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764: Enhancing Your Communications by Mastering Your Own Style with Maryanne O’Brien

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Maryanne O’Brien unpacks how understanding communication styles improves your ability to be heard.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The keys to better conversations 
  2. The four communication styles–and how to master yours
  3. How to bridge the gap between your style and others’ 

About Maryanne

Maryanne has spent her career helping leaders and teams learn how to consciously communicate, cultivate empathy, and deepen trust. She is the author of The Elevated Communicator: How to Master Your Style and Strengthen Well-Being at Work, which was born out of more than a decade of original research. Her proprietary self-assessment helps you identify your communication style––Expressive, Reserved, Direct, or Harmonious­­––raise your self-awareness and build the communication skills needed to create a positive impact at work.

Resources Mentioned

Maryanne O'Brien Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Maryanne, thanks for joining us here on How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Maryanne O’Brien
Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about communication and, specifically, your book The Elevated Communicator: How to Master Your Style and Strengthen Well-Being at Work. So, I’m going to start you off with an easy one. What’s the most surprising and fascinating discovery you’ve made about humans and communicating over your career?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, I’ve been in communications in some form my entire career, starting out in advertising and then moving into kind of growth and development. And I think the thing that struck me the most, as I’ve really gotten into this subject, is that if we want to become better communicators, we have to become better people. There’s just no way around it because, as we’re developing skills and really developing our own self-awareness and our ability to listen, have empathy and really understand ourselves and others, we, naturally, become better people over that kind of arc and journey to developing new skills.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fascinating. And when you say better people, you mean like virtue, like our goodness, and then like an Aristotle or sense of the word?

Maryanne O’Brien
I do. I mean, like our character strengthens.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Maryanne O’Brien
So, if you think about listening is one of the most important skills whenever you’re learning to become a better communicator, and it’s impossible to become a better listener if you’re not patient. If you don’t have some level of empathy and connection with people so that they can really know that you’re listening and connected with them if you aren’t willing to kind of keep an open mind. Like, it’s hard to listen without judgment if you’re not open to new people, you’re not open to new perspectives and new ideas.

And so, as we develop skills and become more aware of our own style and self-awareness and self-understanding, we naturally start to see ways to improve and grow. And so, one of the pieces and one of the philosophies that the work is kind of grounded around is this idea of the micro-evolution of self, the day by day, bit by bit we get better over time. And we do that through understanding kind of, you know, deepening our understanding, what we know. So, there’s some building skills. There’s usually some knowledge you have to have.

Then there’s what you do, the practices that support our ability to become better communicators, and, ultimately, it’s who we are. Success is a natural outcome of who we are, and we all want to be successful in our careers. That’s why we listen to things like How to be Awesome at Your Job is that we want what we do to matter. We want to have purpose. We want to have success.

And the reality is that success isn’t something that we do or something that we have. It’s a natural outcome of how we treat people, how well we interact, how able we are to build trust with all kinds of people. And so, as we learn and grow and evolve and make small changes, we naturally become better people over time. And as we become better people, we become better communicators.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And I buy that, as I think about many of the skills associated with, well, just as you’ve said, with listening is sort of like, “Well, do I really care about you? Or, am I more interested in me and my fun interesting thoughts than your interesting thoughts? And am I more about being heard than hearing?” And there you go, that is like generosity or humility. These are character things. So, that totally resonates with me. Thank you.

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, some of the styles are more naturally they’re better listeners. Other styles are more interested in talking, and so understanding all of the four different styles. The first one is expressive. They’re the largest at 37%. The second is reserved, they’re 25%. The third is direct, they’re 22% of the population. And then the fourth is harmonious, and they’re 16%.

And the percentages are interesting to kind of know because they represent different sizes in the workplace but each of them is really important and plays a different role in creating high-functioning, high-performing teams. And really learning to understand all of them and understand what are the benefits that they bring, what is the role that they play, what are their needs, what do they value, what are they motivated by, how do they make decisions.

There are all these different complexities around each style that, first of all, you need to understand yourself but then you also want to understand others because what happens, oftentimes, is whenever we run into style tensions, we end up falling into judgment. We’re human, we judge. It’s kind of a natural thing, especially when someone is different than us.

So, sometimes we might find that we hire people that are like us and our teams become really homogenous, and there are two styles, the expressives and the directs, that tend to dominate in work. And if we don’t make room for people who are reserved and people who have harmonious as their natural style, as their primary, we miss opportunities to really create more balanced teams and a wider perspective on nearly every situation and, specifically, when it comes to problem solving.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I was just about to ask what’s the big idea behind The Elevated Communicator. It sounds like maybe you just shared it with me. Or, is there any other core message about the book you want to make sure to put out there?

Maryanne O’Brien
So, the idea is that the better we know ourselves and the better we know others, it’s easier for us to bring out the best in ourselves and the best in others. But it really also comes to a level of as we raise our communication skills, we also need to raise our level of wellbeing and really look at how to manage our stress because every style has a spectrum that goes from healthy, when we’re at our best, to our style under stress, and it’s easy to slip into stress.

Like, we are in a pretty stressful environment in the world. Stress does not bring out the best in any style, so there’s a really deep level of self-awareness that happens as you start to really get to know your style and then the other pieces. Ultimately, how do you build those connections and build trust with people, because trust is always the Holy Grail, right? It’s always about psychological safety and “How do we build high-trust teams?”

But the only way we can do that is if we can have genuine conversations and feel safe enough with people to challenge ideas, to share something that is a different perspective, and to get our voice into the conversation whenever there is a really dominant perspective being held.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And so, these four styles, tell me, where do they come from? I don’t imagine you just made them up. Can you give us a bit of the story about the research, the validation? Like, how do we know there’s four, Maryanne, and not six?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, so I’ve done consulting for several years, and one of the things I’ve always liked to do is to use assessments to help people better see themselves and better able to see other people, and so I was looking for a really great communication assessment. And I have a strong background in quantitative and qualitative research, and I could tell some of them just weren’t as robust as I was used to.

And so, I decided I was going to go create one because I know how important this tool is in organizations, and I’ve been working with organizations on this level for a long time. And so, I went out and I did a giant quantitative study, and my hope was that most style assessments you see, whether it’s a personality, whatever, that we come back in these four tidy little quadrants, and that it would be…

Pete Mockaitis
High this, low that. Low this, low that.

Maryanne O’Brien
Exactly. And so, what I found was, really, there were three primary dimensions that we communicate on. One of them is assertiveness. How forcefully do you share your opinion? Do you speak up? Are you expressive with your emotions and your opinions? The second is collaboration. How well do you work with people? Do you like to work alone? Do you like to work with others? How do you interact? Are you critical or are you supportive? And then the third is really about how you behave whenever you engage with people, so there’s a spectrum.

And it turned out that, rather than kind of falling into these nice little boxes, it’s easy to put a person in a box, but when it comes to communication, if there’s anything more complex than communication, it’s people. And these three dimensions actually formed more of a constellation, so every style has five really primary kind of shining stars that make it distinct, and that falls into this cluster analysis. And then there are some shared traits between some styles.

So, some styles will get along better than others, and that’s usually where you have some overlap. So, when I started to kind of step back and then I did probably a year and a half of qualitative research, going out to really add dimension and understanding of “What does it mean if somebody is expressive? How does that show up in the workplace?” And how we communicate at work is often different than the way we communicate at home. So, there’s parts.

If you read through all the styles, you’ll start to see, like, “Gosh, I feel like I’m a little bit of that aspect in me,” because we do share some of those qualities, and that’s kind of that constellation approach, but also because somebody who is really direct at work can be harmonious at home. And it seems counterintuitive but sometimes they’re like, “You know what, I don’t want to lead everywhere in my life.” And, conversely, I’ve seen people who are harmonious be really direct at home. Those two are kind of the most different of the four styles.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so how do I learn our own style and that of others so that we can make use of this?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, so I would recommend you go and you take the communication style assessment, which is free, at TheElevatedCommunicator.com. I wanted the assessment to be accessible for everyone because, for a long time, I had led StrengthsFinders and other programs where people would get the code and they’d throw away the book. And I was like, “You know, let’s not do that.” If you really are going to read the book and get into your style, which I would also recommend, but I’d love to give you a flavor for all of them today, but I would, first, start by taking the style assessment.

And on the site, you’re going to see a couple of brief descriptions that will help you to understand yourself kind of at a glance, and that will give you a good look into things. And if I could just take you kind of briefly through what the four are and how they show up, you’ll start to see…we start to recognize it in ourselves and in others.

The other piece I would ask you to kind of keep an ear toward as we’re going through this is how you can start to see, like, “Oh, I can see how those styles would get along and how those styles might have some kind of tension points,” because it’s, often, those style tensions that create the people problems in our job.

So, if I start with the expressives, because they’re the largest and most dominant group in an organization, so they are super collaborative. They build high-trust collaborative teams, that’s what they really care about. They’re open, they’re assertive, they ask lots of questions. They really have a strong need to make a personal connection. So, they won’t feel connected to you if they don’t know you on some level. So, they will often ask you personal questions about your family, about your interests, “Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?” They really want to know you.

They also bring the most energy. They want work to feel like it’s fun. They’re perceptive, curious. They ask the most questions. And when they’re at their best, they bring out the best in other people. They are comfortable bringing groups together. They’re really good at defusing conflict because they want the team to get back into a healthy place.

And whenever they’re under that stress side of their style, then they end up being a little bit more sarcastic. They’ll start to dominate a conversation. When you were talking earlier, they’re the ones who would get distracted easily and start a side conversation because they would rather be talking than listening. And so, you can kind of get a picture that gets painted of what that style is like.

Reserved is really interesting. They are the quintessential team player. They really care about having influence. They’re confident. They form their opinions quickly. What is distinctive about them as well is that they’re more private and guarded at work. They like to kind of keep things in a professional realm but they’re extremely great networkers and they’re very personable.

They’re the type of person who really wants to help see other people be at their best. So, they will give them input on like, “Hey, I think you can bring up your game over here. Here’s what the team really needs,” because they care that the team operates at its best, and they’re really thoughtful and deliberate.

When they get under stress, what happens is they don’t love to make decisions. They like to have a lot of influence on them but they don’t want to be the one, ultimately, responsible for it, and so they will wait for others to take the lead. They might withdraw. If they get under stress, they put their head down and they start doing the work, and relationships become more transactional and a little bit more serious. So, you can start to see how there’s a little bit of a spectrum in each one.

When you look at direct, they’re probably one of the easier ones to identify, too, because they get straight into work. They are so responsible, focused, thorough, candid, really independent. They don’t need to work with anybody. They love to work alone. The best conversations are brief, focused, meaningful. They like every meeting to start and stop on time. No small talk. No need to get into anything personal. And they’re the ones who will rein a conversation in if it starts to wander too far.

So, their strength is really to help teams operate at a higher level. They’re really clear and focused. And they inspire the level of accountability that they bring to others. If people kind of don’t meet their expectations, when they’re under stress, they will steamroll, they’ll damage relationships pretty quickly, they’ll tell others what to do and how to do it so that they can get it done as quickly as possible, and they’re super intolerant about any tangents at all. So, that will start to kind of set them off.

And then harmonious, which is the fourth style, they are the glue that kind of keeps teams together. They have the most people-focused approach to the way they think about things. So, whenever decisions are being made, they put it through like, “How is it going to affect other people? How is it going to affect relationships?” They are the best listeners, cooperative, really supportive, and caring. So, they bring the human quality to teams that the other styles don’t consider to the same depth.

Because they are so cooperative, when they’re under stress, they become more of that. So, they can become…they can comply too much. They can water down their opinions. They can become too cooperative and really become quiet. So, all of these styles, each of them plays a role in creating really healthy teams, and we need to make room for some of those voices that aren’t naturally going to jump into the conversation, and invite them in.

Pete Mockaitis
And with that, I guess all sorts of implications could pop up with regard to, “Oh, if I prefer this and someone else might prefer something else, we might consider this particular intervention or approach or adaptation.” I guess I’m curious to hear, since that’d be quite the matrix and difficult to maybe fully elucidate in the time we have, are there any sort of universal best practices and worst practices here when it comes to bridging gaps with others?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, listening is the first thing I would recommend every style puts at its focus. When we make it a point to listen and really be present and not thinking about our response, or waiting for the person to stop talking, that is always a great idea.

So, this idea of kind of flexing your style a little bit, if you can start to recognize what other styles need, and so if you understand, “If I’m direct and if I have no need for small talk, but someone is expressive and they do,” so expressive and harmonious both have a need from having some sort of connection to be made, is to find a way to start every meeting with some sort of connection so that people feel like that need is met but don’t linger on it for too long.

You don’t want to waste 10 minutes of every meeting trying to foster connections. There should definitely be time where you’re building that into your teambuilding, and building those social connections. But find a way to give everybody a little bit of what they need because if our needs go unmet for too long, we’re going to go into some sort of stress response, so fight, flight, or freeze.

We either want to push and steamroll over or we go into flight and we leave, and this is also in organization. I‘ve seen a lot of people who haven’t felt seen and heard or valued because their needs aren’t being met, and that big part of it is what is prompting them to leave. And then we go into freeze, which is we shut down, we disengage. So, we’re physically there but we’re not really there.

So, I would start with listening and it’s not that difficult, actually. I know it sounds, whenever you’re trying to mentally hold it in your head, but whenever you start to look at what each person needs. So, the expressives, they need some sort of personal engagement. Reserved, they need to have some level of influence. Direct, they need every conversation to have meaning. And harmonious needs to have it to be really respectful.

And those pieces, getting to know the different styles is so important because each of us has a different way that we build trust, so we have biases when it comes to building trust. And if that’s, ultimately, our goal is to find ways to work well together, to be more effective in our roles, to build trust and relationships that allow us to navigate the challenges that seem to come out daily, we’ve got to invest a little bit in getting to know other people and understanding what their needs are.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say the direct folks need meaning, I am interpreting that to mean meaning as in the exchange we’re having results in output, results, activity, stuff in the world being different, as opposed to it’s meaningful, Maryanne, that you and I are feeling connected to each other. Is that a fair interpretation of what you mean by meaning for the direct?

Maryanne O’Brien
It is. It has to drive to some sort of actionable outcome.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha.

Maryanne O’Brien
And so, it can’t just be like, “Oh, it felt really good to connect.” It’s like, “What’s the outcome coming here?” because they really have a high level of responsibility and they keep the trains running on time, so they’re the ones that want to know that the conversation is leading to something that’s going to make a decision. It’s going to inform something. It’s going to help me see a new perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha. Okay. Well, so listening, that’s huge, certainly, and having a sense for what the other party really needs, their desire and how you can meet that. Are there any best practices when it comes to listening in terms of this makes a world of difference in terms of really gaining that understanding? I don’t know if there’s any attention tricks or particular power questions that yield lots of insight. Or, how do we listen optimally, Maryanne?

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, there are a couple things I’d recommend. First is eliminate as many distractions. Like, eliminate the distractions you can. Turn off your notifications. Put your phone away. Studies have shown that if our phone is just even visible, 20% of our attention goes to our phone because it might ring and we don’t even realize that part of our attention is being drained.

I would make it a practice to set an intention before you have a conversation. We tend to listen best when we think the conversations are important, instead of we’re kind of in that autopilot, like, “Oh, I’m just going to float into a conversation, float into a meeting,” that we’re half present, is to really make it a point to be present.

And then, for certain styles, because harmonious, they’re good listeners, every other style, especially for expressives, I would recommend that you mute yourself in every conversation and speak one time for every three times that you have the impulse because people who are expressive just have a natural desire to share their ideas and they get excited that they don’t even recognize that they’re contributing far more than anyone else and they’re not making room for other people in the conversation.

So, I would dial up your intentionality around conversations and how well you listen, and I would work to really strengthen your self-awareness so that you can become aware of how you’re coming across to people.

Pete Mockaitis
I like what you had to say about when you think a conversation is important, you have some intentionality there, you naturally do more listening as opposed to, “Oh, there’s just this meeting. I got to show up at that meeting.” So, could you give us some examples? Do you recommend like setting a very precise articulation of that intention, like, “In this conversation, I am going to try to understand why Bob is so worried about this thing”?

Like, that’s my goal, my intention. Or, “What I hope to achieve in this conversation is getting a sense of what would be truly most motivating and exciting to the team about this project.” Are those fair approaches? Or how do you think about intentionality?

Maryanne O’Brien
Yes, I think both of those are great examples. The more intentional you are, the more effectively you will show up, and the easier it will be to kind of follow through on that intention. So, I would look at, if you’re going into a meeting, what is it that you need to be able to listen to somebody who has a different perspective, perhaps?

So, if there’s somebody that you know, because we all start to kind of categorize people. It’s like, “Oh, this person always has great ideas and I listen whenever they’re talking, and I want to build upon those.” “This person always shoots everything down.” “This person has the most whacked-out ideas that never make any sense.”

So, if you can set an intention that, no matter who’s talking, “I want to stay open to what they’re saying. I’m going to try to at least understand where they’re coming from.” You don’t have to agree with everyone but if you can at least try to figure out “What is it about that idea that they like?” People want to feel seen and heard. That makes you feel valued.

So, if you at least can demonstrate to them that you’re present, that you’re really listening, that you hear them, that will go a long way into building trust. And then you can say, “You know what, I understood what you said. I see things differently.” We don’t have to agree with everything but the idea is staying open and having that willingness to listen.

So, I think if I was guiding someone toward this, I’d say, “What do you think you need going into this? Is it that you need to be more open? Is it that you need to watch for interrupting? Is it that you’re not going to shut down whenever somebody shares something that you disagree with? Can you watch for your biases? Can you watch for what triggers you?” because all of those kinds of communication influences affect how well we listen.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, Maryanne, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about a few of your favorite things?

Maryanne O’Brien
The piece I would just remind people to start looking for is what is it that they need whenever they’re communicating with people? And how do they help people understand what it is they need? So, we’ll do team-sharing, that’s one great way to start building connections with people. And whenever we all share our styles, so share your styles with the people you work with, and share, like, “Hey, you know what I realize about myself that I hadn’t really understood was I really need some time whenever we first start talking to have some sort of connection.”

And ask them what they need because then that’s an easy way for people to say, “You know what, that’s exactly what I don’t need. I need to get straight into the work.” And so, how do we find that kind of common ground? And the more that we can let people understand us, understand what our needs are, and give them an opportunity to help us meet those needs, and be willing to give them an opportunity to have their needs met, I think that those are some of kind of just basic pieces of making a great connection with someone is to be open, to be a little bit more vulnerable, let people get to know you a little bit, and kind of respect what they need as well.

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

Maryanne O’Brien
Sure. One of the ones that I love, I like Stephen Covey’s work. It’s just been influential in my life, and I love the one that he has about trust, which is around, “When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.” And if we thought about the idea that every conversation that we have has an opportunity to either build trust or erode trust, and if we cared about them and stepped into them with that intentionality, it would be a much easier world to live in and to recognize that everybody sees the world differently.

So, how can we be able to accept people who have different views, stay open to them so we can see diverse perspectives, and build trust with people who aren’t like us? It’s easy to build trust with people that operate the way that you do. And just to stay open to all kinds of people and different styles.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share a favorite book?

Maryanne O’Brien
I really love the The Four Agreements. That is one of my favorites. And so, I think that that idea of having that kind of code of conduct and really getting to know yourself well, because that whole idea of the first one being be impeccable with your word. When you take responsibility for what you say and do, and you choose your words carefully, there’s far less room for the tensions and the people problems that we run into at work.

The second one around, don’t take anything personally. We recognize that what other people are going through and what they say and do doesn’t have to be about you. It’s usually what they’re going through, and just let it go, and not personalize things. The third one around not making assumptions. Like, I love the idea that people have the courage to ask questions and clarify things, and have the willingness to kind of step in and clarify conversations so that you can stay away from misunderstandings.

And then the idea, the fourth one about always doing your best. Every day is different, and people have been going through a lot, and we’re always trying to do our best and it looks different on different days. But if that’s our intention is that every day, “I’m going to do the best that I can and show up in the best way that I can,” I think there’s a lot of value in those four agreements, and they sound simple.

Living them is a practice and it comes back to that idea that if you live these, you will become a better person. And there’s nothing more powerful than self-awareness and the ability to see things and make those course corrections. There’s this old idea, like, “You can’t change what you don’t see.”

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

Maryanne O’Brien
If you go to TheElevatedCommunicator.com, you will find the assessment so you can take the style assessment. You can take it for free. You can share it with your colleagues, share it with your friends and family. Start that conversation. There’s also a monthly blog that I do called “Ideas to Elevate,” that help people to put practices into play because that’s how we get better. We have to kind of continue to build those skills through practice.

And then on LinkedIn, I’m doing some online trainings and some different things every so often that are free for people so that we can get into these skills and really help people develop those practices that change the way they communicate.

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

Maryanne O’Brien
Well, I’m going to encourage you to really get to know your style and become aware of how you’re communicating from either that healthy side of your expression when you’re at your best, and how well you know you can communicate when you’re really intentional, to when you’re slipping into stress and what that looks and feels like in your body because we’ll always be able to feel stressed in our body, and that’ll start to tell us how we’re communicating.

And to build in some sort of wellbeing practices that help you raise that level of resilience that you have because we communicate from that level of self-awareness and wellbeing, that combination. And when stress starts to become too much, we’re going to slip into those lower expressions, and that’s when we really damage our relationships.

So, I would encourage you to get to know your style, start to recognize that style spectrum, and develop some sort of simple practices that keep you really intentional about how you want to build relationships, how you want to show up, how you want to become a better communicator.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Maryanne, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck with your elevated communications.

Maryanne O’Brien
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

754: How to Get More by Negotiating So Everyone Wins with Barry Nalebuff

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Barry Nalebuff introduces a radical new way to negotiate so everyone gets their fair share of the pie.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three questions to make any negotiation easier  
  2. The two key words to avoid and embrace
  3. The popular negotiation tactic that can actually break trust

About Barry

Barry Nalebuff is the Milton Steinbach Professor at Yale School of Management where he has taught for over thirty years. An expert on game theory, he has written extensively on its application to business strategy. His best sellers include Thinking Strategically, The Art of Strategy, and Mission in a Bottle

He advised the NBA in their prior negotiations with the Players Association, and several firms in major M&A transactions. Barry has been teaching this negotiation method at Yale in the MBA core and online at Coursera. His Introduction to Negotiation course has over 350,000 learners and 4.9/5.0 rating. He is also a serial entrepreneur. His ventures include Honest Tea, Kombrewcha, and Choose Health. 

A graduate of MIT, a Rhodes Scholar, and a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, Barry earned his doctorate at Oxford University.

Resources Mentioned

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Barry Nalebuff Interview Transcript

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

Barry Nalebuff
So awesome to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about some of the wisdom from your book Split the Pie: A Radical New Way to Negotiate. But, first, I want to hear a cool story to the extent that you’re at liberty to share from your involvement in the NBA negotiations.

Barry Nalebuff
So, I’m not really at liberty to share but I will say that what I enjoy is the negotiation part as opposed to I’m not a giant sports fan. And so, I was probably, at times, the only person in the room who didn’t recognize all the other people in the room.

Pete Mockaitis
I am guilty of that as well, like, “Who’s in the Super Bowl again?” when it comes to sports and general awareness, yeah. Well, in some ways, that might have helped you keep your cool, like you weren’t intimidated, like, “Whoa, these superstars.” You’re just like, “Okay, hey, hey, let’s see what makes sense for everybody.”

Barry Nalebuff
The most intimidating factor was they had really great custom suits because, of course, none of these folks can wear off-the-shelf anyway, and they did look sharp, I got to say.

Pete Mockaitis
Did you ask where they got them?

Barry Nalebuff
I did not.

Pete Mockaitis
I got a custom-made suit to my measurements in Shanghai and I wore it until it was just about tattered but I also don’t fit anymore because that was when I was 20, and, bodies have a way of changing over time. Cool. All right. Well, so we’re talking negotiation. If you think back on your research and career, is there a particularly surprising or counterintuitive or extra-fascinating discovery you’ve made along the way?

Barry Nalebuff
I think so. So, let me start with what it’s like to teach negotiation.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Barry Nalebuff
Because my students at Yale, they are smart, they are empathetic, they care about the world. I love them as people until they start negotiating, and then many of them become like jerks.

Pete Mockaitis
Just because they think that’s the game they’re supposed to be playing or what’s behind that?

Barry Nalebuff
So, I don’t know. It’s a little bit of they read in some novel about this tough negotiator person who makes ultimatums, they’re scared, they think they’re in a police procedure where somebody’s read them their Miranda Rights, anything they can say can and will be used against them, and so they throw out all of their IQ, all of their empathy, all goes out the window. Moreover, they’re not good at being jerks, they’re not naturally jerks, and so they perform terribly in these negotiations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s a great takeaway right there.

Barry Nalebuff
Yeah. And so, that to me is a surprise, “Why do people who…?” So, people ask me all the time, they’re like, “How do I negotiate with jerks?” And one of my responses is, “Don’t you be the jerk that other people have to write to me about.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Barry Nalebuff
“And understand the other person has a mother who loves them, and maybe they aren’t really actually a jerk. They just don’t know any better in terms of how to negotiate.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, you’re bringing back some memories when we were closing on a house, and the lawyers, it’s like they made things so intense. No offense to the lawyers listening. I know they’re not all that way. But it was like, “Man, can we just like talk about what our concerns are and just see if we can figure something out. We’re getting very accusative over here.”

Barry Nalebuff
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so your book Split the Pie, tell us, what’s the big idea behind this? And what is this radical new way to negotiate in your subtitle?

Barry Nalebuff
So, truth be told, it’s not new. It’s 2000 years old in the sense that it comes from the Talmud, it comes from this idea of the principle of by the cloth, but I think that the idea has been lost for 2000 years, and you bring it back, maybe you can call it new, so I’m hoping that’s okay.

Pete Mockaitis
We’ll let it count, yeah.

Barry Nalebuff
And the big idea is this funny notion that people don’t generally understand what it is they’re negotiating over. And, as a result, because they’re confused, they make arguments that don’t really make sense, they make proposals about fairness that are based on where they sit but aren’t really truly fair so they throw around the fair word in ways that aren’t appropriate. They’re confused about what power is, and actually that’s one of the reasons why people end up acting like jerks.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, I imagine, Barry, is it fair to say that each of these dimensions is fairly unique negotiation by negotiation? Or are there some universals here, like, “What people really want is this”?

Barry Nalebuff
So, we’re jumping ahead a little bit and happy to do it in life. I want to give the other side what it is they want, not because I like them, not because I’m just generous or a pushover, but if they get what they want, then I can get what I want.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, we got some Zig Ziglar in there. I like it.

Barry Nalebuff
Absolutely. And, of course, I also want them to give me what I want so that I can then want to do the deal as well. Again, the universal point that I think the surprise, or perhaps not so much in hindsight, is to understand why we’re having this negotiation, what’s the value we can create through an agreement. And once you recognize that, you recognize symmetry that is, otherwise, not apparent.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. Can you elaborate with an example?

Barry Nalebuff
Sure. My mother was living in a rental house in Florida where she’d lived the last 10 years. And the Florida real estate market has been heating up, and her landlord decided to put the house on the market for sale. Now, he thought, he wrote to her in an email saying something like, “I’m planning on listing this house for 800,000. I’d be glad to sell to you at a $10,000 discount, 790. Are you interested?”

And she is interested, she likes living there, she doesn’t want to move but, of course, that’s not really what the negotiation was about. So, what are the real reasons why it makes sense for her to do this transaction with him? And I’m flipping the cards a little bit by turning the question to you but let’s give it a shot.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, actually, we’re in a similar situation. We moved to Tennessee and so we’re renting in the first year and it sounds like the landlord may be looking to sell or may not, so I can relate. But one thing that’s big is like, “We don’t want to move. Moving is a pain.”

Barry Nalebuff
Moving is a pain.

Pete Mockaitis
My stuff is here. I’ve set it up the way I want it, and then to just go through the shopping round and the searching, and then all that stuff, yeah.

Barry Nalebuff
Great. So, moving is a pain for you. It’s both time-consuming and costly. It’s more so for my 88-year-old mother.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah.

Barry Nalebuff
At the same time, fixing up the place is a pain for him because she doesn’t care about the stains on the carpet, or the walls that are perhaps a little bit more yellowing maybe, the paint isn’t as white as it was 10 years ago, the appliance are a little outdated, all those things she’s learned to live with.

Pete Mockaitis
And all the showing. He’s got plenty of hassles as well.

Barry Nalebuff
Yeah, but there’s something else that’s even a bigger factor, which is there’s no real estate agent commission, there’s no 5% that needs to be paid. And on this $800,000 sale, that’s about $40,000, and he’s just offered her 10,000 of that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, how generous.

Barry Nalebuff
And so, my response is, “I think this negotiation is really over $40,000. It’s not actually over the price of the house. It’s over how much we’re going to each save of the real estate agent commission. If you sell this house to somebody else for 800, you’re going to clear 760.” If my mother buys this house, a similar house in the market, she’s going to have to pay 800, so it’s a $40,000 gain that can be created by the two of them doing that transaction with each other.

So, he says, “Well, look it’s a hot market, and, therefore, I should get more of a gain.” And my view is the fact it’s a hot market means the price is high, but it doesn’t mean that he’s entitled to more of that 40,000.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I like this.

Barry Nalebuff
That he needs her to make this purchase to save that 40,000 to avoid the real estate agent just as much as she needs him to be the person who she buys from. So, I say they should split it 20,000-20,000, and that she’s prepared to pay market price for the house. So, if you’re willing to sell this at $20,000 below market price, you’ll be $20,000 ahead and we’ll be $20,000 ahead. And so, he gives a tentative yes to that.

And, fortunately, there were five other sales on that street in the last six months so we can look at the price per square foot, on exterior space, interior space, do the adjustment for the size of the house, came up with a number, 763,492 or something like that, so it’s actually 20,000 and we were done.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Barry Nalebuff
And what it does is turn negotiation into a collaboration and a data exercise as opposed to an argument.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot, and so I guess what feels radical there is so we’re splitting a pie but the pie we’ve defined very precisely as the $40,000 savings that we uniquely have the opportunity to do because, “I know the house, I’ve lived in the house as tenant, and we don’t have to do all the shopping rounds.” So, that’s the pie that we’re splitting as opposed to simply splitting the difference, which can be a very different concept.

Barry Nalebuff
Completely. So, let’s be clear, you mentioned one part of the pie, which is knowing the house, not having to move. There’s also him not having to fix things up and there’s the $40,000 real estate agent commission. All three of those things are the pie, and what we did is we said her not having to move and him not having to fix things up ends up being awash. So, we call those two things to cancel and we call the rest, the 40,000, what it is that we split.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool.

Barry Nalebuff
And then, having reached an agreement to do that, it was, “Well, okay, we have to hire a lawyer. Rather than each of us hire separate lawyers, it’s going to be a simple deal, let’s just hire one lawyer between the two of us and split the cost of that, so we’ve saved another thousand dollars in the process.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah, wow, that has never occurred to me because I just think of lawyers and adversarial stuff is that, well, if the lawyer is getting paid by both clients, then their incentives are…they’re not more loyal to one than the other so that works fine.

Barry Nalebuff
Basically, said, “Look, we want the fair solution. We want the down-the-road, down-the-middle answer and that’s all good.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay. Cool.

Barry Nalebuff
And this also suggests a different way of negotiating, which is don’t start by talking about price. Don’t even start by talking about interests. Start by discussing how it is you’re going to negotiate and, in particular, say, “You know, I read this book. I listened to this awesome podcast on how to be awesome, and my awesome new way of negotiating is to discuss can we agree to create this large pie and split it. Because if we can agree on that, then from now, all of my interests, all of my focus is going to be on making a big pie, and I don’t have to worry about watching my back.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. So, that’s one of the first things you say is just, “Let’s talk about how we’re going to negotiate. I’d like to take this kind of an approach. What do you think?” Just like that, is that how you’d recommend wording it?

Barry Nalebuff
Well, some people may find that a little bit too straightforward, and so you can always try the humor approach, which is, “What do you say we each act like jerks, lie to each other, try and take as much advantage of each other as possible?” And the other person says, “I’m not so keen about that.” Say, “Me neither. I got this other idea that’s a much better way of doing it.” So, you could have a little bit of throat-clearing, talking about the weather, have a little fun with sort of the why you don’t like the traditional approach, and then ease your way into split the pie.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And I know you’ve also got a boatload of tactics, and I want to dig into a few of these. But maybe before we do that, I want to address some of the emotional elements when it comes to negotiation. Many of us have a fear associated with asking for more or, “Am I allowed to negotiate?” And so, I’d love to get your take on that. How do we address the…maybe it’s a mindset or fear associated with, “Ooh, I’m just not really comfortable pushing the envelope, asking for too much, don’t want to seem pushy or needy or greedy”? How do you address that?

Barry Nalebuff
Well, first, let me say that a lot has been written about emotions in negotiation, and if you’d like, I am adding a little bit of Mr. Spock. I’m trying to bring a little bit of logic to bear. And one of the things that’s good about bringing logic to negotiation is it takes down the temperature. One of the other lessons we talk about in the book is fight fire with water, don’t fight fire with fire.

And to the extent you can add a principled approach to negotiation, it brings down the temperature, you’ve created a notion of fairness that’s objective in terms of splitting the pie, it doesn’t depend on which side you’re on, and, therefore, it makes it easier because we’re not actually fighting anymore over how we’re going to divide the pie. We’ve agreed on that.

Instead, what we’re working on is cooperative in terms of how to make the pie bigger. So, that’s a sense in which it’s easier to do this because, essentially, I’m asking for things now that are going to work for both of us. I want to try and make that pie as big as possible.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, certainly. That makes good sense. Well, then maybe let’s talk about the application of that in terms of let’s say someone, they got a job offer, and they say, “Okay, this is pretty nice but I’ve heard on the podcast, I’m supposed to negotiate but I feel a little weird about that. If we get all logical and talk about making the pie as big as possible and splitting it, that’s one way to tackle that.” How would you apply this principle, we heard about it in a house? How do we apply it in, say, a job offer situation?

Barry Nalebuff
Let’s also take a step back. Oftentimes, when you’re interviewing for a new job and they’ve given you a position, the negotiation over your salary is really the first time they’re getting to know you. It’s the first confrontational or challenging conversation you may have had, and so appreciate that how you go about this negotiation is really going to be a first impression, if you like.

Now, one point to make is, “Look, I’m negotiating for this job because, guess what, one of my jobs is to negotiate for the company. And if I can’t negotiate it for myself, how am I possibly going to negotiate for you?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like that.

Barry Nalebuff
And that argument works pretty well if you’re in sales or marketing, perhaps a little less if you’re in accounting, so it may depend on your different position. And then it can be either, “I think I’m going to be awesome at this, and I’m pretty sure you’re going to agree. Can we talk about what type of bonuses are available and how we’re going to measure them, how you capped it in the past, so that if I am as awesome as I expect to be, and you expect me to be, what type of rewards are likely to follow?”

And people, in general, are not scared of or afraid to give you that type of information. They may say, “We haven’t figured out the bonus pool for this year,” and you can say, “Fine. Let me understand the bonus pool for last year. And what are the metrics by which bonuses are determined?”

Another way of making the pie bigger is to understand what leads to the pie getting smaller. And people don’t like to talk about failures, but failures actually help you here. So, one of my favorite questions to ask is, “Can you tell me about cases where you’ve hired people who you thought were going to be awesome and turned out not to work? What went wrong?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a powerful question, Barry. I always ask that when I’m keynoting somewhere, it’s like, “Who are some of the other speakers you’ve had? You don’t have to name names if you’re uncomfortable. What went really well and what was disappointing and why?” Because that just surfaces things like you never would’ve thought, like, “Huh, okay. People really don’t like that. Good to know.”

Barry Nalebuff
And it does two things for you. One is you may say, “Oh, I am like that, and so this isn’t going to work, so maybe this is the wrong gig for me. Wrong company, wrong keynote.” Or, you learn, “You know what, I understand that and that problem is not something as an issue for me, never arises for me, and that’s why we’re going to be extra great.” And so, therefore, it’s a way of convincing the other side that there’s actually going to be a bigger pie by having you be their keynote speaker.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. It’s like, “No, don’t worry. I’m not going to try to sell the audience on…” well, insert program, “I’m not going to try to sell them on an epic coaching package or DVDs.” I guess people aren’t selling DVDs that much anymore. Maybe in little corners.

Barry Nalebuff
What’s a DVD?

Pete Mockaitis
Have you heard of a DVD, Barry?

Barry Nalebuff
They’re coasters, I think.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Okay, cool. Well, then let’s say we’re in the midst of a negotiation. What are some of the top do’s and don’ts and tactics that you think people should be equipped with?

Barry Nalebuff
One thing I suggest to people is not to say, “No, unless…” and instead say, “Yes, if…” I want the other side to go the extra mile for me. I want them to go above their head, to the head of HR, to the managing director, to somehow stretch themselves in terms of what they’re going to do to bring me on board. The worst thing from their perspective is they do that, and I use this offer to get a higher salary where I currently am, or at some other job I’m negotiating with. They don’t want to be used as a stocking horse. And so, I want to give them the confidence that if they do what I’m asking them to do, my answer is yes. So, that’s a “Yes, if” rather than a “No, unless.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. I believe your colleague Daylian Cain had a turn of a phrase, like, “Don’t list deal-breakers. List deal-makers.” Like, “Boy, if you could do this for me, ooh, I’m going to say yes on the spot.”

Barry Nalebuff
Exactly, “I want to say yes. And these things will allow me to do it right now.”

Pete Mockaitis
And that just creates a nice bit of excitement as well in terms of…

Barry Nalebuff
We’re trying to get to the same place.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. It’s like, “Ooh.” If someone says that to you, it’s like, “Ooh, I’m in the position to make your day and have this done at the same time,” ooh, what a burst of dopamine all at once. Thank you. Can you share some examples of that in action?

Barry Nalebuff
Well, one of the cases that we had in my own life was a company I started with my former student, Seth Goldman, it’s Honest Tea, and we had a chance to sell that to Coca-Cola. And they had offered us something called a call which is their right to buy the company at a specified price but we didn’t have a put. And the put is our ability to force them to buy it at that price. And we wanted that.

The people we’re negotiating with didn’t have the authority to give that to us. Only the board of directors could do that. But the last thing this team wanted to do was go to the board, get that permission, and then discover there was some other requests we’re going to make, or the price wasn’t high enough, or that Pepsi was going to steal it from underneath them.

And so, what we said is, “If you do this, we are done, done, done. There was no other request. This is what we want. This will seal the deal. We’re ready right now. We’ll sign and you can go and have the board sign on the other side.” And they took it to the board, the board said yes, we were done, done, done, and the deal closed.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Beautiful. All right. So, that’s so great. What else do you got, Barry?

Barry Nalebuff
And to connect it to that is I’m not a big fan of saying no. Now, I’m prepared to say no if what they’re asking me to do is unethical, illegal. Okay, so let’s take those things off the table. But, instead, it’s back to the “Yes, if.” If you’re willing to do this, then I’m prepared to say yes. So, at one point, speaking of keynotes, somebody asked me to give a keynote speech in Seoul, Korea, and the timing could not have been worse.

I’m teaching on Mondays and Wednesdays, which meant I would have to leave Monday night right after my class, fly halfway around the world, be in Korea for eight hours, take the next flight back in order to teach my Wednesday class. I was going to be in eight hours flight, like, “This does not make any sense.” So, I could’ve said no. Instead, I said, “Yes, if you’re prepared to pay this somewhat crazy amount of money. I don’t think I’m worth it but, you know what, it’s not for me to decide. It’s for you to decide.”

Ultimately, they said yes. I flew halfway around the world for six hours. I discovered if you do that, you don’t get jetlag, so it wasn’t as bad as I quite thought, and my daughter learned this trick for me, not to call it trick, tool, when I suggested to her that I would like her to join the high school math team on her list of a hundred favorite things to do, that wasn’t on the list.

And she said yes. She didn’t say no to me. She said, “Yes, if,” “Yes, if we get a dog.” We got a dog, she joined the math team, it was not that well-written contract as I got one year in the math team for 13 years of the dog, but it’s all good. So, another example.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. And this reminds me when I talking with my wife. So, we were in Chicago and she wanted to move, she’s like, “It’s cold and there’s potholes,” and so she listed these things. And I was like, “Oh, but all my friends in the Chicago area.” And so then, I said, and I didn’t even think it was going to happen because we’ve got two toddlers, and I said, “Well, I can see it working if I could, I don’t know, fly once a month to see all my friends in Chicago,” and she just said, “Yes,” immediately.

And I was surprised, and I was like, “Wait. Just so we’re clear, like three days a month, I will just disappear gallivanting around with my buddies while you are single-handed with two toddlers. You prefer that in another place that’s warmer and maybe near your family than…”

Barry Nalebuff
Maybe she liked having you away for three days a month.

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe she does. But I think one of the powerful pieces to that is you may well be surprised that you think, I’m at, like you said, you asked for an absurd amount of money, you’re like, “There is no way anyone’s going to go for this.” That could surprise you.

Barry Nalebuff
I can’t justify it but it’s not for me to say no. Let them say no.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good.

Barry Nalebuff
What does it take for you to say yes? And then we say people have said no to me in those circumstances. That’s fine. But there’s no real advantage in my saying no because if I say no, we end up with no deal, in which case I have nothing to lose by doing my “Yes, if,” because the worst I end up with is the same place.

Pete Mockaitis
And I like the way you…did you actually say that to the folks in South Korea, “I don’t think I’m worth it but this is up to you to decide”?

Barry Nalebuff
I said that exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, because that’s great because I’ve been in that position a few times where folks have asked me to do a workshop or whatever, and I was like, “Wow, for this actually be worth my while given all I’ve got going on, it would really need to be an outrageous sum of money,” but I kind of feel like a jerk even putting that forward. But that nice little line there, Barry, is golden because it’s like, “No, I don’t think I’m worth,” whatever, 30 grand, “for this but that’s what I will need to do it, so it’s up to you.”

Barry Nalebuff
“But if you feel like it’s worth your budget because of the timescale and schedule and so on, I’m there.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And sometimes it’s true. It’s like sometimes folks have a huge budget and they just want it to be done maybe desperately. I’ve hired DJs at all price points from zero dollars to many thousands. Now, in some ways, they’re doing pretty similar stuff. They’re playing music over audio-video equipment for people to dance to, not to insult the DJs because I know there’s artistry and expertise and craft to it but it’s kind of wild how sometimes that budget really just is there, so go for it.

All right, Barry, this is good stuff. Got some more treats for us like this?

Barry Nalebuff
Sure. One of the things that I’m a big believer in is don’t go crazy with your attempt to anchor somebody. Don’t start off with a super high number if it’s an ask, or a super low number if it’s your offer. There’s a whole branch of economics called behavioral economics which talks about the power of anchoring, the first number somebody hears.

And this goes back to research done by Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky where they asked people, “How many African countries are there in the United Nations?” And if you first asked them, “Is it above or below 12 or above or below 80?” what they end up thinking changes radically between those two cases.

The problem with anchoring negotiation is twofold. One, if I offer you a miserably low number for your business, your car, your whatever, your job, the person thinks I’m trying to take advantage of them and, therefore, they don’t want to work with me, they don’t like me, and that’s a big problem. If they say, “How did you come up with that number?” And my answer is, “Well, I read in this book that anchoring, the softening somebody up is a really good idea.” That’s not a great justification.

The second problem is that it forces you to make giant movements. So, you offer somebody $2,000 for the car, and they say, “You know, CarMax is willing to buy it from me for 7,200.” You say, “Okay, 7,500.” It’s like, “Wait a second. You just offered me two, now you’re up to 7500. What’s going on here?” And if I say, “Look, I think the right number is 9,000, and you say 7500 is the largest I can pay, it’s like you just made us a $5,000 movement. What do you mean that’s the last thing you can do?”

So, if you start by trying to anchor at a number that’s far away, you both insult the other side and you show that you’re like jelly, that you have no principles in terms of what you’re doing, and, therefore, you will be flexible. You will be like Gumby.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. And I also imagine, thinking about the African countries in the UN example, like if you were to ask, “Is it more or less than 5,000?” It’s sort of like that question is so nutty, I don’t know the psychology behind it. Studies have been done here. Let me know, Barry. Like, I’d say that number is so nutty, it doesn’t even factor…it doesn’t even sway me. It’s like, “Huh.”

Barry Nalebuff
Actually, the crazy thing is that when people ask whether Einstein first came to the United States before or after 1412, the year of the Magna Carta or something. It’s like it turns out that has an impact which is just insane versus whether or not he came to the United States before or after 1990, I don’t know, the year of Beastie Boys or something.

So, even absurd anchors can actually have this impact but the insulting feature. Like, when Trump negotiated with President Nieto of Mexico, and said, “You’re going to pay for the whole wall.” The Mexican president canceled his visit to the United States because he was insulted by it, he didn’t even want to begin the negotiation. So, anchoring is different in negotiation because it sends a signal to the other side.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. That’s good. Well, could you give us a third tidbit, Barry, that leaps to mind?

Barry Nalebuff
Sure. I think that people are too afraid of revealing information that they try and keep things hidden. So, I’ll turn the tables with you a little bit on this one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m afraid to reveal information, Barry.

Barry Nalebuff
Yeah. Alice and Bob are negotiating and Friday is the deadline for both of them. If they don’t reach an agreement by Friday at 5:00 p.m., there is no deal to be done. However, Bob has a secret deadline of Wednesday at 5:00. Bob knows this, Alice does not. Should Bob reveal that deadline to Alice?

Pete Mockaitis
I see pros and cons but I’m leaning to…I almost think you have to if Alice is just going to slow-play and just be like, “Okay, yeah, I’ll think about that.” I don’t know if you’re in the same room or building or whatever, but if you’re like emailing and calling back and forth, and it’s Wednesday 2:00 p.m., and Alice is like, “Oh, thanks, Bob. I’ll think this over tonight,” and Bob is like, “Oh, no, you can’t.” That seems like a really dangerous place to be. So, I’m inclined to share it at some point, maybe not the very beginning, but some point before Wednesday 4:00 p.m. Alice probably needs to be made aware of that.

Barry Nalebuff
Yeah, I love your Alice voice there. So, I’m totally with you on this, which is, “What is Alice’s deadline? It isn’t Friday at 5:00. It’s Wednesday at 5:00.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s her true deadline, yeah.

Barry Nalebuff
That’s her true deadline except she doesn’t know it because Alice’s deadline is the same as Bob’s deadline. And so, I think Bob should say right up front, “You know, Alice, I’ve got some bad news for you, that I really have to be done by Wednesday at 5:00, which means you have to be done by Wednesday at 5:00, so let’s stop screwing around and get cracking.”

And people think, “Oh, my God, this is bad news, therefore, I can’t reveal it. I had to somehow keep it hidden. It’s going to put me in a weak position because I’ve got this earlier deadline.” And, actually, it only puts you on a weak position if you keep it hidden. And people have this whole view of, like I said, the Miranda Rights, anything you say can and will be used against you, so they either keep silent or they tell white lies but they don’t reveal things that are essential to having this agreement happen.

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

Barry Nalebuff
I’m not a giant fan of verbal jiu jitsus but here’s one that I think is helpful. Asking somebody where they are least flexible as opposed to asking them where they are most flexible. So, if you’re negotiating a job and you’re thinking about, well, there’s wages, there’s bonuses, there’s equity, saying, “Where are you most flexible?” the person doesn’t really want to answer that question for you. It’s scary.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “Why would I tell you that?”

Barry Nalebuff
“I don’t want to tell you that.” If I asked you, “Where are you least flexible?” they’re happy to tell you that because they’re saying, “Don’t ask me this.”

Pete Mockaitis
“That’s fair. Like, I can’t give you equity any farther. We got a lot of people with their hands in the cookie jar. I can’t give you any more than this, so I’m least flexible there.”

Barry Nalebuff
So, basically, they are pleased to be able to tell you about something which is something they don’t have the power to give you. Now, when they say they’re least flexible on this, what is it telling you? They’re more flexible on everything else, and, therefore, you’ve learned where they’re flexible by asking them where they are least flexible. So, you get the information in a much safer, friendlier environment.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Barry Nalebuff
I’m a big fan of “Often wrong, never in doubt.” So, essentially, having some confidence in what you’re doing but also realizing that maybe you’re not correct. And so, both looking for evidence that’s proving yourself wrong but not second-guessing yourself all along the way.

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

Barry Nalebuff
Well, we did an experiment on the pie where we gave parties who were traditionally viewed as less powerful, some information about what the pie wasn’t in a negotiation. Like, for example, telling them in the house case, “Hey, there’s this $40,000 real estate commission,” and it turns out that doing so moved people dramatically away from proportional division into splitting the pie. And so, what was remarkable is we didn’t even have to give both sides this information. Giving what was traditionally viewed as the weaker side, information about the pie, allowed them to persuade the other side.

So, if you go back, there was this famous experiment by Ellen Langer about Xerox machines, and asking people, “Can I jump in line and make a copy?” And what she found is that asking with a reason beat just asking. And the pie is a great reason, it’s a principled approach and it really is able to move the other side.

Pete Mockaitis
And could you share a favorite book?

Barry Nalebuff
I’m a big fan of biographies. I’m currently reading the biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow, and it is fantastic. I had no idea, in the end, what a remarkable leader Grant was in such challenging times. This is a man who would fail at just about everything he had done until he succeeded at everything he did.

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

Barry Nalebuff
Well, I have to say this Yeti Blue Microphone is definitely making my life a whole lot easier these days. And so, I’m a big fan of the various ways…I mean, I’ve got ring lights. I’ve been doing so much teaching online. And the combination of having a big screen, ring lights, Yetis, actually, it’s great. I can see chats. I can have my students all ask questions that are better than having people raise their hands because now I can have 20 people asking things at the same time, not just one. So, this online teaching stuff is actually pretty good. So, Zoom, Yeti, ring lights, bring them on.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Barry Nalebuff
I think we should have addictions in life that are healthy addictions as opposed to bad addictions. And my healthy addiction is table tennis.

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

Barry Nalebuff
Well, as an entrepreneur, I spend a lot of time trying to convince people not to go into entrepreneurship. And partly is if I can convince you not to do it, then you shouldn’t be doing it because you have to have so much of a passion, so much of a belief into it, so many obstacles along the way that it has to be a force that’s propelling you. You have to really care about what it is that you’re trying to create and it’s not something you just go into lightly. So, therefore, real entrepreneurs don’t need encouragement, if you like.

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

Barry Nalebuff
SplitThePieBook.com has excerpts, has some videos, they can watch negotiations. There’s even a negotiation bot that you can play and see how well you do in an automated game. There’s a free online course on Coursera. It has over 400,000 people who’d taken it, actually are taking it now, 4.9 out of 5.0 rating so it doesn’t get much better than that. And, of course, the book Split the Pie, which is available everywhere.

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 Nalebuff
Figure out what it’s going to take to make the pie bigger, not just figure out what it is that you’re going to do to get more of the pie. And to the extent that you’re known as a person who’s out there creating large pies, everyone is going to want to work with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Barry, this has been fun. I wish you many large pies.

Barry Nalebuff
I wish you gigantic pies, and thank you for helping bake one with me today.

748: How to Decrease Ambiguity and Increase Clarity with Karen Martin

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Karen Martin shares her top tips for clearly communicating what you mean and getting others to do the same.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to speak your mind without coming off as harsh 
  2. The one question to ask when someone’s being unclear
  3. Fuzzy words you should stop using immediately 

About Karen

Karen Martin, president of the global consulting firm TKMG, Inc., is a leading authority on business performance and Lean management. Known for her keen diagnostic skills and rapid-results approach, Karen and her team have worked with clients such as AT&T, Chevron, Epson, GlaxoSmithKline, International Monetary Fund, Lenovo, Mayo Clinic, Prudential Insurance, Qualcomm, and the United States Department of Homeland Security to develop more efficient work systems, grow market share, solve business problems, and accelerate performance. 

Resources Mentioned

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Karen Martin Interview Transcript

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

Karen Martin
It’s great to be back, Pete. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you just said something funny before I pushed record, which was, it’s been a little over three years since you were on the show, and you commented that it feels like a lot more than three years, would you say?

Karen Martin
In COVID times, that’s a decade.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it really is.

Karen Martin
My gosh, it’s so weird how warped time is, isn’t it?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it really is.

Karen Martin
It’s just weird.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s wild. And the last time, we talked about clarity. And if listeners haven’t checked out that episode, I recommend it. It’s a good one, number 382. So, I’d love to hit a little bit of some of those bits on clarity and, specifically, the questions, and questions about questions. And, maybe for starters, can you tell us, in these three years, or decade, depending on your perspective, have you discovered anything new about clarity, or refined any of your thinking in a way that’s super handy?

Karen Martin
Oh, my goodness. Well, let’s stick on the COVID thing for just a moment. So, talk about a lesson in the lack of clarity. Oh, my gosh, it has been three years of the most incredible ambiguity I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, and it’s everything from the debate about science and non-science. And I think the most incredible one, to me, is how unclear the media and the agencies have been on, “When do you turn positive for a rapid antigen test? When do you turn positive for PCR? What does turning negative mean?” There’s just no clear answer.

And then there is a clear answer. I’m a microbiologist from way back when, and there’s a very clear answer on when you turn positive and negative on these tests, but they’re just not communicating it well at all. So, I think if you pay really close attention to any information you receive, you can feel when it’s clear, not maybe clear and false, but you can at least feel when it’s clear and when it’s not. You get a visceral reaction when you’re in the presence of ambiguity.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you know, that’s a great point. And I guess I’m thinking about masks with regard to in the early stages because I had that feeling. In the early days, the guidance was, “Hey, yeah, go ahead and wear masks but not N95 masks because the healthcare workers need those.” And I was like, “Well, it sounds like the N95 masks are better if that’s who needs them, and so that’s actually not clear. So, what I think you need to say to me is, ‘Use the inferior masks and make a sacrifice for the sake of public health because the healthcare workers need them.’”

As opposed to, what was unclear was like, “Well, so do the non-N95 masks do good things?” because I generally like to have the best thing if I’m going to get a thing. I’m sort of like all or nothing in a lot of ways.

Karen Martin
Yeah. Well, a lot of that, I give a lot of grace to the agencies and to the media as well in the beginning days, a lot of grace, because we didn’t know. We just didn’t understand how much the virus can penetrate different kinds of masks and all of these different things that took a lot of experience and a lot of research of that experience in order to figure that all out. So, I will give a big pass in the very beginning.

But I also think that we could’ve been a lot more honest about, remember in the very beginning, it was, “You don’t have to wear a mask at all,” and it was because they were worried about healthcare workers having access to enough supply for them to be able to not be in harm’s way. And so, just the whole thing, again, I’ll give a lot of grace because we were all in panic mode, the agencies, probably the most panicked mode of anybody because they were responsible for what happens and what the communication is and everything, but it was really, it continues to be an incredible lesson in clarity versus ambiguity.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, Karen, I love that notion of there’s a feeling there. And I think that I can brush it away too fast in terms of, “That doesn’t quite seem to make sense but that’s what the expert said so…” I don’t know, if I were to kind of put words to the feelings.

Karen Martin
Yeah, don’t brush it away. One of the things I talk about in the book Clarity First is that you have a right to receive clear information and you have an obligation to deliver clear information. And delivering clear information is such a gift because there are so many people that are afraid to deliver a clear message for various reasons, and we could talk about some of those, but kind of being brave and being clear, you don’t have to be harsh and clear. You can be frank and candid and it be very loving, actually. But being the recipient of information? Absolutely you have a right to have clear information and the obligation to ask for clarity when you don’t get it.

Pete Mockaitis
This talk about courage and communicating clearly reminds me of consulting days and the headlines that go on slides because the best practice that has been drilled into my head, I hear from consulting, is that we have a headline on the slide that conveys the key message takeaway, such as, I don’t know, “Sales have fallen dramatically since 2012,” for example, as opposed to simply, “Sales over time.”

And it does take some courage because, and I think the reason, and I’ve been accused by my clients of using sensational headlines. I was like, “Are these sensational? I think it just tells you what’s going on here.”

Karen Martin
The truth.

Pete Mockaitis
They might be more sensational compared to “Sales over time,” which isn’t very instructive, is that, well, the director of sales who started the job in that year is in the room, and he or she could be super offended that you’re putting a bright spot on, “Oh, see, things went bad right around when this guy was there,” even though you didn’t say that. But I think it does take some courage to be clear because people’s feelings can get hurt.

So, help us sort through that a little bit in terms of, in some ways, you don’t want to have like the pure naïve clarity of a child who just says anything, like, “You’re fat, you know.” Like, “Don’t do that.” But help us out, Karen, how do we get clear but not be too offensive and do this dance?

Karen Martin
So, I think the key is to always communicate with love as the intention and not harm. And when you kind of go from a place of love, and I know it’s funny to be talking about jobs and work and love, but it really is, there’s two pure human emotions – love and fear. And when you have love as the intent of conversation, then you can be clear and not harsh or harmful or mean or it’s easier when it’s done with love.

Now, so tough love is a great phrase, and tough love can be a little hard to swallow but if you deliver it in the right way, you know that you care about the person and you’re delivering the information out of concern and caring and loving for that person, and it can be a person at work. This love thing isn’t just outside of work. That helps a lot.

And I also think that when it comes to team-based meetings and activities and proven activities and things like that, you have to kind of go into those with some ground rules about what the expectation is that the conversation should be like. And so, the expectation should be, ideally, that there’s a safe environment to speak the truth, and that the truth is founded and grounded in facts, and that it is what is, and it’s not going to be blame-oriented. I think that’s where we get ourselves into really, really big trouble is this blaming and finger-pointing.

When you’re trying to solve problems, which business is 90% solving problems, you have to not have a fear-based or a culture and an environment that’s going to evoke fear because people are being blamed. So, that helps a lot right there.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and I think maybe the other side of the coin maybe credit, it’s like, “We need the credit.” Like, if you view, wasn’t it Abraham Lincoln who talked about “Victory has a thousand fathers but failure is a lonely orphan”? Something like that.

Karen Martin
Oh, I love that. Yeah, yeah, that’s a really nice quote. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
In terms of everyone wants to claim credit for the things that’s going well, and everyone wants to divest blame or involvement or association with the thing that didn’t go so well. So, I guess I’m just talking with a buddy who mentioned some groups refuse to let someone mention a victory in another group’s newsletter because they’re like, “They’re always getting the credit for the things and we need to get credit for the things.” And I don’t know the whole story but that didn’t sound…

Karen Martin
That’s a toxic culture right there.

Pete Mockaitis
That didn’t sound like the best place to be from that little snippet.

Karen Martin
No, that is a toxic culture. Yeah, I think that the more that we can just get kind of unemotional about performance and projects that either work really well or don’t work so well, I love, actually, going into clients where they’re dealing with some perceived negative situations or something was “a failure” and get them to see it through a learning lens.

The fact that something didn’t work out as well as you would like, that’s the rich fodder for “Well, why not? What happened? And what can we not repeat the next time? Or, what should we do more of to increase our chances of success?” And really reflecting on why something didn’t work out so well is important but, yet, we kind of rush, rush, rush to the next thing, and don’t take time to really learn from our failures. It sounds overwrought to say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, we learned from our failures,” but you really do. It’s not just a saying. You really do. You can, if you listen and reflect, learn a lot from failure.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so, there are some emotional foundational things that kind of need to be present in order for clarity to even have a prayer.

Karen Martin
A fighting chance, exactly, a fighting chance.

Pete Mockaitis
Being around. So, then, let’s say we do have that or at least we have enough of that. Let’s talk about the underpinnings of clarity in terms of I love, in our last chat, we talked about some of those key questions that you can use of others to get clarification, like, “Why?” “What if…?” “Why not?” “How could we…?” “What would have to be true if…” as well as questions we can ask ourselves to determine, “Hey, am I clear? Is what I’m saying going to kind of make sense and feel clear?”

And you also have questions about questions. So, Karen, I just want to talk about questions. Lay it on us, if we’re trying to get clear, what are the fundamental questions we should be asking ourselves and others?

Karen Martin
Well, so let’s talk about email communications, phone calls, picking up the phone, and walking to a meeting, or chatting, or texting. One of the most important things to do is say, “What is my intent? Why am I communicating with this person or this team or this organization?” or whoever it is, “What do I want to achieve?”

And I think, also, being very, very precise on what are you asking for. Are you just sharing information just so they know? Are you sharing information because you want a decision? Are you sharing information because you want someone’s opinion? Are you sharing information because you want someone to take action?

If you can just be more precise on what you’re seeking to achieve, it makes it a lot easier to be clear. And I get emails, and, actually, I even have a couple people on our team that I have to work so hard to understand what they’re actually wanting to achieve in the email, and it’s like, “Ahh, ahh, ahh,” and I was like, “Wait, do you want me to make a decision? Do you want me to take action? Do you want me to give you an opinion? What do you want?”

So, I, long ago, actually one of my direct reports actually taught me early in my career how to put my intent at the very first sentence of an email and then give the backstory, and all the facts, and all the details that are needed. Just the essential facts are needed. So, if you just think about, “I’d love to get your opinion on blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” “I would love for you to help me with blah, blah, blah, blah. Do you have time?”

If you just are clear up front on what you want, and then give any of the details that are necessary, people love it because they don’t have to work to understand what it is you’re asking for. And this is true with love relationships, too. This is not just work. This is family, friends, partners. It really is amazing how, when you’re clear about what you’re seeking to achieve, how much easier the communication can go.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love that. And it’s just like it can be one sentence at the top of the email, “I love your feedback. I love your decision.” It’s so funny, I’m thinking now about the email I get the most of in my life these days is pitches to appear on the podcast, so I think it’s funny. And now I just know what people are going for, but I think it’s funny how sometimes the emails will just sort of go into the details, like, “Karen Martin is the President of Global…” It’s like, “Okay, Karen is so great,” it’s like, “Okay. Well, good for Karen, but what are you offering me?” Well, now, I know sort of by shortcut. But I think that’s sort of funny.

Some marketing guru, I don’t remember who it was, he said that’s one of the cardinal sins whether it’s an About page, or an email, or a piece of marketing. It’s about, “Me, me, me, us, us, us.” And it’s sort of like, “Well, no one cares,” maybe often about sort of maybe like the history or the founding of something so much as the benefit that it provides me and/or what you need or want from me. Because sometimes, I guess that’s my test, is I would say, “If this just feels like a press release, then I almost feel paralyzed,” not to be overdramatic here.

It’s like, “Okay, thanks.” It’s like I’m reading a press release as opposed to, “Oh, did you want to buy our product or service? Did you want to interview this person? Did you want to explore this idea as an initiative for us in the next year?” It’s like I need a little something and I think sometimes we just assume that the person on the receiving end just knows. Like, it seems like if I get forwarded something and there’s nothing at the top of it for me, that’s the trickiest for me. It’s like, “Okay, now what?”

Karen Martin
And, yeah, I think It helps a lot to think about life, in general, as a supplier of customer relationship. It’s not just in business that we should be thinking about these things. So, the supplier is the person who’s communicating, and the customer is the recipient of that information. And I have a rule of thumb, I say, “Know thy customer, and know what your customer’s level of understanding about the topic you’re communicating, know what their motivation is, know what’s going to grab them versus turn them off.” You have to think a little bit.

We are not all cut from the same cloth. We all have different learning needs, learning styles, communication needs, absorption needs, and so you have to not just brush everyone with the same brush. You have to think about, “How do I properly convey to these folks whatever it is I want to share or ask for?”

But you mentioned questions behind questions, so that, we turn it around now. So, that’s when you’re communicating with others. Now, it’s when people are communicating with you, and a lot of times it’s so fascinating if you start really paying attention to this. If someone asks you a question, sometimes it’s very, very easy to understand what they’re asking you. Like, “What time do you have to leave the meeting?” It’s very concrete, tangible, and they’re asking for just a straight answer.

But sometimes people will ask questions that the question actually isn’t what they’re asking, there’s a question behind the question, but out fear, you’re not getting the right question. And so, if you say, if you pause, don’t be so obligated to answer the question, and say, “Hmm, that’s interesting. I’m curious, why are you asking that question?” You have to ask it in a really gentle way. You can’t go, “Why are you asking that question?”

You have to say, “I’m just curious why you’re asking that question.” Then you almost always will get the real question that they’re asking. And it’s fascinating to see how, if you would’ve just started talking and answering the question, the first question, you would not have provided what they were actually asking. And sometimes, people that are communicating, they aren’t even aware that they’re not being as truthful and forthright as they should be so that you can answer more clearly what they’re asking for because it’s habitual.

And so, you can help someone out of that habit of being afraid, or sugarcoating, or just being kind of vague. You can help them by saying, “I don’t understand, or tell me more about that. What’s behind that question?”

Pete Mockaitis
Two examples leap to mind here, and I want to hear some more from you, Karen. One, it might’ve been from Gottman, since we talked about romantic relationships as well here, in terms of if, I think, a wife asks her husband, “Oh, are you cold?” which is really thinking as, “I’d like to have some intimate time in bed and to cozy up and warm that way,” but she’s maybe a little bit timid in terms of she doesn’t want to feel a little bit rejection, so they say, “Oh, are you feeling cold?”

And then the husband, clueless to the intention behind the question is like, “Nope.” It didn’t even occur to him that that was kind of what we were discussing here. And then I had a buddy, I think I was showing him the game Angry Birds, and, this cracked me up, he said to me, “Oh, and people find this engaging?” which I clearly intuited meant he thought, “Wow, that looks dumb. I’m so surprised that there’s a lot of people who do this and for a long time? Wow.” They’re surprised.

So, maybe you can give us some examples, more in a workplace context, what are some times people are asking questions that aren’t really what they’re getting after?

Karen Martin
Well, I work in the space of improvement a lot, and so a lot of times people will ask questions about why the improvement is important, or what’s going to likely be the outcome, when they’re really saying, “I’m very concerned. I’m afraid I’m going to lose my job. I feel like I’m going to lose power.” So, the big threats in business are losing their job, losing power, losing budget, if you’re at a budget level, losing face, having people not respect you. They’re all kind of human but they’re a little more financially tied in business because of the paycheck.

And so, when they’re asking a lot about, “Well, why this and why that?” And when it comes to an improvement or idea, they’re actually, most of the time, they’re asking, “What guarantee can you give me that you’re not going to make my work much more difficult, or I’m going to lose my job?” And so, if you ask what’s behind the question, it starts coming out a little bit more.

The other thing that can happen is.

Karen Martin
So, you mentioned the questions, let me go here because I think it was tied to this. You said, “What would have to be true if why, why not, what if, all those things?” What I’ve learned, actually since you and I talked, I think this is one learning I had is that the question “Why?” I already knew it could be laced with accusation and blame and harshness, but I’ve learned even more how laced it is.

And so, the thing that’s easier on the ear and on the heart and the soul is a question begins with “What?” because you can turn all questions into “Why?” So, like, “Why is he doing that?” It sounds very accusatory. But the question could be turned around into “What conditions created the need to do that?” or, “What outcome is he trying to achieve doing that?” or something like that. It just has a little softer feel to it, what and how questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “What made you prefer that option?”

Karen Martin
And you actually get people to think deeply when you ask what and how questions. Why are also good-thinking questions. So, there’s binary questions that are answered with yes/no, and those begin with should, could, do, so they’re all questions that are answered yes or no. The ones that are Socratic in nature, meaning that they require you to answer a little more deeply and think a little more deeply, are the ones what, why, and how are the big ones.

Then the ones that are kind of middle are the who, where. They’re kind of a little more binary because they’re easy to answer and concrete. The what, how, and why questions require thought. But of those three, I always place why as the last, kind of like the last place I go to if I can’t get the question answered better with what and how, I’ll go to why. But I try really hard to stick with what and how. Non-threatening. Much more non-threatening.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, so that’s a great notion associated about what’s behind the question is it’s often something, I don’t mean this in necessarily a bad way, but it’s sort of self-serving, and that’s kind of why they don’t just nakedly say it, like, “So, is this going to reduce my power?” Kind of make you seem like, “Oh, okay. We see what you’re into.” But, nonetheless, you care and you want to know, so you ask.

And so then, I’m curious, as we play out this conversation, how do you answer that well in terms of, one, I guess you ask what’s behind the question, and they may or may not sort of directly say, “I’m worried this will reduce my power”? I’m guessing it likely won’t.

Karen Martin
Well, you’ll get closer to that by asking the question behind the question, what’s the question behind the question. For sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. So, they might say, “Oh, well, we’re just working out this budget so we’re just curious about the budgetary implications.” It’s like, “Okay, budgetary implications is pretty close to ‘Are you going to take away my money?’” and so you can go there. And then, I guess, with reassurances there, I guess maybe you answered that question as I was just concerned that that might seem to, I don’t know, presumptuous or patronizing.

I know you’re not going to say, “Hey, relax, Mike. You’re going to keep your budget.” I know you’re not going to say it quite like that. But any thoughts in terms of, as that conversation progresses, in terms of keeping it productive and feeling good?

Karen Martin
Well, I want to highlight something that you said just about like, I don’t know, maybe 30 seconds, 20 seconds ago that was really, really good. And you started your sentence with, “I’m curious to learn,” or, “I’m curious to…” I think you said, “I’m curious to learn.” That is a wonderful phrase. It actually makes people relax a little when you ask things from a place of curiosity. And the cousin to curiosity, I talk about in Clarity First is humility.

And when you say, “I’m curious to learn,” humility is kind of implied there, and you can’t just say it just to say it when you’re actually being…have no interest in being curious and you have no interest in being humble. But if you are truly asking that question, which sounded to me like you were, truly from a place of curiosity, you’re going to get a lot farther because you’re not going in with assumptions and biases and judgments and blame. Like, you really want to learn. And when you want to learn, people can relax and give you information you might never get.

And, by the way, these are techniques that law enforcement intelligence use all the time, and investigators of all sorts, when they’re trying to get to the truth of a situation. They ask a lot of what and how questions to get people talking and relaxed so that they’re more likely to reveal the truth.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, I’d love it, Karen, can you give us some more phrases, questions, questions about questions, magical phrases, like, “I’m curious to learn”? Let’s hear some specific verbiage that’s awesome often.

Karen Martin
“Data doesn’t lie” unless the data has been fraudulently entered or faked. So, I like, “Data doesn’t lie,” and this is to get us away from the opinions that kind of come in at work, and people say, “It’s this.” And it doesn’t have to be big and complex data analysis. Just getting some basic numbers and quantities and volumes and things like that can really help chip away at the opinions and get to facts. So, “Data doesn’t lie” is another one.

Fuzzy words. I love the phrase fuzzy words, which I talk about, actually, in The Outstanding Organization in that clarity chapter. I talk about fuzzy words or things where they mean different things to you and me. So, it’s things like long, short, heavy, light, soon, it’s a long time. I give this example of Starbucks. When someone says, “The line is long at Starbucks,” how many people is that?

And if you ask a room of 20 people, you’ll get a pretty good split between two to four, another is like the five to seven people, and then there’s like the more than seven people, and it’s so interesting. And so, those are fuzzy words you should avoid at all costs. And if someone uses them with you, you should ask for clarification, “How many? How many do you mean?” I mean, if it’s rough, like I guess a line at Starbucks would be fair.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, “If you care…”

Karen Martin
Yeah, it’s not all that relevant at work, but you should really start tuning in to those words that people use them all the time, these fuzzy words. And it’s not necessarily because they’re afraid to reveal the truth; it’s a habit. It’s just you don’t have to commit when you’re using a word that means different things to different people.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think not having to commit, that’s huge. I’m thinking especially like with soon. It’s like, “Oh, I’ll get that to you soon or shortly.” It’s sort of like, “I don’t want to put myself on the hook.”

Karen Martin
Right. If you’re talking to me, I’m going to ask you what you mean by that.

Pete Mockaitis
“You’ll have this within nine days?” and then it’s like, “Well, now, I’ve given up some flexibility associated with my task management.”

Karen Martin
Yeah, the other thing is people have different expectations. So, I think that most of the conflict in the world is because of misunderstood expectations. So, let’s think about a boss giving an employee a task or a job to do or a project, or whatever. If the boss doesn’t get precise with what the expectation is from not only a date but also the quality of the results, and there’s done, there’s done-done, and there’s done-done-done, and that also is fascinating.

It’s fascinating to see how one person’s definition of what done means, “This project is done,” is not at all what another person’s idea of done is, and so you got to ask for clarity. And on our project plans, we actually have a column that says like, “What is done?” And done to some people is they’ve actually, let’s say they’re making an improvement, they’ve made an improvement. Done to someone else is they’ve made an improvement and people have been trained. Done to someone else is they’ve made an improvement, people have been trained, and is now being managed and monitored, there’s a measurement.

And so, you have to get really clear. I learned this actually from construction guys, and they were like, “Oh, this is decades ago.” And they were like, “Well, you know there’s done, there’s done-done, there’s done-done-done in construction.” And then, of course, I learned that that’s true in every aspect of work, all industries, all areas within an organization to have that same fuzziness that, unless you ask for clarification, two people can expect very different things.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And that notion of the multiple dones kind of gets me thinking with regard to let’s just say there’s a meeting, let’s say, I asked you for something, Karen, and we both know that the reason I’m asking you for this is because I’ve got a meeting coming up in February 3rd, whatever, with somebody. And so, you understand that to be a deadline, “Oh, I need to get this to Pete before February 3rd.”

Like, if we haven’t discussed it, most likely I’m expecting you will get this to me well in advance of February 3rd so that I can review it and/or potentially share it with my boss, and boss’ boss, and boss’ boss’ boss, maybe, so that it’s perfectly polished and done-done-done for February 3rd. And so, I think that’s intriguing that I guess there’s deadlines and then there’s dead-dead-deadlines as well.

Karen Martin
Yeah, it is true. There’s a lot of clarification that needs to happen. And even the project itself, I see so many people at lower levels in organizations taking on requests from their bosses that they’re not clear what the request actually is, but they don’t feel comfortable asking for clarification, and I’m like, “No, you have to feel comfortable asking for clarification.

And if your boss is someone who’s not willing to give clarification, you have to have a conversation with that person about why you’re asking for clarification,” because sometimes someone can feel threatened if you’re asking for clarification. You have to help them understand that you actually want to serve them. You actually want to do well. You want to give them what they’re looking for. You want to have them look like a superstar in their boss’ eyes.

Or, whatever it is, you’re not doing it out of malice or threatening, assuming you’re not. So, I think it’s a really important thing for everyone from the frontlines all the way up the ranks to really get good at, is not taking on a project that they go, “I’m not quite sure exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. What’s the outcome? What are we looking for? What does good look like?” That’s another great question, “What does good look like?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’m loving this. So, what is done? What does good look like? When is soon? Keep them coming, Karen. What are some other favorite questions?

Karen Martin
Well, I say “What do you mean by that?” a lot. What do you mean by that? That’s a good clarification question, and that’s almost like the question behind the question, but, in this case, the person probably has made a statement, and I was thinking, “What do you mean by that?” They’re like, “What do you mean what do I mean?” I’m like, “Don’t tell me. Tell me more.” And that’s another thing. I’ll say, “Tell me more.” And it’s not really a question but “Tell me more” is also a good way to get people to reveal a little more so you become more clear what they’re actually communicating.

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

Karen Martin
I don’t know. I just want everyone to get infected with the zest for clarity and expect it, give it. People say, “Well, sometimes the truth hurts.” Yeah, sometimes the truth does hurt but at least you know what you’re dealing with. I just don’t think that…if you don’t know what’s going on, how do you possibly make a positive step in the right direction. Even if it’s the worst possible news you could ever get, then you know what you’re dealing with, and you can deal with it then, otherwise, you really don’t know which way to go, so go for it. Everyone who’s listening, go for it.

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

Karen Martin
This is going to sound funny. It’s actually in an advertising timeline. I really love the Nike “Just do it.” It’s not really a quote per se, but I just think that we just live in a fear-based bubble too much, and I love “Just do it.”

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

Karen Martin
My favorite research in decades has been the one that uncovered the fact that there’s no such thing as multitasking. And it was a study Professor David Meyer at University of Michigan did. He studied engineers, and he was studying how much time they take during the day task-switching from one kind of work to another kind of work, and how much productivity that robbed them off, and how much stress it added, and how much it risks quality problem because of this juggling.

So, when I see job, not as much anymore, thankfully, but I used to see a lot, job postings that would say, “Must be comfortable with ambiguity and must be able to multitask.” Well, first of all, we don’t want people to be comfortable with ambiguity. No, no, no, no, no, we want people to be truth-tellers and truth-seekers. And we also don’t want people that are able to “multitask” because it’s absolutely impossible to do two cognitive activities at the same time. It’s impossible.

And so, that research was really compelling. And when I work with clients on prioritization, the key is to say, “Not yet” to those things that can wait but to do fewer things at once, and you’ll get so much more done in the same unit of time if you do fewer things at once, complete them, then move on and complete them, then move on. You can get triple the output by doing fewer things at once and not juggling.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Karen Martin
My favorite fiction book is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, and I did my first book report on that, and I just love that book. There’s so much in that book. My favorite business book, well, besides my own, I would say is Out of the Crisis by Deming. It’s an old book, it’s a thick book, but it’s really powerful about the ways businesses operate and keep themselves in crisis mode, and how to break. There are different principles that you operate. And lean management is actually heavily based on a lot of Deming’s work, so I love that book, Out of the Crisis.

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

Karen Martin
Well, I love value stream mapping, which is not for everyone. It’s a more strategic tool that’d be for directors and above in an organization. For directors and below, I would say I think one of the most important skills is to get really, really good at email management. I’m a big believer in zero inbox. I never get to true zero but I get to Teams, and it’s so much easier to do than to have these hundreds or thousands of emails in your inbox robbing you of, I call that, existential inventory. It robs you of the psychic energy you need to be productive. So, get control of those inboxes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Is there a key nugget you share that connects, resonates with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Karen Martin
It’s not a quote but when I work with companies on clarity, I will often hear people in the hallway, in the cafeterias, wherever I go, “Curse you, Karen Martin.” And I’ll say, “Why?” “Because I can’t handle not having clarity anymore.” And I said, “Mission accomplished.” But it is funny how many people go, “Oh, my gosh, I had no idea how much ambiguity I allowed in my life and I contributed to until I met you,” or read the book, or whatever it might be. So, it’s kind of a “Curse you” thing.

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

Karen Martin
I’ve got two websites. TKMG, so I used to be the Karen Martin Group but we shortened it, so I have a whole team now, so it’s TKMG.com. and then we have an online learning academy, which is new since you and I last talked, and that’s TKMGAcademy.com.

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

Karen Martin
Yeah, I think it’s just, starting tomorrow, listen, listen, listen, and feel what you’re feeling, and start paying attention to when things are clear, when they’re not clear, listen to how you’re communicating, re-read your emails, and just start becoming aware. Like, just take that first step. You don’t have to do anything yet. Just start becoming aware of the degree of ambiguity and/or the degree of clarity that is around you and that you’re contributing to. Just become aware and, that alone, can start moving mountains.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Beautiful. Karen, this has been a treat once again. I wish you much clarity and fun in your adventures.

Karen Martin
Thank you, Pete. It was really nice to talk with you again. I love your questions, so thank you.

729: A Veteran Broadcaster’s Top Tips for Great Listening and Speaking with Jane Hanson

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Jane Hanson says: "You make people feel when you listen to them."

Emmy-award-winning journalist Jane Hanson shares the secrets of communicating like the pros.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why we’re listening wrong–and how to fix it 
  2. How to communicate through body language 
  3. The words that undermine your credibility 

About Jane

Jane Hanson began as an anchor and correspondent for NBC New York in 1979. In 1988, Jane was named co-anchor of “Today in New York,” a position she held until 2003 when she became the station’s primary anchor for local programming and the host of “Jane’s New York”; She covered events ranging from the tragedy of 9/11 to the joy of Yankees victory parades to Wall Street and Washington; has interviewed presidents, business magnates, prisoners, and celebrities; traveled as far as the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and the great depths miles below New York City for her special reports.

Jane has won 9 Emmy Awards. In addition, she was named Correspondent of the Year by New York’s Police Detectives and received a similar honor from New York’s Firefighters.

She has also been the recipient of numerous other awards for her service to the community. Jane has served as the March of Dimes Walk-America Chairman, honorary chair for the Susan B. Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure, and as a board member of Graham Windham, Phipps Houses, the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, and Telecare. She has taught courses on communication at Long Island University, Stern College, and the 92nd Street Y. Hanson is a Past President of the New York Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Resources Mentioned

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Jane Hanson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Jane, thanks for joining us here on How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Jane Hanson
Well, thank you very much for inviting me to be here because, obviously, you’re awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, thank you. And you have had an awesome career, and I kind of want to start by hearing, perhaps, one of your favorite or most thrilling stories from 30-ish years of being a news correspondent and anchor.

Jane Hanson
Well, I have to tell you that everybody always says, when you’re an anchor or a correspondent, your best story is the last one you did because there are so many you can’t even remember them all. But I will tell you one of the most awesome ones ever is the day that, because I worked in New York City for most of my life for NBC. And so the day that was sent down to interview a guy named Desmond Tutu, who worked with the apartheid movement in South Africa.

And he was in town, I think he was going to the UN or something, and so I go down to do this interview, I do my prep work, I start talking, and reporters are always like we always got to move, move, move, move, move, move, move fast. So, I get down and I’m sitting on this bench talking with him, and the people that were with him interrupted and said, “I’m sorry, we have to stop.” I’m like, “Oh, come on. I’m almost done. Please, just let me finish.” And they said, “No, you really want this to stop.”

So, they pulled him aside and they told him that he had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. So, he comes back and sits down with me, and tears are streaming down his face. I start to choke up and cry. It was just one of those moments where you’re watching this incredible human being, who had just been told that all of the work that he’s done for the people that he represents, for the good of the world is being recognized in that way.

And, of course, being the kind of person that he was, the awesome human being, he simply said, “This is all about them. I don’t deserve it; they all do.” And it’s a moment I’ll never forget because it was just kind of out of the blue but, there, you’re watching this incredible little piece of history being made in front of your eyes.

I saw history all the time but it’s the result of that, and the poignancy, and the beauty, and the knowledge of what somebody had accomplished, and me just watching it in that moment was probably one of the greatest things I ever saw.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is cool. Thank you. Well, now, I want to hear about some of the greatest things you ever learned in terms of anything particularly surprising or fascinating or counterintuitive that you’ve made about what makes for effective and powerful communication.

Jane Hanson
Well, one of the things that I’ll tell you is I think that great leaders are people who are much kinder and more thoughtful and more approachable than you can imagine. And I think that’s what makes them great leaders and great communicators. I also have discovered that people really like to be asked for help. You’re always afraid of asking somebody and saying, “Oh, no, they’re too big a deal. And what do they want with little old me? And I’m afraid to ask them because they’ll say no.”

But, again, back to the greatest people and the greatest communicators, if you are very specific in asking them for what you need in that moment, or would like to know from them in that moment, they’re extremely gracious about actually helping you and granting you that, and so don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to do that. I think that’s one of the best lessons of all. And then I think virtually the most important thing is listening. If you don’t listen well, you’re never going to get anywhere.

Pete Mockaitis
Wait. What did you say, Jane? Sorry.

Jane Hanson
Maybe if I say it louder. That’s the other thing. People think, “Well, if I just talk louder then maybe they’ll hear me.” It doesn’t work, so.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s hear about listening first in terms of how does one listen well effectively versus kind of what do we get wrong about listening? Because I think we all say, “Well, of course, I listen.” Well, what’s missing, Jane?

Jane Hanson
What’s missing is we’re too busy thinking about our answer to really listen. So, for example, you have a conversation with somebody, and they’re telling you a story, and instead of really taking in that story, thinking about what it means, and maybe just having a little bit of empathy or understanding, we’re immediately thinking, “Oh, yeah, that happened to me,” or, “Here’s what I’m going to say back,” and we haven’t even heard the full story.

So, listening involves truly caring, truly having that kind of empathy, and truly believing that this person is important. And how many times have you been talking to someone when you can see that their eyes are glancing over your shoulders at somebody else or they’re not giving you that great body language that means they’re listening? Listening isn’t just about what your ears are doing. They’re about what you’re doing with your eyes and your facial expressions, and maybe you’re leaning in or not leaning in. There’s so much more to simply listening that has nothing to do with what’s coming in your ears.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s good. Thank you. And then, so a lot of that really seems to boil down to “Do you actually care? Is that person actually important to you?” And so, well, you tell me, Jane, sometimes you don’t care, you’re not interested, the person is not yet important to you. Not that you’re a sociopath who is like, “Everybody is a means to my end and move on from me.” But just sort of like, “I don’t know this guy yet. I’m not really captivated yet.”

So, how do you recommend we kind of get there because I imagine over the course of 30-ish years of broadcast journalism, there were occasionally times you weren’t feeling it. How do you get in the mood? How do you feel it?

Jane Hanson
Well, that gets back to, then, kind of “Why are you there? And why are you talking to this person? And what’s the purpose?” because purpose is a really big deal. I have had some of the best stories come to me because I actually asked someone a question, maybe in an elevator, maybe on a street corner, maybe because they were sitting next to me on an airplane, only because I just, I don’t know, I got curious about something weird, like maybe a tie, or a piece of jewelry, or a bag they were carrying, or a book they were reading, and I’d ask them a question.

And, all of a sudden, I’d hear, or they’d tell me this story, and I go, “Oh, that’s amazing.” So, yeah, there’s a lot of times that we really don’t care, but if you can find one little common thing, it’ll set you down a completely different path, and an interesting one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. All right. Well, so that’s the listening side of…

Jane Hanson
So, that’s like, look, I’m looking at you now, the audience isn’t, but you have an Illinois sweatshirt put on.

Pete Mockaitis
I do.

Jane Hanson
Now, I’d say, “Hey, did you go to Illinois?” and maybe you’d say, “Nope.”

Pete Mockaitis
I did.

Jane Hanson
Oh, there we go. Well, so, obviously, you lived in the Midwest, I lived in the Midwest. Oh, my God, we’re Midwesterners, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Jane Hanson
And then we could get into a whole long thing about complaining about the winter weather, or we could talk about how people…

Pete Mockaitis
New Yorkers.

Jane Hanson
Yeah, how they ignore us and how they think that the middle of the country is a flyover place, or we could get into a whole conversation because you’re wearing that sweatshirt.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right, yes. And you have a monkey playing a cello painting behind you, or is it a vase?

Jane Hanson
Wait. On that side, I have one playing an accordion.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, so I’m curious about this work of art, and maybe it’s famous and I just don’t recognize it. But what’s the story here?

Jane Hanson
It’s actually a screen so you can take it off the wall.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Jane Hanson
Use it as a screen. I happen to like monkeys and I have a lot of monkey stuff in my house, and so that’s just one of it. But I think it’s really funny because, first of all, do you know anybody who likes the accordion?

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I knew someone who was into dancing polka, but she didn’t explicitly say she liked the accordion. I just inferred that.

Jane Hanson
So, polka dancing, I mean, look, if you grew up in the Midwest, like I did, there’s a lot of polka dancing going on and there’s a lot of people that played the accordion. And so, I like having an accordion not because I like music so much but I think it’s funny.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it is. There’s something comical about it. Like, Steve Urkel played the accordion and it just fits. There’s just something funny. I don’t know. There’s something funny about the accordion.

Jane Hanson
Right. It is.

Pete Mockaitis
Weird Al, Steve Urkel.

Jane Hanson
I mean, it’s goofy.

Pete Mockaitis
Goofy, yeah.

Jane Hanson
Plus, you’ve got to be really talented because you got to pull, you got have the air going so you got to pull it back and forth, and then use the hand to play the notes. It’s a lot of work to play an accordion.

Pete Mockaitis
It is. Well, Jane, this has been a really cool demo here because here we are, conversing about things, and I’m enjoying myself in terms of covering Illinois, Midwesterners, monkeys, accordions, so it’s good stuff just based on what was visually right there in front of us.

Jane Hanson
Which visual is really important, which gets me to the most, the stuff I like to talk about the most, which is about body language.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, let’s hear it.

Jane Hanson
So, man and woman have been walking on Earth for, depending on who you believe, anywhere from 2 to 14 million years, but we’ve only had a spoken language for 160,000. So, how did we communicate besides a few grunts here and there? It’s all about how we used our bodies. And to this day, we still do it even though it’s so innate, nobody actually recognizes how much they’re doing it.

So, I challenge you to do, I challenge everybody who’s listening, to do, take a little test. Turn on your television set and watch a show but have the sound off, and you’re going to be able to figure out the bulk of the story.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, my wife does this sometimes. Like, “Oh, someone is angry. Someone has discovered something surprising.”

Jane Hanson
But you can do it because it’s the body language. And the body language, like the face alone, for something like 10,000 different expressions that we can use, some of them really fleeting, but every single one of them has a meaning, which is the really crappy part every time when we’re anywhere we had to wear those masks. You’re missing people’s smiles. You didn’t know what people were really thinking because you couldn’t see their mouths.

But, anyway, all I’m saying is that our bodies say so much more. I can tell you stories about which way your feet are pointing when you’re sitting in somebody’s office. What does that mean? About how you’re using your arms, the gestures, there’s everything, has got inner meaning to it that we subconsciously read and we don’t even know it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s juicy, yes. Well, Jane, please lay it on us. We previously had FBI agent Joe Navarro, who wrote a great book about body language, What Every BODY is Saying, which we’ll link to, and he had some great nuggets. But you are offering from a different context than law enforcement. So, tell us, what have you found to be the most useful and reliable body language indicators of something useful or good? So, we talked about some feet pointing. Lay them on us. What are your, say, top five favorite indicators that tell you something useful?

Jane Hanson
Well, I have to say one of the first is exactly what Joe Navarro probably told you about eye contact.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Jane Hanson
Did he tell you about when people look up to the left that they were lying?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, he’s very nuanced and careful to not be as black and white about that. But, yes, that could be indicative, if I recall correctly, about, “I am accessing an imagined content in my brain as opposed to remembering factual content in my brain, so I could very well, potentially, be fabricating something.” And just to clarify, for listeners, is it their left or the left that we see?

Jane Hanson
It’s usually the left that we see.

Pete Mockaitis
The left that we see. So, if it goes left, as though we were looking at a piece of paper, and it’s on the left, that means, “Hmm, might be…”

Jane Hanson
They may not be telling you the truth or the absolute truth.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Jane Hanson
Okay. So, eye contact is a really big deal because eyes are the gateway into the soul. So, when you’re talking to someone, and if you’re not looking them directly in the eye, they’re not going to trust you, they’re not going to believe that you really care, because I do a lot of coaching via Zoom now and via whatever other platform, and it’s hard because, in order to have good eye contact, you need to be looking right up into the little lens but your instinct is to be looking at the person that you’re talking to.

Now, when you’re doing a podcast, it’s much easier because you don’t have to look at anybody. However, you really need to think about having great eye contact because, if you don’t, people just don’t trust you. Okay, so eye contact is another thing. Another thing is crossing your arms. So, crossing your arms can mean several things. One of the things that it can mean is you really don’t care what somebody is saying, that you’re kind of bored, and it’s an indication that, “Hmm, okay. Fine. Mm-hmm, okay, whatever.”

It also can mean, especially for women, that you’re cold, because maybe the air-conditioning is on too much in a room, or maybe you need a sweater outside, so it means you’re cold. It can also mean, “Hmm, I want to get out of here. How am I going to do that?” So, there’s a lot of things with one gesture that can mean many things.

When you take your hands and hold them, what’s called the most visionary look is…you know, playground ball? Do you have kids?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Jane Hanson
Okay. So, the playground ball, they’re not the size of basketball, they’re not the size of a baseball, they’re kind of in between. Those playground balls, when you hold your hands so it’s like you’ve got that in the middle, that means that you’re being extremely visionary, that what you’re saying is kind of a very well-rounded thought that we should take in.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, you think it is maybe.

Jane Hanson
Or, you think it is. But it’s the way it’s interpreted by somebody who’s watching you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so you’re saying that just by doing that, folks can assign more weight to what it is we’re saying.

Jane Hanson
When you hold your hands out and you’ve got that big wide gesture where your palms are up, kind of like when you see those preachers on TV, it may mean that you’re really asking for something, and maybe it’s asking for something that you might not want to give.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re asking for something you don’t want to give, like, “Who wants to sign up for this committee? I don’t.” Like that? “You want to give of your time to this thing that I don’t want to give my time to?”

Jane Hanson
Exactly. Exactly. All right. So, the way your feet are pointing, what I was referring to earlier, if your feet are pointed towards the person you’re speaking to, you’re being very open and you’re clearly listening to them. If your feet are pointed away, it means you’re not interested. Are you buying into any of this or do you think I’m just making it up? “I don’t know about you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, no, I think the feet are good. I guess I’m just recalling Joe Navarro’s rant about opaque tables in interrogation rooms and how that’s a travesty and need to be transparent. So, I was like tracking and I was remembering, so I was imagining an interrogation room as you’re speaking. But it’s clear that you’re observing my body language as we’re talking.

Jane Hanson
Well, I’m observing, like, obviously, I can only see a part of you, so it’s harder to observe it as such, but you look like you’re sitting up pretty straight. That’s another big one. It’s when people slump, again, that shows a lack of self-confidence. Slumping means you’re not very…you’re kind of down. You’re not enthusiastic, etc. If you think about it, if somebody walks up to you and they’ve got their shoulders slumped, you’re kind of going, “Do I really want to speak to that person? That person looks kind of…like, this is going to be a painful conversation.”

Pete Mockaitis
They don’t seem as open to that idea of talking to you.

Jane Hanson
Right. Exactly. But when you’ve got your shoulders back and you’ve got great posture…I have a wonderful little poster that has somebody standing up straight, and it says, “This is a good person,” and then somebody who is really slumped over, and it says, “This is an evil person.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, you think about that. Evil people tend to be slouched over and stroking hairless cats as a general rule of thumb. Like, there’s your telltale signs, “Excellent. Excellent.”

Jane Hanson
You’re good because I love how you’re painting imagery in people’s heads because that’s a very big deal, too, is that we create the imagery because we may not be able to be showing it to them.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. So, you mentioned there are three core elements of speaking – what you say, how you say it, and body language. So, we talked about some body language pieces. Can we hear a little bit about the what you say and then how you say it?

Jane Hanson
Well, the how you say it is actually also having to do with body language because that’s about delivery, but a lot of that is about how we use our voice.
Voices, we barely use our voice. You have an excellent voice.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you.

Jane Hanson
It’s nice and deep and solid, and that’s what we like. We like, think of hot chocolate, or bourbon, or things melting. That’s how we like voices. That’s how people have always done so well with commercials, how all those male voices have a really silky…that’s why we like them so much because we like those voices.

Women are usually told to use their lower pitches because lower pitches are considered to be more believable. We hardly ever use the full range of what we have. We need to think about things like pace, how fast are you talking. When you talk fast, or when you go like, “Well, let me tell you about this story because this story is really exciting. You’re really, really going to love it,” you think one of two things, either, “I’m so excited that I’m almost out of control,” or, “I’m so nervous, I don’t know what I’m saying.”

Then you think about your tone, which is really intended to be the interpretation of something. So, if I speak to you like this, and it’s important that you know this fact, you’re going to say, “Man, this is important because, listen to the way she’s saying it.” But if I say, “It is really important that you know this,” now I’ve taken an entirely different tone, and you’re going, “Nah, I’m not sure I’m going to care.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Jane Hanson
Okay. So, volume, softness is being soft. It can be equally as effective as being loud because, in both cases, you’re making me pay attention in one way or another. Softness can speak volumes about credibility, about authority, and about leadership.

Pete Mockaitis
And as I think about softness, it’s not like…I’m thinking about that sketch with Andy Samberg, “Shy Ronnie,” where he’s just kind of mumbling really quietly, and so that’s probably not the softness that you’re talking about, Jane, I’m guessing. But, rather, like you’re deliberately bringing it softer, like there’s something sort of touching or emotional or some gravitas, some seriousness about a thing, and so you’re deliberately going there as oppose to you’re like scared to own your volume, and so you’re mumbling.

Jane Hanson
Exactly. It is about technique. It’s all about technique. You’re absolutely right. Because people who are very soft spoken, sometimes that’s just their natural way of speaking, and that can be to their own detriment because, then, if you can’t hear someone, and it’s not a deliberate thing, like they’re not trying to get you to pay attention but you can’t hear them, you’re simply going to dismiss them, because if you can’t hear it, it doesn’t matter what you said.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Cool. All right. Well, so then we talked a bit about body language and then vocal bits, your volume and your pace and your tone. How about in terms of, I guess, the 7% or 8%, the actual word choice? What do you think about that?

Jane Hanson
Well, I don’t want anybody to think that it doesn’t matter what you say, because if you don’t have anything to say, who cares how you say it? So, content is important, and you’re usually speaking to somebody because of the content that you have in work, in a presentation, in a speech, in a video, because everybody’s doing videos these days. You’re doing it because you are the expert at something, because you have something great to say.

Now, how are you going to say, I don’t mean say, how are you going to give your best? So, you have to think about the message. And the message has to be really clear and concise. There’s a big movement out there to speak in threes, and I’m sure you’ve heard of this – three points. Okay, let me ask you a question. What’s nine times one?

Pete Mockaitis
Nine.

Jane Hanson
Not in messaging math. In messaging math, that’s zero.

Pete Mockaitis
Messaging math. Okay, so if I have nine points, zero are going to get through.

Jane Hanson
That’s right. So, you get one. You get one great point. In messaging math, three times three, you’d say it’s nine. It’s one, maybe two. So, if you have three points, and you say some three times, one or two of them are going to get through. So, the best thing I can say is to have a very clear message. And to make sure you get that message out there frequently by using other kinds of techniques throughout the duration of your presentation, such as telling a story, maybe giving a great fact. Whatever it is, you need to be sure that you don’t overwhelm the human brain with a bunch of different messages because it’s not going to work. They’re never going to remember it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, one key message shared differently. So, maybe, could you give us an example of bad versus good here?

Jane Hanson
All right. So, it’s hard for me to do bad but I’ll try. Okay, so I want you to take away from this podcast that you need to make sure that you always use your voice in so many different ways that you never ever tell a story that’s more than 30 seconds long, that you always have three main points, that I want you to never forget about looking your audience in the eye, that I think you must always have perfect posture, that I think you must point your feet in the right direction, and I think you’ve got to make sure that your hair is always combed. All right, I just said like 12 different things that I want you to do. How many of those could you actually remember?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, almost none, kind of the last because it’s the last, comb my hair, and then my key, my toes pointed and my posture good. But, yeah, so not much.

Jane Hanson
Right. But if I said, “To be really an effective speaker, you must focus on how you’re delivering your message, and make sure that message has one solid point that’s very, very clear and concise.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, there’s one point. Thank you. Cool. All right. Well, so that’s one key thing is to be concise. Any pro tips on getting to that brevity and trimming things down?

Jane Hanson
Yeah, I love mapping, like taking a big whiteboard and writing all my thoughts on it, and I’ll pile a ton of them on it. And then I’ll circle the ones that really connect. Then I’ll draw lines between them, and say, “Okay, this, this, this, and this,” I shouldn’t be pointing like this because this is a podcast. I apologize. Audience, I’m pointing. I’m like going pretending like they’re all connecting.

And then I see what’s the common thread. And that helps lead me to my kind of bottom line. So, it’s really about, “What do I want the audience to walk away with? What’s my key point I want them to walk out the door thinking?” And I always have to get back to that. So, it’s, today, I want your audience to walk away thinking, “I can be a great speaker.”

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Jane Hanson
Now, how do I get them there? We’ve talked about how to use your voice. We’ve talked about how to use your body. And, right now, we’re talking about how to get to that key point.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. And so, now I’m wondering, any key things you recommend we stop doing, some communication don’ts?

Jane Hanson
Oh, yes. How about like, you know, maybe, so.

Pete Mockaitis
Vocal pauses, right?

Jane Hanson
My favorite new one is, “Yeah, no.” How many times have you heard people say that recently?

Pete Mockaitis
That is another one.

Jane Hanson
So, those are crutch words. And you ditch crutch words by taking a pause, because crutch words are fillers, and we don’t like dead air. We don’t like dead air on a podcast, we don’t like dead air on television, we don’t like dead air on a conversation. We always think we have to fill it up. You don’t. And you become more credible when you take a pause. And a pause is the length of time it takes to tap your foot.

Pete Mockaitis
Tap it once.

Jane Hanson
Yup. That’s it. It’s no big deal but it takes guts because we don’t like to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true, it does take guts. And I think there’s some fear that someone else is going to sort of like steal the stage or the microphone or the air time from you. If I’m saying something to you, Jane, and then I just pause, it’s almost like we’re worried, like, “Oh, I won’t get to say the thing that I want to say if I pause because someone else is going to take it, or people will think I’m dumb if I have silence.” So, it’s like there’s some internal fear or resistance to doing it. So, how would you persuade the reluctant pauser?

Jane Hanson
By telling them that if they do that, they will be considered a great talker. It will add volumes to their credibility. I dare you to watch any great speaker out there and note their pauses. Barack Obama, considered to be one of the greatest pausers of all time. I’m not kidding.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, no, it’s true. I was like, when I hear impressions, that’s kind of like what happens, like, “We hear a few words quickly, and then pause.” So, that’s kind of how it unfolds.

Jane Hanson
Right. Bill Clinton is a good pauser. He’s also a great gesturer. And one of the things that Bill Clinton was told early on was that he had to keep…he liked to take his hands and go…he had lots of gestures and really wild. It’s so funny because sometimes I work with people and they’ll say, “I have to gesture a lot because I’m Italian.” I’m like, “It’s okay,” but the more you gesture that isn’t in sync with what you’re saying, then people are distracted and they’re no longer listening to you any longer because they’re wondering, “What the hell are you doing with your hands?” So, Bill keeps his gestures inside a square box around his torso, and it’s made him really effective, and it helped him not do all the distracting gestures.

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

Jane Hanson
Well, I love a Winston Churchill quote, which is, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” So, always prepare.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s a great quote. I was just about to ask. So, how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Jane Hanson
Well, I told you about like watching television with the sound turned off. I always like people to assess themselves before I work with them, and it’s really interesting how they are so self-critical far more than they need to be. So, I think if you asked people, when you’re there to help them, to give you a really solid decent assessment that it’s really good research into them, and it shows they’re willing to learn.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And a favorite book?

Jane Hanson
I’ll tell you an interesting book that I just read was Huma Abedin. She was Secretary of State Clinton’s right hand person, and she went through a lot in her personal life. That was pretty good.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Jane Hanson
A favorite habit of mine is yoga. I do it virtually every day. And every single morning, I listen to some sort of an inspirational thing about gratitude.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

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

Jane Hanson
Yes, a Maya Angelou quote, which is, “People will forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.” And the reason that’s so important, getting back to that idea of listening, you make people feel when you listen to them.

Pete Mockaitis
Amen. Amen.

Jane Hanson
And I think it’s really, I think that is. And it’s never been more important than it’s been in the last two years during what we’ve all been through because we all needed to connect more, we needed to feel more, and being able to help be vulnerable, to help be empathetic, to help show compassion, we’ve all needed it so much. And that just gets back to that notion of helping each other feel.

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

Jane Hanson
They could reach out to me at my website, which is JaneHanson.com, that’s H-A-N-S-O-N because, as any good Midwesterner knows, I’m Norwegian. And I’m really easy to reach that way.

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

Jane Hanson
Yeah, take risks. Dare to speak out. Dare to own your space. Dare to let your ideas come forth. Don’t keep them inside. What’s the worst that could happen? Somebody says no. But I guarantee you, they won’t. And the moment you start doing it, it only grows and you’re going to feel so much better about yourself.
And, also, I mean, even as simple as go onto a social media site, especially for business, like LinkedIn, reach out to somebody you don’t know and comment on something. Maybe you’ve seen something wonderful they’ve written or maybe they’ve gotten some…they have some huge accomplishment. Congratulate them. You can’t believe how many people and how many friends I’ve made by doing that. Just dare. Take a risk. It’s worth it.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Jane, this has been a treat. Thank you. And I wish you lots of luck in your communications.

Jane Hanson
Thank you. Same to you. And you keep up the good work.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.

724: How to Master Your Executive Presence with Muriel Wilkins

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Muriel Wilkins says: "Executive presence is really about how others experience you."

Muriel Wilkins dispels myths surrounding executive presence and shows you how you can develop your own, no matter what your role is.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What executive presence really means 
  2. The two muscles you need to train for executive presence
  3. The key factors that affect your confidence 

About Muriel

Muriel Maignan Wilkins, Managing Partner and Co-founder of Paravis Partners is a C-suite advisor and executive coach with a strong track record of helping already high performing senior leaders take their effectiveness to the next level. Muriel is the host of the Harvard Business Review podcast, “Coaching Real Leaders” and is the co-author, with Amy Su, of “Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence”. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, sponsors!

  • FSAstore.com. Use your flex spending account funds with the greatest of ease! 
  • StoryBlocks. Enhance your video storytelling quickly, beautifully, and affordably at Storyblocks.com/awesome.

Muriel Wilkins Interview Transcript

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

Muriel Wilkins
Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig in and chat about executive presence. And maybe you could start us off by saying what the heck does that even mean?

Muriel Wilkins
That’s what actually set me on a track to figure out what it means because a lot of people don’t know what it means. It’s a term that’s used so broadly and loosely, and it’s a term where many of my clients, my coaching clients were getting feedback on their executive presence. And, quite frankly, when I would ask, “Well, what does it mean?” They’re like, “I have no idea.”

So, from my perspective, and based on the work that I’ve done with folks and my research on it, executive presence is really about how others experience you. And, more specifically, when I think about it from a leadership presence, is when others are in your presence, do they feel like they’re in the presence of a leader? And that has nothing to do with where you sit hierarchically in the organization. It all has to do with what you exude.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. And so, I can see how that really is frustrating for the individual, it’s like, “I don’t know.”

Muriel Wilkins
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
“It’s like based on someone else’s perception of me.”

Muriel Wilkins
Exactly. And even worse, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know, but Joe has it.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but you’re not Joe.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. So, that sets the vibe. It’s like, “If someone has executive presence, and I’m in the presence of someone with executive presence, I feel like, wow, I’m with a leader.” Okay. Well, then I’m curious, you tell me, is it like you either got it or you don’t? And what if you don’t, what do you do?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah, that in itself is sort of demoralizing as a follow-up to getting feedback on executive presence. It’s like, “You need to work on this.” But, you know, can you really work on it because you’re either born with it or you’re not? And if there’s one thing that I’ve tried to do around this topic of executive presence is really debunk the myth that it’s just something that you naturally have. It’s something that you could definitely build and develop over time. The key is developing a presence that is also authentic to you because it’s not mimicking everyone else. It’s about having an impact in a way that’s relevant to others while still maintaining a sense of who you are and what you bring to the table in your own authenticity so that you’re not a chameleon.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, got you. So, that sounds super. Let’s maybe dig into maybe the particular components and approaches to make that transition happen well. But maybe could you start by sharing an inspiring story of someone who got the word, “Hey, you need better executive presence,” and then what they did and the results that happened from that turnaround?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. Well, I’ll share my own story because I was the receiver of that feedback way back when, and the feedback that I got was that I needed to tone it down.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, boy.

Muriel Wilkins
And it was like, “Okay, what does that mean? My volume sounds just fine.” But what they were talking about was, again, my presence was not one that was with those particular stakeholders, one that really exuded the position that I had as an executive and as a leader at that time. And so, that is something that I think many people have experienced, whether it’s, “You need to tone it down,” or whether, “You need to be more confident.”

You often hear it in terms of adjectives, “Be more this,” “Be more inspiring,” “Be more assertive.” And the fact of the matter is that, just as I described with your presence, it’s the feeling that you give somebody. An adjective is not a verb so it doesn’t really give the concrete steps of what you’re able to do. I often say, if somebody has received feedback of “Be more confident,” it’s not like you wake up one day and say, “Well, today I decide not to be confident.” Like, everybody wants to show up as confident.

So, when we think about executive presence and what are the steps to really get there, the first place is to recognize, “What is the impact that you want to make? What is the impression or the feeling that you want to leave people with?” And when you think about what the impression is, or the impact, that a leader or an executive or somebody that you want to “follow” has on you, it’s usually two things, the combination of two things: they are credible and they’re relatable.

And so, the intersection of those two things is actually what makes up or what makes you feel like somebody has executive presence because they have that impact on you. And so, the first place to start is understanding that those are the two levers that you have, and then determining, of those two levers, “Which one am I exuding and which one am I not? Or am I exuding both? Or am I not exuding any of them?” So, it starts with some self-awareness around what the impact is that you’re actually having. Because if you can figure that out, that it’s either the credibility or the relatability, then you can figure out “Well, what do I do about each of those muscles?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love that a lot. And in terms of that first step, I think it’s easy to skip over, like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, give me some tactics, Muriel.” But, no, no, it is so foundational because I guess I think I’ve made my own mistakes with this in terms of any types of presenting of yourself, like I think I’ve had headshots done, and I’ve made the mistake before. I picked a headshot, it’s like, “Ooh, I look really hot in that one. I think that’s the best photo to go with it.” It’s like, “You might look like the most aesthetically pleasing, in your opinion, Pete, but actually that’s not what we’re trying to accomplish here in terms of the target demographic and audience and impression that we’re sending.” Like, these aren’t modeling headshots. These are for a speaking agency to get me booked to do keynotes.

And, likewise, that comes up in LinkedIn in terms of it’s like, “In your profile and your picture, how do you want to present those elements and the headlines and the experiences because there’s a variety of flavors you could take?” Like, if you’re trying to represent yourself as a model or a standup comedian, that’s going to have a different vibe than if you’re trying to do this executive presence thing. And you’re seeing, when it comes to executive presence in professional workplace environments, generally what we’re after is conveying credible and relatable. So, it’s awesome.

Muriel Wilkins
That’s right. And it also goes beyond the professional workplace. If you think about your friends, or the people you associate with, or your family, or your partner, yeah, I don’t know about you, but I want my partner to be credible and relatable.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure, yeah.

Muriel Wilkins
So, it really also just becomes around what do we tend to look for as humans in others that gives us a sense that we can be confident in them, and that we have some type of connection to them? And so, those are why they end up being the two muscles.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then in practice, what are some key do’s and don’ts to convey all the more credibility and relatability?

Muriel Wilkins
So, the way that I tend to think about it is almost like conditioning an athlete. When you think about an athlete who conditions themselves in their preferred sport or their sport of choice, they’re a master at that sport. They have to be conditioned at three levels. They have to be conditioned from a mental standpoint, they have to be conditioned from a skills standpoint, the skill of that particular sport, and they have to be conditioned physically for the sport that they’re playing or competing in.

Likewise, when you’re trying to really master and train these muscles of credibility and relatability, again, mastering your leadership presence, you also have to condition yourself at those three levels. And so, what are those? So, the first place is your mental conditioning. Well, what’s our mental conditioning when we think about our presence? It’s the beliefs that you have. It’s the thoughts and the assumptions that you have about yourself, about the other, about the situation.

And understanding what those are, and with no judgment of “Is it a right thought or a wrong thought?” this is not like “The Power of Positive Thinking.” It’s more around, “Is that belief actually serving you in showing up as credible and relatable?” So, if I don’t have conviction around my message – and conviction is just a belief, I believe in my message, I believe in what I’m saying, or I have knowledge about what I’m saying – then how in the heck am I going to show up as credible in what I have to say?

So, the first level is mental conditioning, and I’ll tell you, Pete, that’s the hardest one for people to get their head wrapped around because a lot of times it is about them dismantling the beliefs that they’ve had for an eternity. So, that’s the first one. The second level of conditioning is skill conditioning. And in our game of executive presence, that’s your communication skills. And so, what are the communication skills that allow you to show up, again, credible and relatable? It’s quite simple.

From a credibility standpoint, the communication skill is your ability to speak in a clear and concise way. Rambling does not define credibility. And on the relatability side, the key communication skill is the skill of being able to listen so that you can understand where the other is coming from. Understanding creates connection. And in between those two, we have the skill of how you frame your message and also how you handle questions both in terms of how you ask them and how you answer them. So, with my clients, we work on those four buckets. I try to simplify. You don’t have to know all. You don’t know how to use every golf club in the bag. You just need to learn how to use a few of them.

And then the last piece is your physical conditioning. And physical conditioning is your nonverbals, your body language, your appearance, even your visibility and what message that sends across. And, again, I’m not one to say, “Here are the five great body language postures that you need to hold for you to show up as a leader.” What it really comes down to is, “Is there alignment between the way you are holding yourself nonverbally, or what you’re communicating nonverbally? Is there alignment between that and what you say and your assumptions?”

And so, we’re looking for alignment along all three of those conditioning levels, and that they’re not working against each other, and that they’re also not working against your desired outcome of being credible and relatable.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, Muriel, this is so powerful in terms of, okay, we’ve got the set of things to be working on. And the athlete analogy is swell. So, let’s talk about the mental and the skill and the physical components of conditioning. I’m thinking when you said with beliefs, thoughts, and assumptions, not about good or bad, right or wrong, but rather is it serving you? Is it helpful? Is it working out for you?

And you mentioned sort of the beliefs in the message, like you fundamentally buy what you’re selling. And I think this is probably universally true, it’s like I just cannot sell something I don’t believe in. I’ve turned down a lot of prospective sponsors. I turned down a lot of them.

Muriel Wilkins

I hear you.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, there’s that. And then I’m thinking there’s also some beliefs, thoughts, assumptions about sort of you, yourself, what other people think of you, like, “Oh, everyone is looking at me. Oh, they think I’m stupid or they don’t think I’m senior enough to be in this room. They think I’m a loser. They think I’m stuttering. They think I’m saying like or so and you know too much.” So, it seems like there’s a whole host of potential beliefs, thoughts, assumptions that can be not serving you. Tell me, are there some go-to beliefs that you find helpful, reassuring, confidence-boosting? And how do we condition ourselves to land there instead of the unhelpful places?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah, absolutely. So, a big one in terms of when you’re trying to boost your confidence, as you said, is around the belief that you don’t have to always have the answer, and that you are in the room to share the value, and you have to understand what it is the value that you bring to that table, and that the value isn’t always – and most times it’s not – about having the answer and knowing everything and being an expert on everything.

And so, when people tend to show up as lacking confidence, they place an expectation on themselves on what it means for them to show up successfully in that meeting or at that table. And what I have them do is recalibrate, “Well, is that even realistic? What is the value that you bring? Why are you in that meeting?” And when they’re able to define it and then actually stay in their lane in terms of what they’re able to do, they can have confidence in it because they know exactly what they’re there to do. So, that’s one example.

On the flipside, if somebody is working on the relatability aspect, the belief that often gets in the way is, “I already know the answer,” which then shuts them down from listening. And so, the belief that would serve them better in terms of showing up in a more connected way and a more relatable way is to come in with the thought of “I have a perspective around what needs to be done and I’m open to hearing others’ perspectives.” So, it’s a slight reframe. It’s a slight reframe.

And it doesn’t mean that, if you’ll notice, it doesn’t mean that you’re disregarding that you have the answer. Like, I’m not going to lie. Yeah, you probably do but let’s expand that a little bit. Let’s open the possibilities a little bit. When people stay too attached to their belief, it creates constriction, it creates closedness both in terms of what you have to offer, what gets in the way of confidence, as well as what you are open to from others, which then creates a disconnection.

So, all I try to do is get them to see that there are different ways that they can think about, again, themselves, the situation, or the other, that might then open them up to different ways of communicating or physically showing up.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And so then, once you know and have heard the belief once, you’re like, “Okay, yes, Muriel. That sounds like good, fine, and solid lead. That is true.”

Muriel Wilkins
“I wish it was that easy.”

Pete Mockaitis
“I would like to land upon and return to again and again.” But how do you condition, train, reinforce, lock in those neural pathways so that that’s where we go?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. Look, this is like, if we boil it down, this is what most people have, again, a very difficult time with. It takes practice. This is what we’re talking about here is mental discipline. And so, I try to get folks to just really focus on one at a time. Let’s hone in on one and they just practice it, they practice it, they practice it. And I try to get them to practice it in real situations, so not just thinking about it conceptually, because everybody can do something conceptually. I can speak conceptually about how I can do the Iron Man but it’s very different to actually go do the Iron Man.

And so, I get them to practice it, practice it, practice it, until it becomes more natural. And when they start seeing that their actions, because, again, it’s not just the mental, it’s also the skills and communication and the physical, when the skill conditioning and the physical conditioning reinforces those beliefs, then it helps, so it kind of creates a cycle. It’s holistic rather than just “Oh, I only need to do one thing and not the other.”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And so then, when you say practice it, as I was thinking about the athlete analogy again, I can imagine practicing free throws, or throwing the football, or conditioning strength, bench press, squat, deadlift in the weight room, what does practicing a belief look, sound, feel like in practice? What am I doing when I’m practicing a belief?

Muriel Wilkins
So, at a very practical level, let’s say I’m coming on to this show with you, and I can pause for 30 seconds beforehand and say, and really pause and ask myself, “What am I thinking about what I’m about to go into? What do I think about me? Like, let me really try to understand what my beliefs are going in, about myself? Do I believe I’m going to mess up? Do I believe I’m not prepared? Do I believe I don’t know what this is about? What do I believe about the show? What do I believe about Pete? What do I believe about what’s going on around me?”

And if I conclude that those things are not going to help me show up on this show in a way that is credible and relatable, then I say, “Okay, like what thoughts do I need to focus on right now? Let me put…It’s not that those things might not be true, but let me put them on the backburner for a little bit. I can come back.” So, the way that I’ll do it, I’ll just say this to my clients, is just say, “Hey, you know what, negative belief or belief that doesn’t serve you, I’ll check back in with you in 30 minutes and we’ll deal with you, but you just stay over there right now and let me focus on the ones that help, okay?”

So, it truly is around being able to pause, having awareness around what you’re thinking, and then being able to redefine the thought. It’s a three-step process. It is not easy, Pete. Like, this is, again, the stuff around mental discipline, and it’s hard because it’s inside of us. It doesn’t operate outside of us. But it’s what creates, from my standpoint, it’s what makes the most sustainable impact.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Thank you. Well, I appreciate you zooming in there, and that is handy in terms of making sure that you do have time for that silence as opposed to, “Oh, go, go, go, finish up, finish up the last words and the last deck, page, slide, and the last seconds, and then grab the laptop and head on into the room or the Zoom call,” or whatever.

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. And, you know, the funny thing, Pete, is like most people will say, “Well, I don’t have time for that.” Like, it doesn’t take a ton of time. Like, we just did it in 30 seconds, in a minute. It does not take a ton of time. So, I’ll tell my clients, like, “Well, as you’re brushing your teeth in the morning, kind of go through the meetings that you have that day?” Well, people aren’t commuting these days, but as they commute, as you’re walking the dog, the day before, go through your Outlook calendar, whatever calendar you use, what are the meetings, and just do a quick mental check around what you’re thinking going in versus it’s the warmup. I consider it the warmup.

You don’t wait till you’re on the field to look around and say, “Oh, who am I dealing with? Who am I playing against? What position do I play?” No, you do that. But that whole warmup happens way before you’re on the field.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said. Well said. All right, so that’s the mental game, a core piece of it. And how about we talk about communication skills? We could spend hours talking about these core skills. I’m curious, do you have any particular tips, tricks, tools, tactics, or do’s and don’ts that make all the difference when it comes to listening or speaking clearly and concisely?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. So, with listening, speaking clearly and concisely, framing, questioning, here’s the thing. These are not about just, “Hey, I just need to know these skills,” because, quite frankly, most people are already using them. The question is, “Are you using them in a strategic way? Are you clear around what it is, again, the impact you’re trying to make?” And given the impact you’re trying to make, then being able to dial back and say, “If that’s the impact that I’m trying to make, then what communication skill would increase the probability that I’m making that impact?”

And so, when you start thinking about it that way, so then you have a choice around what you’re doing rather than just being on default. You say, “All right, if I’m trying to create a connection with the other person, or with this group of people, or I want to come off as engaging, then it would behoove me to listen more.” Why? Because when somebody feels heard and understood, for whatever reason, it creates connection. When we feel understood by the other, it deepens the connection.

And I’m not talking about like we have to get into a deep intimate relationship with everybody. It’s just a feeling of like, “Yeah, you get me.” But when you have somebody, you’ve probably experienced it, when you’re faced with somebody, and you’re like, “Oh, my God, they don’t get me at all,” there is no relatability, there’s no connection.

So, listening is the key skill, I’m sure there are others, but the core skill. And it’s not…there are different levels of listening. You don’t have to go to the deepest level every single time. Again, it depends on what you’re trying to do. But I will say, if your goal is to influence or inspire somebody, the more you’re trying to inspire others, the deeper the level of listening you have to go into, to really understand what is going on with them.

On the flipside, which is the skill of what we call structured efficacy, the skill of being able to speak clear and concisely, what I tell folks is always start with the headline first, and then drill down to the data. Most people who cannot speak confidently will tend to share all of the data and then they give you the conclusion or the answer 20 minutes later. And I try to get them to flip that, “Give me the answer, give me the headline, and then give me the three supporting facts or datapoints or rationale that support your thesis, let’s say, or your headline.”

Because it’s kind of silly to say, “I have three points,” but then you go on to number 20. So, that in and of itself helps one be concise. So, those are some tips around those two. And to be honest, the most critical one is the communication skill or framing, because framing is all about how you set context, and context helps determine whether you can get other individuals to interpret the message that you are giving in a way that’s similar to how you want them to interpret it.

Left without context, people are going to interpret the message based on their own beliefs, assumptions, biases, and thoughts.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, if it’s the most critical, we must talk more about this framing. So, how does one frame well? And can you give us some examples?

Muriel Wilkins
Sure. So, one that people face many, many times is you walk into a meeting and there’s an agenda but there’s not a clear sense of what outcomes you’re looking to drive through in that meeting. So, you have good conversations, you leave the meeting, and it was like, “Hmm, what did we actually accomplish?” And so, a great example of framing is what we call outcomes-driven framing, being able to start your message or your conversation with, “Here are the outcomes that I want to drive to. I’m going into a meeting, all right. So, what we’re trying to drive to by the end of this meeting is making a decision on X.”

Now why is that helpful? Because everybody in that meeting at that point, or increases the chances that everybody in the meeting at that point will interpret or take in the discussion with a sense that there’s a decision that needs to be made rather than they’re taking it in as an FYI, they’re taking it in as a point of contention, they’re taking it in as whatever, the list goes on.

So, framing from an outcomes standpoint really helps. What’s another example of framing? Another example of framing is what we call strategic framing. This is when you give strategic context, or bigger-picture context, or the 30,000-foot altitude context. Where is this particularly helpful? It’s helpful when you are communicating up, communicating to people who are more senior than you. So, you frame your message in a way that’s relevant to them and what their strategic agenda is rather than how it’s relevant to you at the 10,000-foot altitude.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you give us an example of that in practice in terms of, “Okay, there’s a thing I want to make happen, and I got to give some strategic framing so higher up folk engage and want to back it”?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah, let’s say that you work in the HR function and you’re proposing an initiative around leadership development. So, framing it from your context might sound something like, “Leadership development is really helpful in terms of cultivating people and creating engagement in the workforce,” and then give whatever the initiative is.

Framing it from a strategic level is saying, “I know one of our key strategic pillars this year is talent excellence and retention of our employees. We’ve talked about how, by the end of next year, we want to achieve a workforce of X numbers,” whatever it is. It’s tied to the strategic pillars of the organization or the main business priorities of the organization, and so you start there. And then say, “So, therefore, this leadership development program or initiative is in support of that.” So, you tie it directly to whatever the organizational objectives are.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s super. And I’m thinking that some organizations have maybe – if I may be so bold – too many organizational objectives that the higher up you’re communicating with may well have forgotten that that was one of the strategic initiatives, they’re like, “Oh, that is one of them, isn’t it? And you got something for me to make that happen. Oh, and I don’t know of anything else that’s making that happen. So, yeah, let’s go ahead and do what you’re saying, Muriel.”

Muriel Wilkins
That brings such a funny story, Pete, because I ran into that once, and I framed it strategically around what the top brass of the organization had said was important for them, and they’re kind of like, “Huh? No.” And I said, “Well, look at the homepage of your website. Like, it says it right there.” So, they all pulled it up on their phone, and they’re like, “Oh, wow. Like, yeah, we actually said this was one of our strategic priorities.” So, to your point, sometimes they forget what the priorities are.

Pete Mockaitis
And then that just makes you wonder how much of the priority is it truly, and how much of it was sort of a word salad committee production versus a, “Wow, we’ve really thoughtfully clarified and drilled down into that which is the huge most impactful leverage.” Well, that’s a whole another conversation, strategic critical thinking priority matters.

Let’s hear about the physical view of things – the nonverbals, the body language, the appearance. So, we want to have alignment so it’s not sort of contradictory throughout. And I guess everyone have their own tics that they have, and maybe I’ve heard videos is a great way to assess them. I’m curious, are there any particular things you’ve seen again and again and again in terms of, “Hey, start doing this. Stop doing that,” that makes all the difference and it’s so easy to fix?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. Well, first of all, I think, again, it depends what it is the impact that you’re trying to make. One of the things I tell my clients is, “Look, if the feedback you’re getting is that you show up as abrasive, and when you asked, ‘Well, why do I show up as abrasive?’ people are like, ‘Well, you tend to yell a lot and you always have a scowl on your face.’’ If I say that to a client, the client says, “Well, I want to show up as abrasive,” well, then we’re done, we’re good, because their nonverbals are giving them the outcomes they want.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, mission accomplished.

Muriel Wilkins
Right, mission accomplished.

Pete Mockaitis
Apparently.

Muriel Wilkins
But usually that’s not what people want. Again, they want to show up as credible or engaging and relatable. And so, from a nonverbal standpoint, the place to first start is, “What is under my control?” which I am. I’m 5’3”. I cannot change that. I might add a little bit of height by wearing heels but out of my control that I’m 5’3”. So, if I want to give the impression that I’m confident and height is not on my side, because for whatever reason, height might make me seem a little more dominant or whatnot, so what else is at my disposal?

Well, how I sit at the table, when I physically sit at the table. Do I shrink to the back of my seat? Do I slouch back, therefore, retreating me even more? Or, do I actually lean forward on the table, pull up my chair to the table? I’ve been known to, if I walk into a meeting and the   is too low and makes me seem even lower than my 5’3” size, then I raise it to maximum height. So, these are things that are under your control and, quite frankly, it’s not just about the impression you make on the other. It’s also how it makes me feel. I don’t want to feel small at that table.

The other part is your voice. And so, your voice says a lot about you. Number one, you want to be heard in that meeting. Well, we better be able to hear you from a projection standpoint. I have twins, by the way. They’re 14 years old and so I’m constantly in this, “I can’t hear you. You’re mumbling.” Mumbling will never get your message across. And so, even from that basic level with your voice, “Do you have some poise around your voice?” Well, what does that sound like? It usually sounds with people who are comfortable, taking pauses as they speak. They speak much more in a deliberate way rather than just speeding through it and never slowing down. That’s in your control.

So, with all of these things, whether it’s your eye contact, your gestures, your voice, your posture, it’s not about, again, a right or wrong, which I think is the way that it’s been positioned a lot of times. It’s more around, “Is the way you’re carrying these things, are they going to have the impact that you want to have in this environment, in this context?”

Because take something like eye contact. In the Western culture, eye contact exudes confidence for whatever reason, but in other cultures, it does not. So, it also has to be culturally and contextually relevant. So, executive presence in and of itself is very situational. It’s very dynamic. It’s not this, “Do it this way and that’s it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so let’s say adopting the context specifically of we’re in a professional United States business environment, looking to be credible and relatable and persuasive in what we have to say so that it’s taken seriously and action is taken and things move forward, I’m curious, are there any particular appearance things you might quickly suggest that we adjust?

Muriel Wilkins
Yeah. So, here’s my rule of thumb when it comes to appearance, let it not be distracting and detracting from every other thing that you’re doing. That’s it. I have many people who ask me things like, “Should I cut my hair? Should I cut my beard? Should I not wear braids? Should I straighten my hair and not have my hair curly? Should I dress a different way? Should I wear suits? Should I wear pants? Should I…?” and the list goes on and on and on.

And I say, “Okay, in the environment that you’re in, would your appearance distract in any way?” So, I share the story around with me, I have clients all along the spectrum. I have some organizations that I work with who are extremely conservative, very traditional. And then I have clients where I have some nonprofits that I work with that are, in the inner city, small. If I were to go to my small nonprofits dressed the same way that I go to my traditional conservative clients, it’s not that the way I’m dressing is bad. It just would make me stand out in a way that then maybe makes me feel confident but doesn’t necessarily create or engender any form of connection with the clients that I’m serving.

So, it truly is about to what extent is the physical energy that you exude distracting or detracting from what you’re trying to do versus supporting you? So, that’s the same we do with beliefs.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And I’m curious, and this might be maybe more of an advanced move, are there times in which we do want to look a little different and distinctive from the audience in the room for a particular objective? What are your thoughts there?

Muriel Wilkins
Yes. So, let me back up a little bit from that question, because the goal is not, “Hey, I need to fit in.” You still want to have, like I talked, I’m not the most traditional conservative person, but I got to have these clients, so what I’m not going to do is wear my most outlandish outfit, but I will wear a suit but I might have some jewelry that’s still a signature me, so I don’t feel like I’m completely “selling out.”

Pete Mockaitis
Sure.

Muriel Wilkins
But are there times when you may want to stand out a little bit? Yeah, but know why you’re doing it. Know why you’re doing it. So, I’ll give you an example, not just about appearance actually, but more going back to kind of nonverbals. So, if you’re giving a presentation, you may have a choice between standing behind the podium or not using the podium at all.

Well, when somebody asks me, “Should I use the podium? Should I not?” I say, “Well, what impact do you want to make? What impressions do you want to make? If you want to come off as very professorial and expert-like, by all means, stand behind the podium. If you want to show up as like the expert, stand behind the podium. If you want to lean into engaging with the audience, trying to be relatable to the audience, don’t stand behind the podium.”

So, it always comes back to, “What do you want?” And that’s where a lot of people don’t have clarity is even around what is it that they want, how they want to come off.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Thank you. Well, Muriel, tell me, anything else you want to make sure we’d mention before we hit the favorite things?

Muriel Wilkins
Well, this stuff, as I said before, takes a lot of practice, and you never really fully stop because your context changes, you change, your assumptions change, your skills, hopefully, improve over time, how you physically show up changes, so you constantly have to think about, “In this moment, at this time, what is the impact I want to make? And then how do I get there?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Lovely. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Muriel Wilkins
The one that’s really been resonating with me over the past couple of months, the past year, quite frankly, has been, and I know it comes from Buddha’s teachings but I can’t quote who said it, is, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

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

Muriel Wilkins
My favorite one is around growth mindset and the reframing, because I think growth mindset has a lot of reframing, and Angela Duckworth’s work around that, reframing around how we approach learning. And how we approach, quite frankly, how we define success, that it’s more about the effort rather than the outcome.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And a favorite book?

Muriel Wilkins
Favorite book. My favorite book of the moment is The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.

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

Muriel Wilkins
My Outlook calendar.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure. And a favorite habit?

Muriel Wilkins
Favorite habit. I wish it was a more infused habit, but my favorite habit is meditating.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for and people quote back to you often?

Muriel Wilkins
I say there’s a favorite question that I ask my clients over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s hear it.

Muriel Wilkins
And it is, “What do you want?”

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

Muriel Wilkins
So, they can go check out my podcast at Harvard Business Review called “Coaching Real Leaders,” or go to CoachingRealLeaders.com. They can find more information about me and all of the ways that I work with folks at MurielWilkins.com or ParavisPartners.com.

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

Muriel Wilkins
Figure out what you want and the impression you want to make and the outcomes that you want to drive to, and then work backwards from there.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Muriel, thank you. This has been fun. I wish you lots of success and luck in the adventures to come.

Muriel Wilkins
Thank you. This was great.