. She’s 40 and she’s still competing at the highest level, getting to finals and being successful. So, yeah, really a fantastic story that I open the book with, and would highly recommend people check her out.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Barry O’Reilly
It’s called Maverick, and it was basically written about a small little factory in Brazil where the CEO, who took over, whose son who took over from his father, started using all these contrary methods to manage people that were much more about empowering people rather than the typical, let’s say, corporate institutional management techniques, and they had massive success. So, I highly recommend people check out that book. It’s one of my favorites.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Barry O’Reilly
I like the Shure SMB mic. Sounding good when we’re on podcasts, I think that’s one. One thing I learned, I think, through the pandemic especially, is that it’s really important to have good sound when you’re communicating because when the sound is bad, it makes it harder for people to listen. When you’ve got good sound, it makes it easier for people to listen and more of the information goes in. So, yeah, get a great mic. That would be my tip for people.

Pete Mockaitis
Agreed. And a favorite habit?

Barry O’Reilly
At the moment, well, there’s two. One is making a really nice coffee in the morning when I wake up. That’s definitely, that’s my special time. And then exercising as much as possible. I think one of the things I really learned as well, especially as I work in a venture studio called Nobody Studios, and I work with a bunch of biohackers. And this idea of like persistently improving your whole, both like mental activity, like doing exercises like this, reading, writing, etc. but also the physical aspect of how important it is to exercise and sleep.

We’re actually working on a sleep company at the moment, and it’s just been fascinating to me to realize and learn how important sleep is to our actual performance, in general. So, now I’m somebody who…I used to stay up and think I could get by on six hours of sleep at night, but now if I don’t get eight, I get angry at myself. So, it’s been really interesting to learn some of these habits.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Barry, now you got me curious about, if you’re allowed to disclose, what’s the sleep company and what transformational insights have you gleaned thus far?

Barry O’Reilly
Well, the first one is how important sleep is. I think most people sort of undervalue how important it is. It’s the most restorative process that we have, so no surgery or amounts of vitamins or supplements are going to improve your wellbeing as much as sleep. So, it’s actually one of the most important things that we have to do.

So, yeah, some of the habits that I have had to unlearn was like going to bed late, or a routine to actually optimize when you do go to lie down to sleep, that you get the maximum sleep, that you can get a high-quality sleep at that. And it’s everything from the triggers, simple things that people might say to you, like don’t drink coffee, or don’t have high amounts of sugar, or don’t let your body be in a stress state when you go to sleep because you actually can have negative sleep, which hurts you more.

So, all of these things have been really fascinating to sort of learn and discover. And, yeah, if you follow our venture studio, Nobody Studios, you’ll see the sleep company when we launch it to the public in the next couple of weeks. I’m pretty excited about what it’s going to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate; folks quote back to you often?

Barry O’Reilly
Well, I think just even the word unlearn. It seems to be one of these provocative words that people go, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s exactly what we need to do. We don’t need to learn more things. We need to unlearn some things.” And I think it’s been a fascinating way to connect with people in terms of the interest area, or a way to describe something, or a notion that many people have felt but weren’t able to put word on it. So, yeah, I think unlearn, that’s it. It’s a fun one. Let go of past success to achieve extraordinary results. It’s all in the title.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Barry O’Reilly
Yes. So, I’m pretty much Barry O’Reilly on every social platform you can imagine, or BarryOReilly.com. And if you’re interested to follow our studio, we’re at NobodyStudios.com. Go check us out on the web and similarly on most social media platforms.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Barry O’Reilly
Yeah, just think big, have a big bold aspiration that you’re aiming for, that something you think could change, but start small. What’s the first small step you can do to start moving towards it? And you’ll learn fast what works and what doesn’t. So, that’s my message to everyone.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Barry, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with Unlearn and all your adventures.

Barry O’Reilly
Thanks very much. Thanks for having me, Pete.

778: How to Make and Break Habits Using Science with Russ Poldrack

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Russ Poldrack reveals the science behind why our brains are habit-building machines and how to make the best out of it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make good habits stick 
  2. How to strengthen your brain against bad habits
  3. Why habits never really go away–and what you should do instead 

About Russ

Russell A. Poldrack is a psychologist and neuroscientist. He is the Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. He is also the Associate Director of Stanford Data Science, a member of the Stanford Neuroscience Institute and director of the Stanford Center for Reproducible Neuroscience and the SDS Center for Open and Reproducible Science. Prior to his appointment at Stanford in 2014, he held faculty positions at Harvard Medical School, UCLA, and the University of Texas at Austin. 

He is the author of The New Mind Readers: What Neuroimaging Can and Cannot Reveal about Our Thoughts and Hard to Break: Why Our Brains Make Habits Stick. He lives in San Francisco. 

Resources Mentioned

Russ Poldrack Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Russ, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Russ Poldrack
Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to talk about habits and brain stuff, some of my favorite bits. But, first, I’m a little curious to hear about your new practice, the hour of whatever, in your lab. What’s the story here? And what has resulted from it?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, so the hour of whatever grew out of people’s, I think, and especially in the last couple of years, just feeling like we needed time to sort of connect without an agenda, no particular topics or anything. We just kind of come together and talk about whatever we want to talk about. A couple weeks ago, it was about the relative merits of raccoons.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, pros and cons.

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. And sometimes it’s been slightly kind of more academic topics, like, “What happens in an academic conference?” So, it’s a chance for people to just ask any questions they want to ask. And it’s been super fun. I think as we’re all struggling to kind of come back into kind of what used to be our normal kind of social life and social being, and this is meant to kind of be an opportunity to try to help re-engage those parts of our brain that might have withered a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. And so, does someone come in with a topic, or is it just sort of like, “Hey, here we are”?

Russ Poldrack
People do come in with topics but it’s also kind of a random walk at times as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’m excited to talk about your book Hard to Break: Why Our Brains Make Habits Stick. And maybe before we go into the depths of the book, could you kick us off with some of your most surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve come about in your research here?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, we’ve been interested for a long time in sort of how it is that so many different cognitive functions can be sort of crammed into the little two or three pounds of brain that sit in our head. And one of the ideas that has been around for a long time that has kind of driven a lot of the work that I’d done across my career is trying to understand how, like the brain has different systems to solve kind of related versions of different problems.

And so, one of those is actually directly related to habits. So, if you think about like what are the things that we learn as we go through the world, and I like to use driving a car as an example. So, when you drive to work, you don’t have to kind of think back and remember, “Oh, which pedal do I press to stop the car or to go?” And when we think about habits, those are often what we think about are sort of the different behaviors or the different knowledge that we build up through our experience in the world.

That’s very different than the knowledge of which particular parking spot you parked your car in this morning. That changes every day and you really have to use a different type of memory system in your brain to be able to go back and remember where you parked. And a lot of the work that we’ve done is try to figure out, “How do these different brain systems either kind of work together or even compete with one another?”

So, one of the big early findings that we had was sort of showing that these two systems, the system that kind of develops habits, and the system that helps us create these kinds of conscious memories of the past, like where we parked our car this morning, don’t just seem to be kind of working off on their own, but they actually seem to be competing with one another, such that when activity in one of those sets of brain areas goes up, activity in the other set goes down. They seem to be kind of pushing and pulling against one another.

And so, it really tells us that the brain is this big dynamical system that’s kind of got a lot of different parts that are working at the same time, and sometimes they work together, and sometimes they work across purposes.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, in practice, does that mean if I am exerting some mental energy in one direction, I would expect deficits elsewhere?

Russ Poldrack
In general, that’s going to be true, yeah. And we’ve showed it to work that, to the degree that you’re engaged in, for example, multitasking, trying to do multiple things at once, that that has a bigger impact on the brain systems that are involved in generating those conscious memories of the past, and less impact on the brain systems that are involved in developing habits.

the brain has limited bandwidth, and so it’s almost necessary the case that if you’re focusing on one thing, it’s going to be at the expense of other types of information processing, and that’s going to have an impact on kind of how you do and what you remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now could you share sort of the big idea or core thesis behind the book Hard to Break?

Russ Poldrack
Yes. So, I’d say that the big idea is really, like why are habits so hard to change? We all have habits we’d like to change. We all know how hard our behavior is to change. And I think the big idea behind the book is that behavior change is hard for a reason, and that is that habits, in general, are a really good thing. In fact, they’re essential for us to behave effectively in the world. So, if you think about what will happen if we didn’t have habits, we would be deliberating about every small act that we make, which, “Where exactly should I put my foot when I take the next step?” “Which of these ten different loaves of bread at the grocery store should I buy?”

And, obviously, some people still do deliberate about those things excessively. But habits basically allow us to offload a lot of the uninteresting stuff to what you might think of as our brain’s autopilot. When the world stays the same all the time, when we’re driving the same car every day, we don’t need to worry about where the pedals are changing, and all those old details. The habit systems in our brain basically allow us to not have to think about that stuff.

There’s a great quote from the psychologist William James, he actually wrote this in 1890, and it’s one of the most highlighted bits on Kindle in my book, which is, here’s the quote, “The great thing then in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. For this, we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can.”

So, it really highlights the fact that, in general, habits are really important to us, and you wouldn’t want them to just go away easily until they become habits that are annoying, and then the stickiest of habits becomes like a real challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so given this, what do you recommend are some of the best practices for establishing new habits, and then, conversely, for breaking ones we don’t want?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, I think when it comes to establishing new habits, the real key is consistency and in some sense, setting up a schedule. So, let’s assume that we’re talking about a habit that isn’t something one necessarily loves to do, like going to the gym. One of the things to think about is to make it as easy as possible for yourself to engage in the thing. One way to think about is don’t let yourself decide whether you’re going to do that thing or not today, but really have it be just part of a schedule.

So, for example, if you wake up every day and say, “Oh, should I go to the gym today?” It’s going to be a lot easier to say no than if you just decide, “I’m going to go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the same time of day, and I’m going to sort of fix that into my larger routine.” And so, the idea is sort of taking away a little bit of your ability to decide not to do the thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, burn the boats.

Russ Poldrack
Sorry, say that again?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, kind of like the burn the boats notion, like, “Oh, we can’t retreat because the boats are gone.”

Russ Poldrack
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, other sort of commitment devices or restraints. Okay.

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. Another interesting idea has come from Katy Milkman and Angela Duckworth and others, this idea called temptation bundling, where basically the idea is you give yourself a small reward in exchange for doing something that you don’t want to necessarily do at least until that thing can sort of become more habitual.

So, you might, for example, say, “Every time I go to the gym, I’m going to allow myself to have a little bit of chocolate.” Angela Duckworth and her colleagues did some research where they gave people free audiobooks to listen to while they were on the treadmill, and that actually showed that it increased people’s willingness to exercise. Even something, audiobooks are fun, they’re not like eating chocolate, but even the audiobooks were enough to sort of get people to be more likely to keep going to the gym.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if we’re trying to disentangle or get away from things we want to stop doing, what do you recommend there?

Russ Poldrack
So, I think one of the really important things is understanding what are the things that trigger the habit. We know that one of the things that makes a habit a habit is that it’s triggered by cues in the world. One of these, for example, you walk into a bar, you’re an ex-smoker, the smell of smoke or the other smells of the bar make you really want to have a cigarette. And almost every habit has some sort of thing that can trigger it.

And so, the first important thing is to like try to understand what the triggers are for you. They’re going to probably be different for every person. What are the triggers for you for the particular habit you’re trying to change? And then, one, can you get rid of those triggers? Can you kind of design your life to not encounter those things? Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t.

If you can, then the more you can do to avoid the triggers, the better off you are because one of the other things that’s so hard about habits is once they get triggered, they’re really hard to stop. It’s much easier to prevent them from ever happening, to prevent you from ever being triggered to do the thing than it is to stop yourself once it’s been triggered.

Now, there are some things that we know that can strengthen one’s ability to stop, and we know that the prefrontal cortex is kind of the brain’s central executive to the degree that humans can exert any control over what they do, it’s the prefrontal cortex that allows us to do that. And there are things that we know that can make the prefrontal cortex work better or worse. We know that stress has a really strong negative impact on the prefrontal cortex and one’s ability to exert control.

Lack of sleep is also a big way to sort of cause the prefrontal cortex to not function well. So, working on stress reduction, improving sleep, exercise, those are all things that we know can help improve prefrontal cortex function. People think that this stuff is all about willpower, but willpower is, in general, pretty weak. And once the habit takes off, it’s very hard for us to actually stop it.

So, one of the things that seems to work, there’s evidence showing in a number of different domains that this can help people change their behavior, is this idea of planning for what’s going to happen when the situation arises. So, psychologists call this an implementation intention. When it comes time to have to stop yourself from doing the thing, what are you going to do?

And so, instead of saying, “Oh, I’m not going to smoke,” say, “Well, when I go to the bar and my friend offers me a cigarette, this is exactly what I’m going to do in order to prevent myself from smoking at that point.” It doesn’t always work but there’s evidence that these types of planning interventions do seem to help people change their behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny, my creative brain just runs wild with that because there can be an infinite number of responses. I’m thinking of like dramatic things, like you can break it into and say, “No, I have conquered nicotine forever.” Okay, that’s dramatic. Or, you can say, “Oh, no, thanks.” Or, it’s sort of like you have your script, or you’re going to, I don’t know, what the alternative to smoking are in terms of I guess there’s other nicotine delivery mechanisms.

There’s like a fuse, I don’t know what it’s called. It’s like a vape. It’s not nicotine or something. So, there can be any number of replacements. And, in fact, I was intrigued you have a chapter entitled “I forgot that I was a smoker” in your table of contents. I wanted to dig into that because we talk about those triggers. It’s kind of like some triggers are internal, like, “Hmm, when I’m bored,” which is sort of happens inside all of us daily, “I pick up my smartphone and see what’s going on in social media,” or whatever, or maybe it is a cigarette or food or drink type situations.

So, when that happens, and the triggers are internal and unavoidable, tell us what are some of the best practices? There’s strengthening of the prefrontal cortex, there’s having that implementation intention.

Russ Poldrack
Implementation intention, yeah. Another thing, so I talk a bit in the book about a bit of what we’ve learned from research on Tourette Syndrome. So, Tourette Syndrome is this disorder mostly in children where the kids have tics, and these could be vocal tics, they could be facial movement. Most kids grow out of them, some people have them into their adulthood.

And there’s a bunch of work looking at what’s called habit replacement, where the idea is like if you have something that, for example, a tic, and these tics, like a person often gets a really strong urge to like to do the thing, especially if they’re trying to prevent themselves from doing it, and finally it comes out.

So, the idea is to have some other thing that you do as a replacement, and that could be, in the context of tics, it’s often like a different movement. But you can imagine finding, for example, if you usually drink alcohol and you want to sort of not drink, finding things that are as close as possible to the thing that you would want to drink but that don’t have alcohol, or as you were talking about nicotine replacement, because those sorts of things can help break that…kind of break the link between all of the cues, like the taste of the thing and the response that you get from, for example, the alcohol.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that person who forgot that they were a smoker, how did that go down?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, it’s a really interesting case. There’s actually a number of cases where this was an individual who had a stroke and it damaged the particular part of the brain that seems to be really important for sort of storing these types of kind of, I don’t know if you want to think of them as just cravings, but sort of like associations that we have with stuff that we want.

And, yeah, he apparently woke up after the stroke, and suddenly didn’t…after years of waking up every morning and having to have a cigarette first thing, woke up after the stroke, didn’t feel the need for a cigarette anymore. And when he was asked to describe what happened, he basically said, “Yeah, I just forgot I was a smoker.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so, yeah, that has fascinating implications, I’m sure, in your research associated with brain pathways and what’s going on there. Okay. And then you’ve got a particular recipe for stickiness in terms of getting habits to stick. What are the components of this recipe?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, so the brain has sort of brought together several different things that ultimately result in the fact that habits are really sticky.

So, the first one is that when a habit is developed, it never really goes away. As much as we might try to make it go away, what we’ve learned from a lot of research, especially research looking at rats learning habits, but we think it’s true in all organisms, is that when we have a habit and we want to try to get rid of that habit, what we have to do is, basically, push down the habit and learn a new behavior in its place. And as much as we might think that that old habit is gone, it’s always lurking there in the background. And if we get stressed out, or if the context changes, it’s likely to come back. That’s why we think habits are so likely to come back even many years later.

There’s also this thing that happens as something becomes a habit, our brain kind of moves it from initially relying on sort of parts of the brain that kind of make plans and plan out what we’re going to do, to the parts of the brain that are more involved in just doing actions. So, it’s almost like it becomes more of a hardwired action than something that we’re thinking about.

And another part of that is that we start to do lots of things together. We call this chunking in neuroscience, where initially we would have to plan out what are all the different actions we were going to do, say, to go to the store and go get some ice cream. And all of that becomes, in some sense, one bigger action.

And so, it’s easy for us to not sort of be thinking in the middle of what we’re doing. It’s almost like if the thing starts and it just kind of runs until it’s done. And then the other thing that starts to happen is that our attention starts to get driven by the things that are the sort of things in the world that are related to the habit.

So, for example, if you have a habit of eating ice cream, you might be particularly drawn to any kind of image of ice cream, anything in the store that has those features that you kind of associate with ice cream. And so, all those things come together to make it both really hard to get rid of a habit, and also really hard to prevent it from being turned on or to stop it once it’s going.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so given all of the knowledge and concepts and principles, can you share with us a few of the coolest stories you’ve encountered of folks who have put this into practice and done a fine job of creating habits or breaking habits that previously were eluding them?

Russ Poldrack
So, I think one really inspiring example for me is a friend of mine who, for a number of years, had a significant drug habit, narcotics, and was able to, ultimately, kind of hit bottom, and was able to come back. And I think one of the really impressive things that they used was really working on this kind of protecting the prefrontal cortex by doing meditation and really trying to obtain some kind of respite from all of the urges of the world and the voices that we hear. And I think that the ability to get some sort of mental clarity and really understand yourself like that really helps to think about, “How will I respond when the cues come up?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Russ Poldrack
No, I think we’ve hit all the high points.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, this is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Nice. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Russ Poldrack
One of the things that I always like to talk about and it kind of blows people’s minds, and they don’t believe me when I tell them about it, there’s a large body of work in psychology now on what are called flashbulb memories, which are these memories that we all have where something happens. I have one, I was in college when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, and I have this crystal-clear memory of like walking into my dorm room after class, and somebody telling me, “Oh, hey, the Space Shuttle exploded.” And we all think that those are…they’re called flashbulb memories because, for many years, many people thought that they were this perfect recording of exactly what happened.

It turns out that many people get the details of these memories completely wrong. There’s been a number of studies now that have looked at people’s memories. The first one was actually for the Challenger explosion, where they went back, they had people, like the day after the explosion, say, “Where were you yesterday when you heard about the Challenger explosion?” And then they go back months later, and say, “Where were you?”

And the people often give details that are just totally wrong but they’re still so confident in those memories. And it really highlights the fact that memory is not like a tape recorder. Memory is our brain reconstructing a story about the past.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And could you share a favorite book?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, one that I think is really fun is called How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, who’s an artist and writer. And it lays out this idea of what she calls the attention economy. It’s like the whole world is just sort of clamoring to grab our attention, and we start to think of like every moment as an opportunity to spend attention on something.

And she makes this, I think, a compelling argument, that we need to take back control of our attention, and that she refers to it as like a revolutionary act, and sort of choose to experience the world in a way that allows us to connect with other people, connect with the world around us. I think about when I was a kid, my mom would make me go to the fabric store with her, and this is before devices or anything.

And so, my brother and I would go to the fabric store with her, and we’d just sit there for 20, 30 minutes with absolutely nothing to do. And that kind of ability to tolerate boredom, like I could never go do that now, but I think that our ability to turn off our responses to the world and to…I think, mindful is a good word for it, to be more mindful about how it is that we’re engaging with the world, I think, is a really important thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, I think the one piece of software that I use that I think is really useful is, and there’s a lot of things to do this, but I use this thing called Todoist, which is a really lightweight but effective to-do list manager. I like to try to keep my inbox, my email inbox down to one page so I can at least see everything that I immediately have to worry about.

And I’m sure you get as many emails as I do, you know how hard it is to keep everything down to about…I think my page is like 40 emails. And so, having a really good to-do list manager that integrates well with your email system is really important. And so, I find that probably my most important, like small tool that helps me stay on track.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about yourself when it comes to habits? Any favorite ones that really served you well over the years?

Russ Poldrack
I think I try to walk a lot, and I think that that’s a good thing to do both because you can’t be doing other things. Well, you can but I try not to. And I think habits, I’m trying to think habits of mind because, obviously, we all often think about our habits as being actions that we take in the world. But I think habits of mind are just as important, and I think being able to find the sweet spot where you’re almost perfectionist but not quite.
Because I think perfectionism is, at least in terms of productivity, is just a killer. I know so many people who are much more brilliant than I will ever be, sort of people who wanted to go into science but basically their perfectionism prevented them from ever getting anywhere because they were never happy enough with what they had done. And so, I think finding that sweet spot between good enough and perfect, it’s a really hard thing to learn how to do but I think, at least for me, I feel like that’s been a key to success.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, it’s been underlined a bunch in the book, or you hear people quote it back to you often?

Russ Poldrack
I think the important nugget is that habits are sticky for a reason. They’re sticky because, in general, we want them to be. We don’t want to do a handstand and have our ability to see completely rewired. And I think related to that, one of the points that I often try to make about the book is that it should be a message for people to not beat themselves up when they can’t change their behavior.

Their brains were built to do exactly this, and especially our brains didn’t evolve in a world with 64-ounce sugary drinks and potato chips and drugs of the sort that one can buy either at the store or on the street. And so, our brains are really badly overpowered by the world that we live in now, and so I think that finding some compassion for one’s self around these things, I think, is really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Russ Poldrack
I’m on Twitter @russpoldrack, that’s probably the best place.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Russ Poldrack
I think it kind of goes back, actually, to the quote, which is to just find as many chances as you can to do something that you’re afraid of.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Russ, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun good habits.

Russ Poldrack
Many thanks. It’s been great fun.

777: How to Observe and Listen like a Master Interrogator with Certified Forensic Interviewer Michael Reddington

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Michael Reddington shares valuable skills–learned from having engaged in many interrogations–that make you a more observant listener and influential communicator.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The trick to staying focused and attentive 
  2. The subtle conversation cues to look out for
  3. How to ask better questions to get better answers 

About Michael

Michael Reddington, CFI is a certified forensic interviewer and the President of InQuasive, Inc., a company that integrates the key components of effective non-confrontational interview techniques with current business research for executives. Using his background in forensics, and his understanding of human behavior through interrogation, Reddington teaches businesses to use the truth to their advantage.

Reddington received his bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from Southern New Hampshire University, and received additional education on  negotiation and leadership degree from Harvard University. He currently lives in Waxhaw, NC. 

Resources Mentioned

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Michael Reddington Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Michael Reddington
Thank you for having me here, Pete. I appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your wisdom associated with listening and interviewing. And, maybe, could you kick us off with a riveting story about an interrogation you did and what went down?

Well, could we start off with a riveting story about an interrogation that you did and what happened?

Michael Reddington
Riveting story. So, now I have to come up with extra drama to make sure we put into the retelling of it. I think the one that jumps first to mind for me was, years ago, I was in the Midwest and I received a call from the owner of an organization that, it’s no overstatement, was in a bit of desperate straits. As part of their operation, they sold firearms. And as part of an organization that sells firearms, you’re subject to periodic audits from the federal government to make sure that you’re doing everything you’re supposed to and securing firearms the way you’re supposed to. And as part of this unannounced federal audit, the auditors who were from the ATF found that two firearms were missing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow.

Michael Reddington
So, the agents who, I mean, I wasn’t there. I can’t speak for the techniques that they used, but they were unable, with their initial efforts, to learn who may have been responsible for taking those guns, so they passed it on to the local police who were also unable to determine who was responsible for taking those guns. And the case languished, I believe, if I recall correctly, for eight weeks.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, dear. That’s kind of spooky.

Michael Reddington
Yeah, for not knowing where these could be. And when you think about why those would be stolen, to oversimplify it, it’s either for money or to be used. So, not that either is good, but we certainly don’t want them to be used. So, about eight weeks had gone by, they reached out to my former company, I ended up having the conversation with them about potentially going out to handle it.

So, I flew out. Met with the owner of the facility and reviewed the employees’ HR files for a couple of hours to, then, get up early the next morning and start the interviews.

And I believe that I had a pretty good idea who was responsible, interviewed some other employees who were able to give me some supportive information. And then when it came down to interview who was the gentleman who was the main suspect at that point, really from our standpoint, it’s important to remember that he has no good reason to tell us the truth, he’s already withheld it several times, could likely believe that he’s going to get away with it, or has already. He’s got to know there’s repercussions for this.

So, as we went through the conversation, the whole plan was to use a technique that he likely wasn’t familiar with, which, this might surprise people, was be nice and show respect and show empathy, and not necessarily give the impression that it’s totally cool to go out and steal guns, if that’s what you want to do, but at least show respect for him and his potential position in the situation. And, thankfully, it worked.

It’s about 23 minutes into the conversation, I asked him, “What’s the most expensive item you ever took from the store?” because my thought was he might admit to stealing something else before admitting to stealing guns, so if that’s what he wants to tell me, we’ll start there. And he exhaled deeply, looked down on his shoes, looked back at me, and said, “It was a gun.” And at that point, we were off to the races.

So, getting the admission to the two guns, it turned out to be the least difficult part of the process. As we were talking about the two guns, he told me that he had one and told me exactly where it was in his house, and told me that he had sold another one. To your reaction earlier, I got to find that. I can’t just say, “Okay, cool. Thanks,” and leave. So, he was far more resistant to sharing the name of the person who he sold the firearm to than he was telling that he had taken the two firearms.

And the empathetic approach that eventually worked in order to get that information from him after a period of, could’ve been 10 minutes or so, of resistance where he didn’t want to share the name, was illustrating to him, without using any names or pointing to anybody specifically, that if law enforcement were sent to recover a firearm and they are uncertain as to how that process might go, they might enter that building with one set of expectations where it could lead to a situation we’d all like to avoid. Considering how much we would care about anybody involved in that situation, the more we can level-set the expectations going in, the more we can ensure that any type of recovery efforts doesn’t go sideways.

At that point, he decided not only to give me the name but provide me with turn-by-turn directions, a work phone number, and a cellphone number to this gentleman. So, once we had all of that documented, we were able to turn him over to the police. I stayed in that town for the next two days because I was teaching a seminar. The schedule worked out perfect. And by the end of that week, I was able to confirm that both guns had been recovered, and both gentlemen had been incarcerated.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, happy ending. Well done. And so, the magic was just being nice and some lay out the situation. I don’t want to diminish your job, Michael, but it doesn’t sound too hard. What’s going on?

Michael Reddington
When we do a good job, it shouldn’t look too hard, it shouldn’t sound too hard. But, to your point, that belies the preparation and the technique that’s used. I don’t want to use an analogy that goes too far but, oftentimes, if you watch athletes on TV, it looks easy, without realizing the hours of preparation that they’ve put in behind that.

To answer the first half of your question, yes, being nice to people is a core component. If we are asking somebody to share sensitive information under vulnerable circumstances, especially if that sensitive information leads to potential consequences, the single most important thing we need to do is communicate with them in a way where they avoid feeling embarrassed and they avoid feeling judged. Period. That is the most important thing we can do.

If we can do that in a way that helps us build our credibility in the situation while allowing them to save face, and to steal a phrase, violates their expectation. In that situation, he was probably expecting another investigator to likely take a hard judgmental approach and try to corner him into feeling forced to admit. Well, he’s going to have a prepared defense for that. So, if I can go in being nice, not showing judgment and allowing him to save face, yes, that’s a core component where we like to often say, “You will be surprised what people will tell you when you’re nice.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so be nice, that’s a great takeaway for work and all kinds of places. I’m curious, when there are in terms of the conversations that occur at work, what are some of the key situations and scenarios you see are most applicable to using your toolkit here?

Michael Reddington
Thank you for asking. Many. Leadership and coaching conversations. Conflict between employees. Any type of investigative conversation, of course. Sales and business development. Negotiations. Candidate interviewing. For most leaders at any level of an organization, from frontline managers, all the way up the org chart, they spend a considerable amount of their day in conversations with people where their job is to, in some combination, acquire information and inspire a change in behavior. So, any time where we are communicating with people to obtain information, in order to help us make a better decision and/or change someone’s behavior, obtain a commitment to action, these concepts apply.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so we got a couple of takeaways associated with being unpredictable, allowing them to save face, being kind. Any other particularly surprising discoveries you’ve made about listening and conversations over the course of many, many conversations and lots of research in your career?

Michael Reddington
Yeah, I’ll go with two off the top of my head. The first one is our internal monologue is likely the single most dangerous factor in our conversations. Simply put, if you and I are talking, I can’t have anything more important to say to myself than you have to say to yourself.

So, if you’re talking to yourself at the same time I’m talking to you, you’re not listening to me, and I don’t blame you for that, it’s naturally how our brains are wired, but, unfortunately, in those situations, we trick ourselves into believing we listen because I’m picking up just enough on what’s somebody’s saying that my brain automatically fills in the blanks and makes the assumption that I got the full message.

As that’s happening, I’m likely focusing on what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, defending my positions, thinking about my emotions, how do I feel, or maybe I’m just completely checked out. So, it’s not a double-edged sword because both edges are negative. Not only am I missing out on your message but I’m compounding that based on where my monologue is taking myself. So, the importance of developing the ability to limit our internal monologue is one.

The second that comes to mind right away is the concept that time is the enemy of empathy. Our brains can’t multitask. So, just like I can’t multitask, I can’t listen to myself while I’m listening to you, I also can’t focus on the intelligence buried within your communication, the layers and the nuances that are so very important to helping me create unexpected value, if I’m focusing on the time, “I need to be out of here in five minutes. I have another meeting in 10 minutes. When this conversation is over, I need to be somewhere else. I wish Pete would hurry up and get to the point so I can just say.”

As soon as I start prioritizing time, how quickly I need to end this conversation, or how quickly I need to learn information, I’m now prioritizing time over value, and my ability to empathize, understand, and connect with somebody is going to drop precipitously.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds like it’s your awareness of time. I suppose you could conceivably just set an alarm. If you only have half an hour, you set an alarm and you just forget about the clock entirely, and it’s like, “Oh, crap. Well, that went beep so I guess we’re going to have to resume this a little later.”

Michael Reddington
That’s one way. One of the focuses that I took from a career in interrogation, quick backstory without deviating too far, the majority of the conversations I facilitated in my investigative interviewing career were noncustodial, meaning people were not under arrest, they were not Mirandized, they were free to get up and go at any time, and if I, in any way, attempted to impede their ability to leave, I was putting myself and my company in serious legal jeopardy.

So, based on a rather nebulous Supreme Court ruling, we operated under the understanding that we have 60 minutes to get the first indication of wrongdoing, and once we had that, we had a reasonable amount of time to wrap up. But if we have no evidence and not even a tacit admission within 60 minutes, we ought to really start thinking about wrapping this up, transitioning, “Where do we go next?”

So, if I sat down in any interrogation and thought to myself, “I’ve got 60 minutes,” in my head I’m thinking, “59, 58, 57,” all the way down. Now, because I’m focusing on the time, I’m more likely to rush and make mistakes. Now, if I understand that I’ve got 60 minutes, that means I have this window, this timeframe to use to my advantage. So, one of the things that we preach is allow the conversation to come to you, because if we’re not listening, we’re not learning. And if we’re not learning, we’re probably not uncovering any paths to uncover this hidden value.

So, when we let the conversation come to us, really, what we’re doing is, in order to do that well, I should go back and say we really need to understand, clearly, going into the conversation, “What are our goals?” If I know where I want this conversation to end, it really doesn’t matter where you started. It doesn’t matter at all because I can use, wherever it starts, and over time, nudge it and guide it to where I need it to go.

So, as opposed to setting an alarm, if I can understand, “Well, this is where I need to be, so I’m going to allow the conversation to come to me, I’m going to let Pete start it, guide it, get whatever is off his chest or important to him first, and from there I’m going to work it to where I need it to be.” Now, I’m embracing that learning mentality towards goal achievement as opposed to focusing on, “I’ve only got 30 minutes. I need to make sure I get to the point.”

Pete Mockaitis
Now, your book The Disciplined Listening Method: How A Certified Forensic Interviewer Unlocks Hidden Value in Every Conversation, let’s hear the big idea behind the book, sort of like the core message or thesis. And what do you mean by hidden value specifically?

Michael Reddington
That’s how I write into the thesis. So, really, the big idea behind the book is that there are so many opportunities that we have, not only the ability to capture, but have the ability to create in our important conversations, and all the listeners can decide what’s an important conversation to them – business, personal, who they’re talking to, what the potential opportunities or repercussions of those conversations are, but, really, the big idea is, “What do we need to do in order to capture and create those opportunities and stop letting them fall through our fingers?”

And so, with that, The Disciplined Listening Method, ‘if we’re to use the coin analogy, has two sides to the coin. One is that strategic observation side, “How do I really evolve my ability as an observer to pick up on all the nuances of what’s happening in front of me, understand what I’m experiencing internally, and work through that in a goal-achieve mindset framework?”

And then the flipside of the coin is to improve our influential communication, “How do I communicate, how do I ask questions in a way that are more likely,” as we mentioned earlier, “to help people save face and increase their comfort level in sharing sensitive information with us so we gather more intelligence, we make better decisions, we achieve better outcomes, we solidify better relationships?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you’ve got seven core behaviors in The Disciplined Listening Method. I want to dig into a few things you’ve said already, and then we’ll round out as many of the seven as we have time for.

Michael Reddington
Let’s do it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the internal dialogue, that sounds like a huge foundational starting point right there in terms of if you’re more distracted by what’s coming up for lunch or whatever other interesting thoughts are in your head, then you’re going to have a heck of a time observing nuances, remembering your great questions, and influential communication approaches. So, can you kick us off by sharing, okay, we’ve all got internal monologue, how do we get a bit of control or handle on limiting that?

Michael Reddington
Great question. A couple alternatives for that. Number one, whenever possible, our preparation and the thoroughness of our preparation will help. Now, this is better prepared for a conversation more than a spontaneous conversation. But if I know where I want this conversation to go, if I’m comfortable with my material, if I’m comfortable with the questions I want to ask in advance of the conversation, then I don’t need to think about those things.

I’m not a musician so I’m going to steal this analogy. But as my musician friends tell me they can’t play guitar and think of the words at the same time. They can think of the words and have the chords on auto, or they can have the words on auto and think of the chords, but they can’t think of both at the same time. So, if I can be prepared with what I want to say, what do I want to ask, where do I need to go, I can work to shut down my internal monologue and really focus on you because there’s got many less variables I’m accounting for. That type of preparation isn’t always available.

During the conversation, the next one, is the intentional effort. So, when I pick up that my internal monologue is leading me astray, when I catch myself focusing on an emotion, or where I need to be in 10 minutes, or what else I’d rather be doing, or what I need to say next, or the point I need to defend next, that’s a checkpoint for me to say, “Wait a minute. I need to refocus.”

The third one is the one that I have found to be most helpful. More often than not, our internal monologue has an emotional component, and when our emotions change, we generally get a physiological indication that our emotions are changing before we realize it in our mind, “Oh, no, my emotions are shifting.”

So, in order to catch it at the earliest piece, what we’d like to do is coach people to try to identify “What are your physical triggers? What are your first indications, physically, that your emotions are changing?” I will admit mine for everybody, which is a bit embarrassing, but it’s curling my toes in my shoes. Often, if I’m having a conversation with somebody and my emotions start to shift, I start curling my toes in my shoes.

So, as soon as I feel my toes curling, I might not rationally understand that my emotions are changing, what they’re changing to, or why they’re changing, but as soon as I catch my toes moving in my shoes, that’s my indication that I need to focus. Now, if my emotions are changing quicker, maybe I’m making a fist in my pocket, or maybe my face is getting red, or my heartrate is beating faster, or my lungs are breathing heavier, any one of these things as well. But, for me, largely, I’m going to listen to my body. And my tell, more often than not, is my toes.

So, for anybody that knows me and listens to this, I can’t wait to watch them stare at my feet from now on when we have conversations. But as soon as I feel those toes moving, I know I need to be focused and limit wherever my internal monologue is taking me at that point because it’s generating emotions that are likely counterproductive to the goals I’m trying to achieve.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you say emotions change, I mean, I think if the stakes aren’t that high, I don’t know, can these emotions change, just be a little bit from, “Oh, I’m interested,” to, “I’m kind of bored and tired”? Is that like the subtlety or minuteness we’re talking about an emotional change?

Michael Reddington
Yeah, it could be shifting to annoyed, to bored, to done, like, “I’ve heard enough.” And you’re right, even in these low-stakes conversations, the emotional shifts can be just that. And in that case, maybe it’s not my toes

It could be that I’m looking at my watch, or I’m looking at the door, or I’m starting to play with my coffee cup on the table, or some of these signals we might be sending consciously or subconsciously to our counterpart that this conversation is over. If I’m sending that signal that I’m clearly not listening, which means I’m clearly not learning.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, you said a few times that you observed something in yourself, and that’s your cue to refocus.

Michael Reddington
Yes, sir.

Pete Mockaitis
So, now, can we get very precise and granular and specific about what does refocusing consist of? Because I think people, they struggle with distractions of all sorts, of all shapes, and conversations and elsewhere, smartphones and more, so to refocus, for many, it’s easier said than done. How does one refocus?

Michael Reddington
Literally, for me, it’s by saying to myself, “I need to listen to Pete.” Literally. I’ll go back to the toes, I catch my toes, my first thought is, “I need to listen to Pete because clearly I’m not right now.” So, now as I go back and start listening to you, the next question in my mind, which I know dives back into internal monologue as I’m helping to get refocused here, the next question is, “How does what he’s saying help me achieve my goals?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then you‘ve got…I like that because the first one, in a way, as far as internal monologues go, it’s a little bit of a splash of cold water. It’s not too intense in terms of you’re not just terrorizing yourself, beating yourself up, but there’s a firmness to it. I’m thinking about my kids, like if I were to say that, “Hey, you need to go brush your teeth.” Okay, that’s escalating on the serious scale.

And then you return to your question. I guess that goes back to the preparation, is that you’ve got a sense for what the goals are, what you’re trying to achieve, which is “I probably best practice for most people and most conversations in work and elsewhere.” And so, there you have it. Now, if this happens again and again and again, well, you tell me, Michael, might you have to give yourself this stern admonition, like a dozen times a minute? Or, what are we thinking?

Michael Reddington
Hopefully not in a minute but maybe a dozen times in a conversation. One of the things, especially for leaders and getting in in-level in the organization, and it’s true for parents as well, coaches, youth sports, whatever it is, that any time we feel like we have a level of expertise in a situation, that level of expertise can hurt us as much as it can help us.

Because if I believe I know how this movie ends, if I believe I already have the right idea or the right solution, then I’m not listening to learn. I’m listening for the first opportunity I have to convey how smart I am, what my idea has, or to wrap this conversation up as soon as possible. So, if I keep falling into that trap, then, yes, I might have to kick myself back into this conversation multiple times. Hopefully, it’s not 12 times a minute, but, yeah, I might have to, multiple times in a conversation.

One of the things that we like to coach is that if we reflect on our communication experiences, so, let’s say that, over the course of a day, I have a dozen important conversations, could be with customers, internally other leaders in the organization, my wife here at home. And as I reflect on my day before I go to bed, I think to myself, “Ten of those conversations really felt like my counterparts were engaged and had a pretty good idea of where I was coming from, what I was saying, two of them didn’t, that was probably a them issue.”

But if I reflect on my day, and I think, “Well, I had 12 important conversations today, and in 10 of them, the people I was talking to just couldn’t grasp what I was saying, where I was coming from, the importance of my message. They weren’t getting it.” Well, I’m the lowest common denominator in those 10 conversations. So, the likelihood that this is a me problem is now really high.

So, if we find ourselves in any type of repetitive situation, or we feel like we’re not achieving our outcomes, or we’re running into more resistance in our conversations, one of the questions we like to coach to ask ourselves is, “Am I the lowest common denominator? And if it appears that I am,” to your point, “what behaviors do I need to change? How do I need to update my approach?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s some internal monologue pieces. You also talked about observing nuances. Like, what are the kinds of things that you recommend we keep our eyes open for?

Michael Reddington
Thank you for asking. I’m going to start with a don’t and then get to more do’s. Don’t try to catch people lying. There’s no point. Essentially, everything we’ve ever been told that people do when they lie, scientifically has been proven is not an indication that they’re lying, and realistically is an indication that they’ve become uncomfortable.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Joe Navarro, we had on the show, talked about this. Like, there’s no telltale sign, “Oh, you touched your nose or your ears or your eyes went in this direction, or you covered your suprasternal notch,” that all these things likely mean there is some discomfort for who knows why. It’s cold. They’re kind of bored. They are tired of going through this again. They don’t want you to find out about something else they’re hiding, which is completely unrelated to the matter at hand. Okay, so right on. It sounds like you got a checkmark there, like forget the deception there.

Michael Reddington
Yes, and he’s a perfect resource for that. So, as we move away from trying to catch people lying, what we really want to focus on is just that, I’m looking for changes in somebody’s comfort level throughout the conversation. And then with a heightened level of situational awareness, looking to tie their change in comfort to the most likely trigger, “Was it something that I just said? Was it something they were saying?” To your point, “Is the room cold?” “Did somebody just walk in that they’re trying to avoid?” That contextual or situational awareness really is the missing ingredient to accurately identifying somebody’s emotional shift.

But, by and large, without even getting into that level of nuance, if we’re just looking for, to oversimplify it, to somebody who looks happy, sad, frustrated, what does their emotional shift look like? For me, just some basics, and Joe might have mentioned some of these, if I’m having a conversation with somebody and we’re standing up, talking to each other, are their feet pointed towards me and are their shoulders parallel with mine? If the answer to both questions is yes, they’re probably relatively engaged. If their feet are pointing away, or if their shoulders are turning away, or they keep looking away, this isn’t rocket science, they’re probably not so much engaged with me.

For me, another myth, if somebody crosses their arms, it doesn’t mean that they’re closed off or defensive. It means they’re likely either the physical discomfort, could be cold, or their back hurts, or emotionally vulnerable at the moment, and their face might be a better place to look to figure out what the specific emotional vulnerability is at that point in time.

But, for me, especially with the nonverbals, what behavior changes isn’t nearly as important as when the behavior changes. So, if I know that I’m saying something to somebody that might cause a stress or a reaction, that’s where I’m looking for that shift in their behavior that potentially indicates they’re more stressful.

On the verbal communication side, I’ll cut straight to my favorite. My absolute favorite thing to observe for when somebody is communicating to me is if they start saying a word, cut themselves off in the middle of the word, and replace it with a different word in the same sentence. So, as an example, if I’m having a conversation, let’s say, I’m talking to…or I have one of my employees talking to me, another manager is talking to me, and she comes up to me and says, “At this point, I’m really just af– well, I believe that my team is concerned at this point that their ability to be successful is limited with the resources they don’t currently have, or limited by the resources they don’t currently have.”

So, the word she stopped herself from saying is afraid. So, now when I hear her cut that word off, talking about intelligence, I can now be reasonably confident that she is afraid, that she doesn’t want me to know that she’s afraid, that she is now using how her team feels in this situation as a way to likely save face and communicate how she feels in this situation, and she’s going through an impression management exercise, which tells me that my presence in this conversation is generating some stress for her based on some potential consequences that could be real and perceived.

So, I can gather all of that intelligence just by catching somebody replace a word or stop a word midstream, change the word, and keep talking. There are other examples, I’d be happy to give you different things I listen for as well, but, for me, that is, from a verbal communication standpoint, often the single biggest thing that gives me the most intelligence right away.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, that’s lovely. I’ve never thought to pay a lot of attention to that, and now I do. So, transformation accomplished. Thank you, Michael.

Michael Reddington
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, lay some more on us. What else are you looking for?

Michael Reddington
From a general standpoint, I’m looking for changes in their speed of delivery, how loud or soft they talk, any pauses. Does the pause fit the question? That’s another big one. I’m not so worried about if somebody has a long pause or a short pause. I care, “Does the pause fit the question?” If I ask somebody a question they really should have to think about and they give me a quick answer, they either prepared in advance, they’re blowing me off, or they don’t have the answer.

If, on the other hand, I ask somebody a question that they should have a really quick answer to, and, instead, they take a long time to think about it, “Well, why are they taking so long to think about this answer when it’s something that they should have off the top of their head?” So, it’s not so much “Is it a short pause or a long pause?” It’s, “Does the pause fit the question?”

And the same thing is true with tone of voice. Does the tone match the message? If somebody is portraying a confident message but it has a questioning tone, they’re probably not as confident as they’re portraying. So, I’m sure there are international listeners to this program, so what I’m about to say is going to be geared a little bit towards American English.

If I hear a question mark where a period should be at the end of a sentence, instead of saying, “Yes, I can do it,” it’s, “Yeah, I can do it?” they have that spike at the end of that question mark, I would never go as far as to say they’re lying. I would go as far as to say one of two other alternatives or more likely. One, they’re not as confident as they’re trying to portray that they can do it, or, two, they’re testing us to see if we believe that they can do it. So, that would be another one I listen for there.

Pronoun usage is another big one. Often, if people are trying to distance themselves from responsibility, the pronouns will change in their statements. So, if I get a lot of us-es and we’s in the beginning, and then a lot of them and they’s when the unfortunate part of the situation happened, that could be an indication that they’re distancing themselves. The reverse could be true as well. They could start with a lot of they’s and them’s and then later on, start slipping in some we’s and us-es, which could be an indication that they’re more involved than they were letting on.

Same thing is true with tense changes. If the tense changes in somebody’s story, past tense, present tense, if they go back and forth, that can be an indication. Really, as I pick up on these things and more, what I’m consistently listening for is something that you mentioned earlier, which is the opportunity to help somebody save face. And when Joe talked about not trying to catch people lying, there’s little to no benefit in that, really, what we should be listening to is “How or why is somebody trying to help themselves save face?” and then how do we go about that.

So, literally, earlier today, I was part of a conversation where one of my clients is working on a negotiation where we know for a fact that they’ve been lied to. And the message that I received today was, first, we need them to tell us the truth. And the conversation after that was, actually, we don’t. What we need to do is find an opportunity to allow them to save face and continue the conversation so we get the outcome we’re looking for. If we prioritize, essentially, getting them to confess to previously lying to us, and we don’t have a good way to help them save face with the process, we run the risk of torpedoing what we’re trying to achieve with this partnership.

So, instead of being focused on righting this moral wrong – we’ve been lied to – let’s just accept that we know that it’s happened. It’s unfortunate, we wished we didn’t. It doesn’t say a lot about the other side. But what’s the intelligence within that lie and how do we now help them save face moving forward to get what we want? So, those face-saving opportunities are really what we’re often observing for.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, when we are doing the influential communication, any key tips you’d recommend there?

Michael Reddington
For sure, and it all lies in with the concept of helping people save face. We should be going out of our way, literally, regardless of a specific technique, if we start by just thinking, “At the end of this conversation, I don’t want…” well, I’ll just say Pete for our purposes of this, “I don’t want Pete to feel embarrassed or judged. If I just start there, I’ll be in great shape. I don’t want you to feel embarrassed or judged.”

So, we like to say illustrate before you investigate. So, what I want to do is I want to show some illustration of my understanding of your situation, which often, and quite surprisingly, will give people an excuse to answer the question and save face. So, a common example, especially in the workplace, is somebody committed to getting something done and they’re not going to have it done on time.

Well, if I was to approach you, and say, “Pete, where are you on this? Are you going to have it done on time?” you have two choices. One, you can lie to me and say, “Yes,” to save face and hope for the best. Or, two, you can come up with some excuse as to why it’s not done yet, as you try to save face and maybe get some extra help. So, I’m literally going to start there. Instead of just coming up and saying, “Hey, Pete, where are you on this project? Are you going to be done by Friday?”

Now, I want to approach you and say, “Hey, Pete, how’s it going? I know we’ve had a lot of things added to our plate that we didn’t plan on, trying to help the marketing team, the customer change their expectations, even our family has been crazy. We’ve tried to balance remote work and coming into the office. So, with all of these things that we’ve been dealing with, considering how important this project is, Pete, let me ask you. If I had to reallocate resources in order to help make sure this gets done on time, what would be the most valuable thing I could do for you to make sure this project gets done on time by Friday?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you’re right. I’ve got so many openings there, and if it’s really, really under control, it’s like, “Yeah, I don’t really need anything but I really appreciate you asking.” It’s like, “Okay, we can feel very confident that that’s pretty darn truthful because you gave me every opening.”

Michael Reddington
A hundred percent. And you’re not offended by it, so you’re like, “No, man, appreciate it. I’m good.” But if you really do need help, now there are any number of ways to save face, “Thank you for asking. If this help was available, or that help was available.” And, now, if any listeners are thinking, “Well, what if I don’t want to give him help?” You’re not obligated to at this point. But we’ve given him an excuse to talk about where he is.

Now, if in this situation, you and I can have a conversation, figure out how far behind you are, if there’s a way that you can get it back on track yourself – great. If not, well, depending on how important this project is, I might be reallocating some assets and changing some schedules to make sure it gets done on time. So, that would be another example of really focusing on the goal, successful completion of the project, when I think about asking the question.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Anything else in terms of questions you love asking or any phrases, scripts, verbiage, that’s just so helpful again and again?

Michael Reddington
Yeah, I’ll give you a couple. My favorite way to phrase a question is, “Please walk me through.” When we say to somebody “Please walk me through,” I’m suggesting that my expectation is both chronological order and detail. So, generally, that makes it easier for me to determine when a story is either out of chronological order and/or missing detail. Because of the way that I suggested the question is answered, it makes it easier for me to figure out where potential opportunities for follow-up are within the story.

Along the same lines, please don’t ever ask somebody, “Can you remember?” or “Do you recall?” We can’t prove it that they know that, so they’re going to give us the yes or no, whichever is face-saving for them, and we could get stuck cold in the bag if it’s not true later on, so it’s not a perfect replacement. But I like to replace that with “Please take me back to…” At least, now I’m forcing their brain to kick off a little bit. It’s given me more of a behavioral read as they think of their answer. They might still say, “I can’t remember,” but at least I’ve given myself a fighting chance.

And then, for me, if I am giving an illustration and I’m trying to learn information from somebody, and I’m trying to help them feel more comfortable sharing additional information with me, the closest thing I have to a silver bullet is the phrase “Please correct me where I’m wrong,” which is significantly different from “Please correct me if I’m wrong.”

If I was to say, “Please correct me if I’m wrong,” that comes across arrogant, assumptive, and you probably just checked out. But especially if I’m talking to somebody who, emotionally, morally, based on position or rank or expertise, feels like they’re superior to me in a conversation, there’s a reasonable chance that they would love an opportunity to correct me.

So, if I preface an illustration by saying, “Pete, I’d like to take a second just to make sure that I’m tracking in the right direction, so please correct me where I go wrong. I’d appreciate that.” Now, I almost certainly have a higher level of your attention because I’ve asked you to do the one thing you want to do, so you’re probably more focused.

Now, as I go through my illustration, when I’m done, I’m literally going to stop, and now I‘m going to give you the opportunity to respond. If my observation is on track, you’re more likely going to…more than likely to say either, “You’re right,” or, “You’re not wrong.” In either situation, I have just increased the perception of my credibility, level-set this conversation, and now earn the opportunity to continue asking questions, which I might not need to because you may be so inspired by hearing that illustration and affirming that I’m correct, that you start filling in the blanks.

That also works when we miss. Now, I would never coach somebody to miss intentionally. Any time we risk coming across inauthentic or lying or insincere, there’s ripple effects there we don’t even want to deal with. But if I give this a legitimate shot and I just missed, and instead of saying “You’re right,” you come back with, “Close.” My job is to be patient because I’m willing to bet, after you say, “Close,” you are going to explain to me what I missed because I asked you to correct me.

So, in your explanation of what I missed, or how I didn’t quite get it, or what I don’t know or wasn’t thinking, I am now gathering a significant amount of intelligence without ever having to ask for it. So, I don’t risk creating question fatigue because I’m asking too many questions, and you’re happier to share the information with me because you feel like it was your idea, and it wasn’t forced upon you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Thank you. Well, now let’s hear about a few of your favorite things. Could you start us off with a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Reddington
My favorite quote, actually, I believe ties into a lot of what we talked about today. It’s an old Sun Tzu quote, other people probably use it as well. I believe it goes, “Submitting the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” That’s the quote, “Submitting the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” And not that in any way I’m suggesting everybody we talk to is our enemy, but I am certainly suggesting that getting through conversations without creating unnecessary conflict is, metaphorically, the acme of skill.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Michael Reddington
I’ll quote three, and it comes down to first impressions, and it really level-sets how I interact with people So, there were three studies from three independent universities, I’m assuming I’m going to get them correct. The first one came out of Princeton, was that we are capable of judging somebody’s intellect, character, and trustworthiness, if I have that correct, within 100 milliseconds after looking at their face.

A similar study out of the University of Glasgow showed that we’re capable of determining the same factors within 500 milliseconds of hearing somebody say the word hello. The third study came out of the University of Colorado, where they found that we’re capable of categorizing somebody, essentially fitting them within one of our previously conceived mental models, as fast as 100-150 milliseconds. So, really keeping in mind that we’re judging people that fast, and we need to be careful, but also that people are judging us that fast. And the literal instant of introduction is so important to set the tone for our conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, when you say we’re capable of, I imagine, is it fair to say, it doesn’t mean we’re capable of doing it well or correctly, it’s just that we can make snap judgments and they may or may not be correct?

Michael Reddington
Roger that, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Michael Reddington
I would start by saying I highly recommend people read every word Robert Cialdini ever wrote.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. We’ve had him on the show. He’s amazing.

Michael Reddington
Yes. So, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Pre-Suasion, anything that he wrote. I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, and I’m not breaking any new ground there. For me, the best leadership book I’ve ever read, and it’s hands down, no competition, is a book called Care to Dare by George Kohlrieser, so I’ll throw that one on the list as well. I think that’s probably a pretty good list to start. I also like the Freakonomics crab. I’m forgetting their…both the authors are named Steve, but Think Like a Freak and those books. I’m a huge fan of those books as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job.?

Michael Reddington
Patience. Give other people the space they need to talk. The more they talk, the more they learn. The more they talk, the more they feel respected, the more they feel that we care about them, the more they feel that we’re invested in them. I know, especially with leaders in a time-compressed world, patience is a four-letter word, but I honestly believe if I had to rank conversational tools that lead to success, if I understand your question correctly, patience is right at the top of the list.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really connects and resonates with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Michael Reddington
That time is the enemy of empathy comes back to me a lot. I’ll give you two more. People react the strongest to what they observe first. Go back to those statistics about how quickly we’re judging people. We tend to carry expectations into every interaction. We tend to commit the level of energy and a focus that we believe is appropriate based on the expectations we carry in. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, people react the strongest to what they observe first. Whatever we say or do first, how that either lines up or violates their expectation, often kicks off their initial reaction process. And with that people will perceive how we communicate with them as proof of how much we respect them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Michael Reddington
Appreciate you asking. They can learn more about the book at DisciplinedListening.com. they can learn more about what we do at InQuasive at InQuasive.com. And if they want to learn more about me, the two best places to look would be MichaelReddington.com or on LinkedIn at Michael Reddington, CFI.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael Reddington
Go into as many conversations as you can and allow yourself to be surprised. Go into every conversation, thinking to yourself, “How can this person surprise me?” Our brains are wired to look for information that confirms what we already think and believe, we’re wired to disregard information that conflicts with what we already think and believe.

So, if we can go into our important conversations, and think, “Okay, let’s see how Pete surprises me today,” and not from a point of arrogance, “Let’s see if Pete can surprise me today,” but from like a literal point of curiosity, “Let’s see how Pete surprises me today.” We’ll be surprised, we’ll be able to learn, and then how we’ll be able to use what we learn to impact our relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Michael, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you the best and many great conversations.

Michael Reddington
I appreciate the time, sir. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it as well.

776: How to Pushback Effectively and Stand Up For What You Want with Selena Rezvani

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Selena Rezvani reveals why self-advocacy is critical for success–and how to do it effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to turn a “vague no” into something you can use 
  2. The LARA framework for when you’re faced with a no
  3. How to know when it’s time to stop pushing 

About Selena

Selena Rezvani’s mission is to help professionals stand up for themselves at work and advocate for their needs. She’s the author of 2 leadership books, the bestseller Pushback and The Next Generation of Women Leaders. 

Selena addresses thousands of professionals each year and has been featured in TEDx, Oprah.com, Inc., Todayshow.com, and NPR. Today she’s a columnist for NBC News Know Your Value. Selena is based in Philadelphia where she lives with her husband Geoff and 9 year old boy-girl twins.  

Resources Mentioned

Selena Rezvani Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Selena, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Selena Rezvani
Thank you so much, Pete. I love this podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I’m excited to get into your wisdom and I also want to hear about your experience. Recently, you’ve become an enthusiast for weightlifting, as am I. What’s your story here?

Selena Rezvani
Yes, I’m a runner and I dealt with some runner’s knee that made it difficult to do that at the same rate I had been doing it, and so I was really bummed. And then the world of weightlifting opened up, and I kind of created my own home pandemic gym.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, great.

Selena Rezvani
And it’s been so cool and, like, really empowering, may I add.

Pete Mockaitis
You may, indeed. I feel the same way. What is it you love most about it?

Selena Rezvani
Well, I think it’s being able to watch yourself getting stronger and see some proof of that, you know, with bigger weights and bigger barbells and dumbbells and stuff, and doing things you didn’t think you could. It’s kind of nice to prove yourself wrong. How about you?

Pete Mockaitis
I feel the same way. And what I really like is I’m a believer in the notion of doing your best, but what’s funny, in my brain, I get all wrapped up in opportunity costs, “Well, my best, conceivably, I could spend 20 hours doing this thing to be my best.” But in the gym, it’s just very clear, it’s like, “It would be impossible for me to do a single additional repetition at this weight, and that is my best. That is just indisputable.” And then to watch that indisputable best go up and up and up, it’s like, “Huh, I have incontrovertible evidence that I am stronger now than I was one week ago, and that feels good.”

Selena Rezvani
Yes, that’s right. In a world where there’s not always a lot of concrete progress, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. Absolutely. And it just feels good in terms of energy boost for the day and it just comes in handy, and I’m 38 years old now and, in not too many years, muscle begins going away from me, which will be a sad day but better to be ahead of the curve such that you’re able to rock and roll when you’re 90, hopefully.

Selena Rezvani
I think so. I think it keeps you young. I really do in a different way than other exercise.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I want to talk about some of the wisdom in your book Pushback: How Smart Women Ask–and Stand Up–for What They Want. Now, our listeners are mostly women but I am presuming, Selena, that these insights are, many of them, applicable to men as well. Is that fair to say?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, it is actually, and to introverted folks, no matter how they identify their gender. Some of the same characteristics actually come up with folks who might struggle to speak up and speak their mind. So, I think very universal tactics here.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, could you kick us off with a particularly surprising discovery you’ve made as you were researching and putting this together?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, one of them came from my professor, actually kind of nudging me and giving me the kick and the push I needed to be a better advocate. And when I was in business school, I had this exciting opportunity to lead some research and choose what the topic of the research was and direct it, and you’d have to write a proposal, and I knew just what I wanted to do. I wanted to interview women about how they had negotiated their success, C-level women.

There’s only one problem, Pete, which is I didn’t know a single one, had zero connections to connections to them either, and my one female professor in my MBA program said, Lindsey Thomson is her name, she said, “Selena, I will approve your request to go interview women execs on one condition.” She said, “You have to go after the whales.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Selena Rezvani
“You have to go after the women you think won’t even entertain an email from you, let alone an hour of their time.” And, thank goodness, she did that because so many of those women said yes, and those interviews changed my life, how I see leadership, and I knew this could help other people. So, it became a book, a business, a mission.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, even before we get into the particulars of the book, I want to know what are your pro tips for getting powerful, busy, influential people to say yes to you and take the time?

Selena Rezvani
That’s such a good question and one I haven’t thought about in a little while. I would say operate on a no-surprise basis, like, this is a group that doesn’t want to be surprised. They want to know, “Why me? Why this topic? And, like, why you?” Selena, the interviewer, in this case. And so, I think I needed to make that clear in my email pitch. It was an email pitch.

It wasn’t calling them on the phone or harassing but just a really open out-on-the-table, “Here’s why I think you’d be excellent. Here’s why I think this topic really overlaps and aligns with what you’re about. And here’s where I’m coming from and what I hope to do with it.” And so many of them either right away said yes, or those that had 57 questions tended not to, and I think that’s an interesting datapoint. It either hit and resonated or just it didn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes sense in terms of if a person has 57 follow-up questions, they’re not completely uninterested or else they would just sort of say no or ignore you, but they’re not fired up in terms of, “Oh, yeah, I’m so in. This is inspiring.” Like, “Well, this may be worth my time. What’s your projected reach and dah, dah, dah?”

Selena Rezvani
Exactly. And you have to remember, at that level, individuals have a lot of handlers and people weighing in, and communication departments, PR departments vetting things like this. Sometimes other departments are involved as well. So, sometimes my interviews had those individuals in the room with us as a kind of support to the executive or making sure they didn’t say the wrong thing. So, I think some of the questions may have been coming from the teams that’s surrounding these execs.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. All right. Well, so onto the meat of things. What’s the big idea behind Pushback?

Selena Rezvani
Well, the big idea is that there are some gender differences that are really important when it comes to negotiating for what we want and for what we need. Women tend to report more apprehension asking for what they need, and yet they are excellent advocates, very effective advocates for others, saying, “This person deserves recognition,” or, “This person really ought to be promoted and advanced in the organization.”

And one more datapoint that really screamed out at me, women are less likely to negotiate when conditions are ambiguous. And if that doesn’t describe the workplace, I don’t know what does. It can be a very ambiguous place, a lot of gray area, and I wanted to do something about that. And so, that really led me to seek out 20 C-level women executives to understand, “How did you negotiate success at work?” And the culmination of those interviews, those best tips, those hardest-won lessons, is really what Pushback is all about.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, please lay it on us, what are some of the highest impact tips in terms of, there’s a lot of ways we could frame this, but I’ll say if I could be choosy, those that take relatively little effort and provide a huge return on that effort, and are relatively rarely practiced?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah. Well, there’s one that stands out to me. Something lots of professionals have brought up is, “I got a vague no. I mustered up the courage to pitch or propose or ask for something, and I got this vague dismissal of a no.” And one of the pieces of feedback I have for people is to really insist on objective criteria.

That may require you to peel the onion back. But a quick example of this comes from one of the women I interviewed, DeeDee Wilson, a CFO at Nike, and she said, “I was told, at one point in my career, ‘DeeDee, you’re just not CFO material.’” And she said, “You know, not only was that crushing psychologically but it’s like the least actionable input ever.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. And I’m also thinking fixed mindset much? Come on now.

Selena Rezvani
Right. This has been decided by the heavens, it seems like. And her advice was, first of all, she got to CFO, she got there. And her advice was, “Insist on that objective criteria, aka, a real reason.” She said, “In my case, I asked, ‘Is it my financial acumen? Is it my visibility in the organization? Is it my people management skills? What exactly do I need to improve to be eligible?’”

And guess what? She got some of those answers, and she project-managed her way to that promotion, really taking her manager by the hand, not waiting for somebody else to, like, anoint her. And I thought it was really helpful advice when you’re dealing with that ambiguous no.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, boy, that really resonates and there are so many different flavors of a vague no, like, “Oh, maybe next quarter or so when we have a little bit more budget.” Okay, like that’s unclear timeline, unclear how much budget.

Selena Rezvani
Yes. Or, one of my favorites is also, like, “Well, I’m supportive of you, Pete, getting the raise. It’s just the backdrop right now or my higher-ups may not be.” This kind of like little bit breadcrumb support that’s thrown to you, and yet it’s not the same as someone giving you the greenlight or advocating for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, absolutely. And so, then in those situations, and that scenario, for example, is it to ask very specifically, “Which higher-ups and what are their concerns?” Or how would you play that?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, I would and I’d even go so far as to ask something like, “Would you be comfortable with me talking directly with Ted or Susan?” Maybe that’s a skip-level person, but sometimes the person is burdened who you’re asking, and they are supportive of your ask but it would be a relief for you to handle it directly with HR or with that skip-level manager, so I would absolutely do that.

I’d be persistent, “I hear you telling me it’s not a good time right now. I’m going to put time on our calendar four weeks from today, so please expect that invite in your inbox.” Unfortunately, you can’t always operate from a place of trust, like, “I’ll trust you to take care of me. I’ll trust you to remember.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And not distrust as in that they’re all snakes and liars out to get you, but rather that you can fall by the wayside in the cacophony of competing priorities that are out there.

Selena Rezvani
That’s right. Right. And maybe an even better frame is ownership, to think about it as an ownership, that in a perfect world, you’re co-owning your development and advancement with your boss or your organization. You and your organization co-own that. In this case, you need to operate much like you fully own it and that you’re going to move the ball up the field. You’re going to advance it, because what’s the old saying, “Managers have short memories.” They have so much going on that we can’t always assume they’re thinking about our development and where we need to go next.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, we zoomed out a little bit. Could you share just a few of the key principles that we should bear in mind when it comes to self-advocacy? Any kind of top do’s and don’ts that make all the difference?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, one of them that I really like that could be counterintuitive to folks is to bring options to the table. So, if, for example, you’re not feeling the love with your project assignments. You’re doing a lot of the same and you’re not really growing. When you go to that one-to-one to talk to your manager, don’t just bring one preferred outcome, like, “Hey, I’d really like to come off project Déjà vu.” Maybe that’s your first choice and you can bring that up. But in your back pocket, you want to have some other options that allow you to extend the conversation and elongate the dialogue that’s going to serve you.

So, in your back pocket, you might have a second option, like, “Hey, next time, Dan, a director I admire, has an opening on his team, I’d really like to be considered.” And maybe you have yet a third option, “Hey, I’m very interested in getting exposure to XYZ client of ours. Is that something that we could look at together, me getting involved with that client?”

Why do I say this? Well, we all know some yeses are easier to grant than others but we’ll never know unless we ask and we present some different options. Sometimes there’s money in the professional development budget, not the salary budget right now. And so, you get to learn about some of that when you bring options to the table.

And a lot of people shy away from it because they think it’ll make them look entitled or like, “I’m asking for the world.” But it’s really not that way. If anything, it gives you maneuverability to say, “I hear you telling me no, Pete, on coming off project Déjà vu. Would you consider? What do you think about?” And that can be very powerful. It signals your self-confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
And that you’re flexible, you’re reasonable, you’re willing to work with them, as opposed to just adamant, “My way or the highway. This is my thing and I’m not backing down no matter what.” Cool. And then when we think about sort of the emotional dimension of this, I think that’s huge in terms of, “Oh, I’m scared. I don’t want to look demanding,” or any number of undesirable things. Are there any sort of mindsets or mantras or ways you recommend folks deal with that internal mental game?

Selena Rezvani
Yes, and I struggled with this myself for so long. I grew up in a household where I was taught to defer to authorities, to authority figures, to take just enough, don’t be greedy, be humble, don’t be too bold and brash in what you ask for. So, there’s a lot of undoing, and maybe some of the people listening can relate to that. That can be stuff you bring with you as an adult into the workplace.

And so, one of the things I would encourage you to do is stoke a sense of belonging in that conversation. I tell myself, as a mantra, “I four-hundred percent belong in this job interview,” in this podcast conversation, in this negotiation, in this high-stakes board meeting. Fill in the blank. But, oftentimes, when we tell ourselves, “Ugh, I don’t belong. I’m this foreign visitor coming to this place. I don’t think I should be here.” It creates all kinds of uncertainty.

And, oftentimes, when we get resistance in a situation like that, we can kind of slink away at the first sign of no. And so, it is so important to stoke that sense that, “I belong. In fact, I four-hundred percent belong.”

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. And that’s a good mantra. And I find in my own experience, I really do well when…I’m thinking about sort of, in my entrepreneurial journey, like pricing, it’s like, “Ooh, I don’t know if I should really ask for that big number. That seems outrageous.” But then once I really do the research, like, “Oh, okay. If I take a look at the cost per learning hour benchmarks associated with dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, well, shucks, like this is a bargain.”

And so, I have some evidence that’s like, “It’s not just my opinion that this is a good deal or a worthwhile price but, in fact, relative to the alternative options, this is absolutely a smart investment that folks should be making.”

Selena Rezvani
Right. Absolutely. And you are smartly kind of stopping to do research and not looking for all the validation in your pitch or your proposal externally from other people, but you yourself are validating your own pitch, and that matters. That makes us sit up a little straighter. It makes us speak with more conviction when we’re asking for something. It empowers us to go a few more rounds in the conversation. So, I tell people, like, “The power phase is not when you’re in the room. It’s the getting ready. It’s the research. It’s the preparation,” like you did.

Pete Mockaitis
And I also want to get your take on particular words, phrases, magical sentences, scripts, that just really come in handy in a lot of circumstances, whether it’s the key questions. Or, what are some of your faves?

Selena Rezvani
Yes. So, one of them comes from Stanford, and it’s called LARA. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, L-A-R-A, but it’s a simple doable thing. So, let’s say you’re getting some resistance in one of these conversations. You just made an amazing proposal, let’s say, for a new role that doesn’t exist but could add lots of value, and someone’s kind of, “Ahh, I don’t know. I don’t think we could do that.” The L stands for listen, so listening.

Pete Mockaitis
“I’m hearing you say you’re not sure if we can.”

Selena Rezvani
Yeah. And even maybe quieter than that, in the sense that I have nine-year-old twins, and one of the things they teach them is whole-body listening, like really making somebody feel heard with your whole body generously listening. Your torso, your eyes, everything is focused on that person. The next one, affirm. A is for affirm. And that might be what you just said. It might be mirroring back what you heard or it might be validating a concern, “I hear you telling me this is really shockingly new and different. And I hear you on that.”

R is for respond, “But I want to tell you that this role is actually not so new and different. In fact, it’s a lot like a role that exists in the next division over that’s been really successful.” And then the A is for ask questions. So, you might end something like that by saying, “You know, what would need to be true for you to get behind this role? Or, what else would you like to know about that role I referenced over there, the best practice kind of role? What could I share with you? Or, what would be helpful for you to know about that position?” So, I love that framework. I think it comes from a place of empathy and wanting to take other’s perspectives, and that’s what important conversations are all about.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Any other key phrases?

Selena Rezvani
It’s a framework, if you will, rather than a phrase but I really love it as well and, again, it starts with empathy. But before you go in that room and you ask for something, as you’re doing preparation, think about your audience, it could be an audience of one or a team, think about their GPS, which stands for their goals, passions, and struggles.

And if you can integrate even if only in a small way something about how this new role you’re proposing will further the goals of your manager or this team or division, or how it’s going to push us and advance us further towards a passion, that’s the P, a really deeply held interest, a meaningful interest or passion that people care about. Or, how is it going to alleviate a struggle? And that’s the S. How is what you’re asking for going to somehow make a pain point less burdensome?

This is actually how one woman I interviewed got more responsibility. Her boss would complain to her in kind of a good-natured way about some of the projections he had to come up with for executives, and she said, “Hey, look, I know this is a burden on your time and yet it’s also a goal you’re on the hook for. What if I assume these projections?” Think about how yes-able she made her request when she framed it that way. So, I think GPS – goals, passions, struggles – can be just be an awesome lens to look through before you present information, ask for something, make a bold new proposal.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And as you’re being persistent and advocating, how do you know when it’s time to stop?

Selena Rezvani
That’s a funny one because it can be so individual. But, honestly, from some of the executives I interviewed, there was a magic number that kind of emerged of three.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. We like magic numbers.

Selena Rezvani
Yeah? If I try it three different ways and I have asked for feedback, I have really tried to make the value of this idea shine through, and I’m still getting a stonewall, it’s time for me to either get on board or shift focus. And so, I think there’s something to be said, especially in corporate environments. Might be different if you’re an entrepreneur. But, particularly for professionals, I think that’s a good compass.

Pete Mockaitis
I appreciate that because I’m sure there’s some variability and yet it’s comforting to have a clear figure. And that sounds about right to me on both sides in terms of if I’m going at it four, five, six times, or I’m hearing it a fourth, fifth, sixth time, it’s like, “Okay, this is just annoying now.”

Selena Rezvani
Right. That’s right. Like, you have to learn to move on.

Pete Mockaitis
“I feel like you’re not even listening to me, so I don’t know what else to say to you about this matter.” Thank you. Well, tell us then, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, I think there’s a really important one to mention, which is when you do tap your network, and I think it’s really important that you do as part of your preparation to get smart and to do your research, particularly around compensation, this is some un-advice. We all love some don’t do’s. And that un-advice is don’t just talk to your friends.

There is some really interesting research done on physicians, and it showed women are more likely to talk to their friends when asking for compensation data or trying to get a ballpark or a benchmark of where they belong. Men are more likely to seek people out as reference points who are very much related to the role. So, while women are more swayed by rapport, men are going after people who closely aligned with the role.

And I think it’s so important, even though it can be awkward and uncomfortable to have money conversations, to really consult that broader network of individuals, not just people who look like you, or are like you in some ways. We already know you get some of the best opportunities from those weaker ties in your network, not your inner tight little circle. And so, I can’t urge people enough.

I made this mistake myself as a young management consultant at a big firm. I psyched myself up to go ask for a raise and a promotion and I consulted two people a little further along at my firm than me, and I was really proud of myself for doing that because it was scary but they were my two best girlfriends, and it’s like, “Who else should I talk to?” Men. Maybe even some people outside the firm.

And so, I hope people will learn from that mistake to think broadly. You want accurate good data. Take those calls from recruiters. That can also round out the picture of where you should be money-wise. Just by taking those calls and hearing, “Well, here’s I place you,” can be really helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
That certainly is handy as they’re talking to a lot of employers and a lot of employees, so they’ve got their finger on the pulse there. I’m just sort of putting myself in the situation where I’m reaching out to somebody I don’t know that well, and I want benchmark information about their compensation. How on earth does one articulate that request? “Basically, how much money are you making?”

Selena Rezvani
Right. Right. Slipped in between two other questions. No. I think being upfront and honest works for people and giving an out is really powerful, “Hey, Pete, I’m excited to be looking at new roles, and I wondered if you’d be open to talking to me about compensation and your experience with X. If you can’t for any reason, that’s totally okay.” And just allowing people that so it’s just extra not awkward to say, “You know, I can’t,” or, “I’m too busy,” or, “I’m happy to.”

And one other tip with that to make it a little less awkward is if you can bring like a gift. Maybe it feels like you’re asking in this case, but is there something helpful that’s related to the conversation? Maybe there’s a salary study in your industry, and you’ve just equipped yourself with that. Offer to give it to them or share a helpful resource.

Pete Mockaitis
That is handy. I’m thinking about getting first, it’s like, “Hey, I’ve collected a few datapoints and I don’t know if they’re perfectly applicable. I see X, Y, Z, A, B, C,” and then they might feel more comfortable commenting on those, like, “Huh, those seem a little low to me.” Or, if you’re talking about compensation, they might not tell you directly their package but, “Hey, when I was interviewing for different director roles, I tend to be offered between X and Y, but, ultimately, I prioritized this other benefit or piece of the package, and so I was willing to settle for a little bit less provided that they dealt with that.” So, that way they haven’t told you precisely “$268,000, Selena, is my total all-in compensation,” but rather, “Okay, somewhere in this ballpark,” and it’s not as personal, and that’s handy. Thank you.

Selena Rezvani
I love that. I love your suggestion. And some people don’t even ask the outright question. I’ve heard some people say things like, “How did you go about negotiating the budget for your lab?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that’s a very different question.

Selena Rezvani
Like, “How did you approach it?” And so, that’s also another kind of slightly different angle.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now can we hear a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Selena Rezvani
There’s a great quote I love and it makes me, like, tingle every time I read it or see it. And it’s, “Happiness is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Selena Rezvani
So, one of my favorite studies is The White Lab Coat Study out of Northwestern. And it says so much about mindset. And what, essentially, happened was people were asked to wear white lab coats, something that we generally associate with care and attentiveness and doctors and scientists. And what was fascinating is people who were not scientists or doctors, when they wore these white lab coats, tended to exhibit more of those traits, those qualities.

And, to me, that is fascinating and applies to all kinds of ways that we carry ourselves into important conversations. And this idea that we can ascribe meaning to the way we present, whether it’s our clothing or something else, and we can use it to our advantage.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. We’ve had guests talk about psychological Halloweenism and enclothed cognition were some of the phrases associated with this, and I love it. Sometimes I deliberately put on my blazer before a podcast interview just so that I’d be a little bit more professional and attentive to the matter at hand, as opposed to just chit chatting about whatever.

Selena Rezvani
Yes. Yes. For you it’s a blazer, for me it’s color. Like, there’s something about just really bright colors that makes me feel bolder, more optimistic than something else. So, I love that it’s different for you and me, and probably for people listening, too.

Pete Mockaitis
I will occasionally take out my high school homecoming king crown when I need a boost or I feel sad.

Selena Rezvani
I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
“People still like me.”

Selena Rezvani
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
“I have a crown to prove it.”

Selena Rezvani
I love it. You should do your whole podcast in that.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s getting so beat up because it’s so old now. And, tell us, is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they highlight it in the book, or they quote it back to you often, or re-tweet it?

Selena Rezvani
It’s this idea that don’t give the other person all the power. I tell people, “If you put someone up on a pedestal, don’t be surprised if they start to look down on you.” And sometimes, when we’re negotiating with an authority figure, we put ourselves way down here and we put them up here, and I caution against that. If anything, approach it peer to peer, like, “It’s you and I versus the problem in front of us. You and I simply having a conversation that’s going to end in agreement.” But not the hierarchy. You don’t need to bring that in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Selena Rezvani
Come see me at SelenaRezvani.com. You’ll see a contact form there and on all your socials. I love sharing career advice, so you’ll find me on TikTok and Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Selena Rezvani
I would say don’t wait for the conditions to be perfect. They rarely are. So, whether you’re trying to negotiate a better return to office setup, or taking your vacation and totally unplugging and not getting calls from the office, or asking for a job title that actually reflects your job duties, now is a great time to ask for that. Don’t think to yourself, “Oh, because it’s a time of change or flux, I better not.”

No. Actually, “Times have changed” are some of the most lush productive moments to ask for what you need because things aren’t written in stone. So, be emboldened to make those changes right now even if things are a little bit up in the air in your company. It really relies on you being your own vocal champion.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Selena, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all the ways you push back.

Selena Rezvani
Thank you, Pete. You are awesome. And thanks for all that you’re doing to help people really thrive at work.

775: Susan Cain Uncovers the Surprising and Uplifting Power of Sorrow and Longing

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Susan Cain explains how embracing bittersweetness helps us lead more creative, connected, and fulfilling careers and lives.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Two simple shifts to make you more courageous
  2. How a bias for positivity is holding us back
  3. How to keep your brain from wallowing in negativity

About Susan

Susan Cain is the #1 bestselling author of Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, which spent eight years on The New York Times best seller list, and has been translated into 40 languages. Susan’s TED talks have been viewed over 40 million times. LinkedIn named her the Top 6th Influencer in the World, just behind Richard Branson and Melinda French Gates. Susan partners with Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant and Dan Pink to curate the Next Big Idea Book Club. They donate all their proceeds to children’s literacy programs. Visit Susan at susancain.net.

Resources Mentioned

Susan Cain Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Susan, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Susan Cain
Thank you so much, Pete. It is awesome to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom and some insights from your latest book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. And congratulations on hitting number one on New York Times’ Best Seller list, that’s pretty fantastic. Good job.

Susan Cain
Thank you so much.

Pete Mockaitis
But maybe, first, I’m dying to know, and I think many of the listeners are as well, so you’re also quite famous for your book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. And you do public speaking all the time, and I understand that wasn’t your favorite thing to do. Could you maybe tell us how you found some growth and development there? And did you learn to enjoy it all the more?

Susan Cain
Oh, God, yeah. I mean, so you have to know where I was starting from because it wasn’t just that I didn’t enjoy speaking. It was that, like, I can sometimes literally vomit before a speech, and I would always lose five pounds in the week before a speech because I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t sleep. Like, it was very intense. And I used to be a lawyer before I became a writer, so during all that time I was a lawyer, I just gritted my teeth through that suffering.

But then when I became a writer, and like I really cared about getting my message out. I didn’t want my phobia to stand in the way, so I kind of tackled this issue that I had. And here’s the secret, and what I’m about to say applies to any fear that your listeners might have, any fear. The way to overcome any fear is you have to expose yourself to the thing you fear, you can’t hide from it, but you have to do it in very, very small, very manageable doses.

So, you can’t start by giving a TED Talk if your fear is public speaking. You have to start by going to the nicest Toastmasters meeting you’ve ever seen. Or, in my case, I went to this seminar for people with public speaking anxiety, where everybody was really nice and all you had to do was, like you’d start by this really small exercises. Like, the first day, you’d get up and say your name and sit back down, “Congratulations. You’re done.” 

And you’d ratch it up little by little by little by little by little from there, and, in this way, you’re basically training your brain that the thing that it reacted to, as if it were a saber-toothed tiger, you’re basically training your brain, “Oh, it’s not a dangerous tiger. It’s a daffodil, and it’s okay.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool.

Susan Cain
Yeah. And so, it’s just sort of a long process but anyone can do it. That’s the great news.

Pete Mockaitis
As I put my brain in that situation, I think one of the funnest parts for me would be just creatively ideating and trying to determine what might be that next super tiny step. And it’s so funny, it’s just like, I’m thinking about virtual reality, like you can’t do it for real. You can even do it there. So, that’s nifty.

Susan Cain
It’s interesting to me though that you described that as fun. So, let me ask you this. Were you ever a nervous public speaker, or no? And the reason I asked this is because I never would’ve described the process as fun while I was in it. It was more like something I needed to do.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t think the doing it is as much fun so much as the thinking, “Oh, there is a super tiny step. That’s something I could feel like I can get a victory on that is not terrifyingly overwhelming.”

Susan Cain
Right. Right. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
But, yeah, the doing would be difficult. I’d say I never had the vomits pre-public speaking but I…

Susan Cain
I never heard it called the vomits.

Pete Mockaitis
But I did…I certainly felt nerves. And I guess I somehow managed to convince myself that I was excited and then I believed it, and it’s a rush. I remember a speaking mentor said, “When it comes to public speaking, it’s like, man, sometimes there’s this electricity and sometimes you get electrocuted,” in terms of how it seems to go, and that’s been my experience. I’ve had some talks that didn’t go as well.

And, in a way, those have been super helpful in terms of taking a real good look, like, “What went wrong there?” And all of it was sort of like assumptions I had made about the audience in advance, like, “Oh, they’re not already jazzed about this topic,” and it’s more of a general audience, and so it’s oopsies, lessons learned. But one fun thing about talking about on How to be Awesome at Your Job is all the listeners already care about being awesome at their jobs, so we got that covered.

Susan Cain
Right. Yeah, so you already know what they’re excited about, hearing about. Well, I’ll give one other public speaking hack that I think is really huge for people who are afraid of public speaking, which is that if you are afraid of it, it is because you are attuning excessively to being judged. You’re like your relationship with the audience emotionally is that they’re the judge or perhaps the executioner, and you’re like the penitent before them. That is not a helpful relationship obviously.

What I would try to turn that into is to think in advance, like, “What…” from your heart, like really think at a heart level, “What is it that I want to convey? What can I say that’s going to be truly helpful today? Even if it’s just helpful to one person in the audience, what could I do that could truly elevate someone’s life?” And then you’re going out there in the spirit of like, “What can I give?” as opposed to “How will I be judged?” And it’s a completely different energy. Completely. It’s very transformative.

I don’t find that that works if you’re in a state of extreme, extreme anxiety, but once you get to the point where it’s stamped down and you’re in the realm of manageable butterflies, shifting your energy that way is really transformative.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Well, Susan, you’re already providing fantastic insights, and we’re not even on the main topic yet, so this is going great. Well, all right, tell us, Bittersweet, could you maybe kick us off by sharing a particularly surprising discovery you made while researching and putting this together that has been really striking for folks?

Susan Cain
I think our culture, I know our culture, is so confused, so kind of bedazzled by the idea of being positive at all times that it doesn’t have the ability to distinguish between this incredibly productive and creative state of bittersweet melancholy versus clinical depression. We don’t have a language for distinguishing between the two. We don’t have a way of thinking about it.

Even if you look in the field of psychology, you’ll find psychologists talking about this around the edges but in the center of the field. And yet, like the state of bittersweet melancholy that I’m talking about in my book is one of the greatest power sources that we have of creativity and of human connection, and of a sense of self-transcendence and spirituality, so lots of the goodies that lots of people want, both for their work lives, their creative lives, their emotional lives, and yet we’re living in a culture that’s telling you that the only way to get there is through a kind of relentless upbeat optimism. And that’s just not true.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That sounds like a thesis statement. I love it. Well, then could you paint a clear picture for us and draw as bright a distinction as we can between depression and bittersweet?

Susan Cain
Yeah. So, with depression, you’re in a state where it’s a kind of emotional black hole. You’re in a state of despair. You’re in a state of hopelessness. You’re not in a state of like being in touch with things. You’re in a state of like, “I’m worthless. Life is hopeless. I’m cut off. There’s nothing to be done.” When you’re in a state of bittersweetness, you’re acutely aware of both the sorrow and the joy in this world, and the fact that they’re forever paired but with that comes an acute awareness of beauty and an ability to transform pain into beauty.

So, it’s actually a very hopeful state. It’s a state of meaning. It’s the reason that after 9/11, for example, we suddenly had a lot of people signing up for jobs as firefighters. And after the pandemic, we’ve suddenly had a lot of people enrolling in medical school and nursing school. And neither of those responses make sense on their face. That’s kind of like here are people reacting to a dispiriting and dangerous situation by signing up for more danger, like signing up to be at the heart of the danger.

But what they’re really doing is they’re turning in the direction of meaning, which is what people have the capacity to do. We have the capacity to respond to life’s difficulties by turning in that direction of meaning in our careers and in our life orientation.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And I love it if we could continue of painting a picture of what you call bittersweet. I guess as I’m thinking about 9/11, for instance, and where I was and what’s going on, like I felt confusion, sadness, shock, anger. It wasn’t like bittersweet as like, “Oh, my baby is growing up,” and so that’s what I first think about when it’s like, “Oh, she doesn’t want to be held as much,” or kind whatever. And so, that’s kind of what leaps to mind when I have the word bittersweet to me. Can you unpack a bit more of the vibe, the texture, the look, the sound, the feel of bittersweet as you describe it?

Susan Cain
Yeah. And actually, the example of your baby growing up is, I think it’s a fantastic example because bittersweetness really is…it’s about, as I say, the pairing of joy and sorrow, and the fact that that’s what this life is, but it’s also about the recognition that everyone and everything we love most will not stay the same, will not live forever, all of that. And then what comes with that is this beauty.

I have a bittersweet quiz that it’s at the beginning of my book and it’s also on my website for people who just want to take it quickly, which is SusanCain.net but I can give you a few questions from it to give you a sense. So, one question is, “Do you react intensely to music, art, or nature?” Another question is, “Do you draw comfort or inspiration from rainy days?” That’s sort of like cozy, poetic, rainy day vibe. And another one is, “Do you like sad music?”

We actually know that people listen to the happy songs on their playlist about 175 times, but they listen to these sad songs 800 times. And we know that it’s the sad music that gives us the goosebumps and the chills as opposed to the happy music. And I love the happy music and the dance music is great. It’s just that there’s something in that vein of art created with a tinge of melancholy that gets people in the real heart. It’s just something for creatives to know, in general. It’s like sort of the secret to the creative sauce.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. When you talked about happy and sad songs, I think that really does nail it because I’m imagining like your wedding playlist, like, “Too high,” “Hot damn.” So, there’s that, and so that’s fun. But then as I’m thinking, like sad songs, the first thing that came to mind was “Champagne High” by Sister Hazel, which, if you look at the lyrics, it’s really heart-wrenching.

It’s about a person who is at someone else’s – geez, I’m getting choked up – he’s at someone else’s wedding that he was in love with, and he had hoped to reconnect but it just didn’t quite work out, like, “Dude,” like, “Whoa.” Like, if you put yourself there, it is deeper and it’s hitting the heart. And, at the same time, it’s not all just gut-wrenching tragedy. It’s like, “Ah, we had something beautiful, didn’t we?” And so, there it is.

Susan Cain
Yeah, because what you’re really talking about is longing, which is the real key to human DNA. That’s really what drives us at the end of the day. Look at every single religion, they’re all about the longing for the more perfect and beautiful world. It’s like you’re longing for the Garden of Eden, you’re longing for Mecca, you’re longing for Zion.

The Sufis long for the beloved of the soul, that’s what they call the divine. And then we do that creatively, too. We have Dorothy is longing for somewhere over the rainbow. That’s really what glamor is, if there’s anybody listening, where you’re in a kind of glamor field, and that’s what you need to understand what glamor really is.

Glamor is like a pictorial representation of that perfect state, of perfect love, and perfect beauty in an otherworldly sense that we long for. That’s why there’s the kind of iconic image of the shiny convertible driving around the bend to nowhere. And inside the convertible, sits the beautiful couple, and it’s like a representation of this perfect love, and they’re driving around the bend to the perfect unseen. That’s what drives people.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting, as I think about such a scene, one’s emotional response would be, “Ahh, I want that.”

Susan Cain
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, “Oh, I’ll never have that.” And then maybe that’s the distinction right there. The latter, I don’t know if it has a bit of hopelessness going on. And so, it’s interesting, like what we’re talking about is so deep and human, it almost feels inappropriate to, I don’t know, weaponize or utilize this, but that’s what you’re saying. It’s, like, it is a force. And so, if we think about the context of people wanting to be awesome at their job, how do we tap into this in a way that we find brings about more wholeness and awesomeness?

Susan Cain
Well, first of all, if you want to understand your co-workers, you have to understand, which is one of the, obviously, the great ways of being awesome at your job is to work well and really care about the people you’re working with. You have to understand this is at the heart of their nature and it’s at the heart of your nature, too. And it creates spaces for people to show up that way, if you’re a team leader, for example.

But, also, it’s like, let’s say even before you get to your job and you’re thinking about what the right job is for you, and maybe you’re not sure, and maybe you don’t know if you’re in the right job or if you’re even in the right career, I would ask yourself, like, “What do you long for? What are you longing for?” And pay attention to the symbols in your life.

If it’s okay, I’ll tell you a quick story from my life to sort of illustrate what I’m talking about. So, I used to be a corporate lawyer before I became a writer, and I was totally in the wrong field for me but I got really caught up in it, the way one does. You know how it is. You’re like in a field and then everyone you know is in that field, and you’re doing it 24/7, so you’re living in this hermetically sealed bubble. You can’t see outside of it.

So, I was caught up in it, I was trying really hard to make partner, I was working all the time for years. And then this day came when a partner in the firm…I wrote all about this. He came and he told me I wasn’t going to be making partner. And, at the time, like I received this news as a catastrophe but I went home the next day, or a little bit after that, I left the firm. I took a leave of absence and a few weeks after that I ended a relationship, a seven-year relationship that had always felt wrong.

And so, now I’m like floating around, like no career, no love, I’m in my early 30s, and I’ve fallen into this relationship with another guy. He’s a musician, he’s a lyricist, a very lit up type of person, and it becomes a kind of obsession, and I can’t shake it, and I can’t stop thinking about him. There’s nothing I can do to extricate myself from this obsession.

And then a friend of mine says to me, she’s like, “If you’re this obsessed with this person, it’s not only because the person himself. It’s because he represents something you’re longing for. So, what are you longing for?” And it was like the minute she said that, I knew the answer. He was a musician. He was, like, he represented this life of art and writing that I’d wanted to be part of. Since I was four years old, I’d wanted to be a writer, and I had put all that on hold for decades.

And as soon as I understood that, the obsession fell away, I started writing for real, and that was it. That’s a kind of dramatic version of it but I think we can all be asking ourselves those questions all the time. Like, you’re working really hard so that you can get a house. Like, what does the house mean to you? What does it symbolize to you? What are you longing for? And make sure you’re orienting your life around, really, what your heart’s longing is telling you because career years have a way of adding up really quickly, and you want to make sure you’re putting them in the right direction.

Pete Mockaitis
And we can often take such wildly circuitous routes to what we’re longing for. Like, did the musician relationship end up working out?

Susan Cain
No, no, and that was fine.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I thought…I didn’t want to, ”Yes, he’s my husband.”

Susan Cain
No, no, no, it was actually not so long after that that I met my husband. It’s all good, happily ever after.

Pete Mockaitis
If we’re doing something in order to meet another longing, which you may be aware of or not aware of, we could probably be better served just by going directly after that which we’re longing for.

Susan Cain
If you knew what it was.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, that’s where I’m going next. What are your pro tips on surfacing that?

Susan Cain
Well, most of all, really, to pay attention to what it is. Like, what is the key question that you keep asking yourself? What’s the thing that you’re staking everything for? What does it mean to you? What does it mean to you underneath it all? What’s the life you truly want? What does home look like to you? I would ask yourself that question. Getting to this fundamental, like, existential longing that we all have. We’re all longing for home in some kind of way. That’s how humans are designed. So, what does home look like to you?

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share with us a few articulations of that from folks that you’ve spoken with, heard about, talked to?

Susan Cain
Gosh, let me think of some good ones for you.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess what I’m saying is I imagine you’d say, “What I’m longing for is a Ferrari.” It’s like, “Hmm, that’s probably quite not the core of it.”

Susan Cain
Well, it’s funny that you say…that you give that example of the Ferrari because I actually wrote in the book about this seminar that I attended about longing for love. It was given by this great writer, Alain de Botton, and he actually gives the example of a Ferrari owner. It’s like very often the person who’s buying the Ferrari, they’re not necessarily after the Ferrari. Like, they’re after love and admiration. That’s often what’s motivating them.

So, it’s like always looking two or three steps underneath. Very often, when you feel like absolutely driven by something, there’s often something going on underneath it, to ask yourself what the true motivation is, what the true source is.

Susan Cain
So, here’s another example of somebody who I interviewed. So, she had been working at an international consumer goods company, doing sort of consumer research for some years. And, in this work, she…part of what you do with consumer research is you’re listening to the stories of your consumers, you’re asking them a lot of questions, which is something she found that she loved doing. She loved listening. She loved drawing them out. She loved hearing their stories. And the more she did this and the more she listened to the women’s stories and the women’s dissatisfactions, the more with their lives that they were talking to her about, the more it tapped some kind of like a primal longing in her to go back home – she was from the Middle East originally. She had come from a family where there’d been a lot of suffering and abuse of the women in the family, and she realized what she wanted to do was like a kind of healing work of the kinds of women who had been in her family, who these women in the consumer research job had reminded her of, that they kind of set this longing, a light in her.

And so, she goes back to the Middle East and she starts…and I’m being vague about where she’s from because she doesn’t want me to use her name, but she starts a not-for-profit where she’s helping refugees and helping former women prisoners, and she’s doing this work for them but what she’s really doing is trying to correct some of the wrongs that had been done to the women of her family. And it was like that was when she started to feel whole is when she did that kind of work.

Whereas, the whole time she’d been at the consumer research firm, she was like fascinated by the stories but felt a kind of a kind of…she called it like a numbness and a deadness inside, and she started to come alive when she did that kind of work. But what ignited in her was the moments of listening to these women’s stories and realizing that was like touching off the longing in her.

Pete Mockaitis
So, is that kind of the pathway that often goes when you zero in on the longing and then you go pursue that well, wholeness and aliveness is on the other side?

Susan Cain
It often is on the other side, yeah, because it’s telling you like where your sense of the love that you’re seeking, the full love that you’re seeking, where it is for you. The moments that you have longing are often a clue to what those are. Just the way, like by analogy, if you pay attention to the people who you envy.

Like, envy is not such a nice emotion but it’s an incredibly instructive emotion because, like with career envy, you’re not going to have career envy over somebody who has a job that you don’t want. You’re just going to feel happy for that person. If you’re feeling envy, you might feel ashamed of yourself for feeling that way but it is a great clue that they’re doing something that you wished that you were doing, so it’s a great sign. And longing is the same way, the same type of sign.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, there are many flavors of longing but is love at the root of them all? Or, is that kind of one of several kind of key flavors or archetypes?

Susan Cain
I would say there’s different manifestations of the same thing. For some people, it looks more like love, and for some people it’s more like beauty, and for some people it’s more like truth. But it’s this sense of like what perfection looks like to you, like a kind of otherworldly perfection.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, this wholeness, how do you know when you got it?

Susan Cain
You just know.

Pete Mockaitis
I thought you’d say that.

Susan Cain
You just know, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
“Like, I feel pretty whole.”

Susan Cain
It doesn’t mean that you’re like, “Okay, now, I‘m going to sit on the couch forever because I’m whole.” It doesn’t mean that. W
hat it means is that you’re on the right journey instead of on the wrong journey, so you’re still journeying but you’re like on the right path.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then can we talk about some perhaps practical do’s and don’ts when it comes to inside our own heads and emotions if we experience some sadness, some disappointments, there are some distinctions there between that and bittersweet? And so, how do we think about running our brains and our emotions optimally in that, I guess, it could continually be possible to “wallow” or be – torn apart sounds dramatic but…? I’m thinking of my kids and Daniel Tiger and the big feelings right now.

It’s like as you’re exploring yourself, and you’re finding these breadcrumbs, how do you recommend that we explore, engage in a way that’s likely to lead to insight and constructive goodness versus, for lack of a better word, wallowing?

Susan Cain
Oh, I’m actually glad you’re using that word wallowing because I think that that is the fear that many people have if they tune into this aspect of their emotional lives. I think they’re afraid they’ll start wallowing and never come out, so they’d rather not go there at all. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just the remember the art is to balance it all out.

But one really great technique, just to keep it super practical, is the art of expressive writing, which basically means, especially when you’re feeling something that’s amiss, something that’s wrong, something that’s upsetting you, whatever it is, to just quickly write it down and don’t try to write it well. You might rip it up as soon as you’re done writing. But the very act of articulating what you are feeling, what you’re experiencing, is incredibly transformative.

And we know this from the work of the psychologist, James Pennebaker, at UT Austin, who’s done all these incredible studies, finding that when people do this, it improves their health, it improves their career success, it improves their sense of wellbeing. He did this one study where he looked at a group of 50-something-year-old engineers who had been laid off, so they were quite depressed about it. And he asked half of them to do what I just described, to write down what they were truly thinking every morning, and then the other half would just write what they had eaten for breakfast that day.

And the first group who had written down truly the expressive writing, they were, I think it was three times more likely to have found work several months later. They had lower blood pressure. They had a greater sense of wellbeing, like just these astonishing findings that you can’t even believe are true except he repeated these studies again and again in all different circumstances.

So, this is something that we could be doing privately. This is something we could be bringing to our teams. We could be distributing blank notebooks and having time for people to kind of, in an alone together way, write down what we’re thinking. We can invite people to share if they want to but they don’t have to do it. But it’s just creating spaces for people to show up to themselves if not to each other in a fully whole way.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, with the expressive writing of what we’re feeling, that’s just sort of the extent of the prompt, “Hey, what are you feeling?”

Susan Cain
That is the extent of the prompt, yeah, “What is it?” And if there’s something that’s upsetting to you right now, write it down. Just get it out. Don’t worry about the grammar, the spelling, or anything. Just get it out. Get it out. What ends up happening, you don’t really need the prompt. What ends up happening is that people just instinctively start writing in a way that is trying to make sense of their experiences. At a certain point, they start doing that for themselves. Like, they start using words, like, “Oh, what I’ve learned is,” or, “What I’m thinking actually have been was…” and that may be where some of the magic lies.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting because I’m thinking right now, I’m kind of sick, I don’t like it.

 Susan Cain
Oh, sorry to hear that. 

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Susan Cain
You don’t look or sound sick. What’s up?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. We’re getting better. We’re getting…oh, maybe I have some COVID to sinus infections going through the whole family.

Susan Cain
Oh, my gosh. You’re very matter of fact about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’ve had COVID before and so, and the worst is behind us but, yeah. And so, that’s unpleasant.

Susan Cain
Yeah, I’m sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess, as I think about it, you can arrive at, on the surface level, it might not seem like there’s much to it, “Yup, being sick sucks. That’s true.” But as I think about it more in terms of the, “Well, why? Well, what’s so troubling about that for me? Like, how do I feel diminished? And why does that matter to me?” then we start to get into some interesting themes that can be insightful and actionable.

Susan Cain
Yeah, yeah, that’s right. And I’ll give you a way to do that but also to then kind of do the same thing but sort of turn it outwards. And first let me set this up for you. There is this video that went viral a couple of years ago. It was put together by the Cleveland Clinic hospital to train their caregivers in empathy. And the way this video worked, it basically 
took you through the corridors of the hospital to show you random passersby, people you’d normally walk past and not really think about it.

But in this case, there were little captions underneath each person telling you what they’re going through at that moment. And sometimes it was something nice, like just found out he’s going to be a father for the first time. But because it’s a hospital, often the captions are more things like, under a little girl, she’s going to say goodbye to her father for the last time. Like, these incredibly heartrending captions, and you can’t watch this video without completely tearing up. It’s impossible.

But the thing I started doing after having seen that video, like the thing that really struck me about it is how anonymous all those people in the corridors normally would be, and all it took was like one little half a sentence caption to completely transform them into full-hearted protagonists of their stories, and that I was part of those stories.

So, I started just reminding myself all the time to wonder what people’s captions are. When I go to the grocery store, like the person is checking me out, checking out the groceries, “What are her captions?” And maybe you know them and maybe you don’t. But it’s a very transformative way to interact with people to be thinking in those terms. And with our colleagues at work, we can do that, take that a step farther because there actually are all kinds of clues, if not outright knowledge about what’s going on for them.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s powerful about that for me is just sort of the, I almost want to say, sort of like sacredness or sanctity of the human person in front of you. And being aware of that you…of course, these things…we’ve all got things going on, but calling them to mind can just be so transformative in how you interact with everyone always.

It’s like, “Okay, you are not just a person taking my credit card. Like, you are any number of these things could be going on for you. And as a person, you are worthy of respect and acknowledgement and sort of my attention as opposed to my phone, like clicking around my phone while you’re ringing things up.”

Susan Cain
Yeah. I’ll give you another one for people to do. This one could work for people to do either with their own selves or with teams or co-workers or whatever. And that is to begin your day by proactively engaging with beauty in one way or another. And this is actually a great exercise to do with a team because you could do it in a kind of show-and-tell type of way of everybody bringing something in that they find especially beautiful, whether it’s music or a snapshot or whatever it is.

But when you’re interacting with beauty, we actually know this from studies, it’s basically like tapping into the same brain centers that you experience when you’re falling in love. So, it’s like really tapping into your reward centers, and it’s tapping into a state that kind of predisposes you creatively. So, I did this the whole time I was writing my book. I was following all these art accounts on Twitter. And every morning, I would start my writing day by picking a favorite piece of art and sharing it on my social channels.

And not only did that get my brain in the right headspace to be creative, but also it was connecting me every morning, the first thing it was doing, I was like plugging into this community of people who cared about art and beauty the way I did, and that was incredibly sustaining, and it also grew our community together. So, that’s also the kind of technique that people don’t think about. It doesn’t have to do with bittersweetness per se but there is something about engaging with beauty that gets people interacting with each other in a kind of truer way, in a more whole way.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I guess beauty can have many forms and flavors in terms of…is this research on visually? I guess it’s visually and then there’s music or auditorily. I suppose maybe there could be other modalities associated with beauty.

Susan Cain
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’m trying to think if the studies that I’m talking about were only looking at visual art or other forms. I’m not sure, but I don’t see why it would be any different, really.

Pete Mockaitis
Sometimes I feel beauty with an excellent handwashing session. Like, if you have just fantastic soap and water that’s warm and just right. I don’t know, people talk about singing Happy Birthday, it’s like, “Oh, no, no, just treasure this moment. It’s so glorious.”

Susan Cain
Yeah. Well, it’s wherever you find it. I guess that’s why they make all those beautiful soaps.

Pete Mockaitis
Didn’t think we’d end up here, Susan. All right. Well, before we hear about some of your favorite things, any key things you really want to make sure folks, who are seeking to be awesome at their jobs, know about Bittersweet?

Susan Cain
I think we’ve covered a lot. I guess I would say for those who are on the creative side of the work life to just know that one great thing you can do creatively, like whatever pain you can’t get rid of, take that and make it your creative offering. That’s really what the great creatives have always done. There’s always been this kind of transformation, it’s a kind of like alchemy, so to tune in that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, now could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Susan Cain
I’ll give you the quote that I used as the epigraph for Bittersweet, which is kind of like my whole philosophy in this book. It comes from Leonard Cohen, and the quote is, “There is a crack in everything that’s where the light gets in.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Susan Cain
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Susan Cain
I’ll give you one from one that I also talk about in Bittersweet, and it comes from Dacher Keltner, who’s this great psychologist at Berkeley, and he has studied what he calls the compassionate instinct. And he basically studies the way in which the expression of sorrow is a kind of bonding agent for humans, and that this is because we’re evolved to be able to take care of babies who are utterly vulnerable and dependent on us. But from that beginning comes our greater ability to respond to vulnerabilities of all kind.

So, what he figured out is that we all have a vagus nerve, which is this big bundle of nerves in our bodies. It’s extremely large, it’s extremely fundamental, it regulates our breathing, it regulates our digestion, and also, if you see another person or being in distress, your vagus nerve will become activated, so that on a preconscious level, you’re not going to feel good for as long as you see someone else in distress. You’re going to want to do something about it. So, I would say that’s my favorite research, this compassionate instinct that Dacher has found.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so true. I saw someone fell off their bike today outside my office window, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, are you okay? Do I need to go down there?” Wait eight seconds. “Oh, they’re cool. They’re cool. They’re laughing it off. They’re getting on the bike. Okay. Okay.”

Susan Cain
Well, he used this term that he calls vagal superstars for people whose vagal nerves are really, really reactive, so maybe you’re one of those.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Susan Cain
One that’s coming to mind right now is the book Flow by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s the psychologist who basically discovered the idea that humans are really at their best, I’d say most happiest, but just like at our most switched on when we’re absorbed in an activity that’s completely engaging to us, and we’re kind of surfing this channel in between boredom and anxiety.

So, it’s difficult enough that we’re not bored but it’s not so difficult that it’s making us anxious. We’re just like completely happily switched on and engaged. And I will tell you that has been a life-transforming idea because ever since…as soon as I read it, I was like, “Oh, my God, yeah, I love that state.” But as soon as I thought of that as something to aspire to, I started sort of trying to structure my days so that I’m in a state of flow as much of the time as possible.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Susan Cain
Well, this is very boring, I guess, but it’s my laptop. But I will say my laptop is nothing without my cup of coffee next to it. So, my cup of coffee here and my candle here, so I think what I’m really saying is that I have these Pavlovian cues that I have used over the years to make myself love sitting down at work. Like, I love my candle, I love my coffee, I love my chocolate, and so I never work without these props on hand. And so, I associate the whole thing with pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to really connect with your readers, listeners; a Susan Cain original that is quoted often?

Susan Cain
I don’t know. I will say that I think that the work that I do, like with Quiet and with Bittersweet, the thing that keeps them…the thing that holds them in common is they’re both about the idea of finding a kind of hidden superpowers that tend to be undervalued in our culture that celebrates the loud and the shiny and the glib and the cheery. It’s saying there’s something underneath all of that where there are really deep riches to be had.

And if you think that…we all have different superpowers. And if your superpower happens to be in that mode, go forth and use it. Far from feeling ashamed of it, realize the power that you possess and go and use it.

Pete Mockaitis
And, Susan, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Susan Cain
So, my website is SusanCain.net, and there is a newsletter that you can sign up for there, and lots of information, and also courses. I have these audio courses that you can take where I send you kind of little audio and written texts every morning. So, that’s at my website, SusanCain.net. And I’m also on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram so you can find me there, too.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Susan Cain
I’m going to say what I said before, like use your superpower, whatever it is. Figure out which one is yours and use it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Susan, this has been such a treat. Thank you for sharing and keep doing the great work you’re doing.

Susan Cain
Thank you so much, Pete. And I really hope you all feel better.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.