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455: Maintaining Grace Under Pressure for Effective Speaking with Lisa Wentz

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Lisa Wentz says: "You are meant to sound like you, not like someone else. It's authenticity that audiences crave."

Lisa Wentz pinpoints the fundamental elements that can make anyone a great speaker.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The ideal mindset for communicating with anyone and in any setting
  2. The best way to breathe for vocal power and confidence
  3. How to articulate well and why that matters

About Lisa 

Lisa Wentz is the founder of the San Francisco Voice Center, a public speaking expert, accent specialist and author of Grace Under Pressure: a Masterclass in Public Speaking. Lisa has been featured as a Public Speaking expert in TIME,  The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. Lisa regularly coaches speeches, presentation skills and accent reduction with TED talkers and executives and managers from Fortune 500 companies such as Adobe, Genentech, Google, Oracle, Salesforce and VMware, etc.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Lisa Wentz Interview Transcript

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

Lisa Wentz
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your expertise. You’ve done a lot of work coaching folks with speaking and in many different contexts. So, I’d love it if you could open us up by sharing a fun story about working with either a famous pupil or on a famous talk.

Lisa Wentz
You know, that is a great question. It’s a tricky one, and I’m going to tell you why, because many of my clients are anonymous so I can’t say the person’s name really. The other thing about the word fun, a lot of the work I do is very in depth. Certainly, it can be fun but it makes me feel like you want me to tell you something entertaining.

So, here’s what I’m going to tell you. This is the story I’d like to tell you anyway because I thought it was fun. There’s a particular CEO that came to see me. He’s very successful. He’s had his company for 10 years. He’s a great public speaker. And he came to me with an interesting problem. And his problem was that in meetings he would become extremely nervous and thrown off if any of his team members seem disappointed even in the mildest of ways.

So, if he ever had to deliver anything that was bad news, or even mildly bad news, it was really challenging for him to the point where he would start shaking, sweating, his voice would contract, he wouldn’t be able to speak very well. And this was all due to an internal pressure he was putting on himself to please others, and too much pressure to take care of not just to take care of the company, which is his job to lead the company, but to take care of the people in it.

And so, after the first session, we did a couple of sessions on the physiological responses he was having, so the voice and speech problems, the not breathing enough, counteracting the adrenaline rush he was having when he was feeling nervous, and that kind of thing, and also worked on his mindset a little bit, you know, where was all this internal pressure coming from and so forth.

By the, I think, third or fourth session, I felt it was time for him to just face the challenge. So, what I ended up doing was I hired five or six very good San Francisco actors that I knew, put them into a conference room, told him that he was going to deliver them bad news, and he was going to have to deal with their responses.

Pete Mockaitis
You don’t get the part, guys.

Lisa Wentz
And they were phenomenal. He delivered a little bit of bad news about possible layoffs, and one actress was nearly in tears, “How could you do this to me?” just completely guilt-tripping him. Another one was really sort of angry and asking for accountability and those kinds of things. But, basically, these five actors just railed on him for about 45 minutes, and he handled it gracefully, he kept his composure, he didn’t take it on as if it was his fault, he made leaps and bounds, and afterwards thanked me. And the actors had a great time doing it. I gave them backstories and names and everything.

And he was really pleased that after just four sessions he thought this was going to be something that was going to take 10 to 20 sessions because he’d been dealing with it so long. After four sessions, he had it, he was ready to move on like a different person. But that was a fun experience for me because that’s unusual. I don’t usually hire actors to come in and give a CEO a hard time.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, I mean, that just sounds like what a service to have. That’s kind of cool to be able to simulate all kinds of things when you have access to a network of actors there. That’s pretty cool. Well, boy, I want to talk about a lot of things. You got this book “Grace Under Pressure” but now you got my interest piqued because I, too, I don’t know if it’s as dramatic, but I sure do have a resistance to disappointing people or giving people an unpleasant experience whether I have to fire somebody or if I’m just sharing something that they’re not going to like.

So, any pro tips there? It sounds like there’s a physiological thing for breathing. But you’re able to crack this in four sessions. What are some of the key takeaways for us?

Lisa Wentz
Well, I think, first and foremost, to figure out think about where it stems from. Because, usually, that kind of thing, when we’re giving ourselves a lot of internal pressure, it stems from something. It’s a pressure to be perfect. Maybe we’re giving early messaging that we had to please others that either comes from your caregiver of your parents, or you could’ve learned it in school or from friends, too much responsibility for other people’s feelings and so forth.

Now, of course, if you are a sensitive person, firing somebody isn’t easy and we want to be human as well, and so I’m not advocating for being just cold and not feeling anything of course. But there is something about, like I said, the mindset, thinking through what’s really your responsibility and what’s not your responsibility.

So, is it your responsibility to handle something very professionally? Yes, absolutely. Is it your responsibility to be a kind person? Yes, but it’s also your responsibility to not take on other people’s emotional responses. So, staying with your own purpose and the greater good and sort of what has to be done, if it’s a fire that has to happen, I think it’s that. It’s kind of going to the logic of it. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. That’s pretty helpful right there in terms of you’d be clearly seeing some things in and out of your zone of responsibility. Cool. Well, what else?
What else should we do if we are struggling with the “I don’t like disappointing people, delivering bad news” stuff?

Lisa Wentz
Yeah. So, first of all, I always start with logic. So, what’s the logic of the situation? Like I said, what’s really your responsibility? I also think that if it’s really something, if anything is really nagging at you that’s pervasive, figure out where it stems from and unravel that part of it. I’ll give you an example. Let’s see.

Let’s say, I’ll make this up, hypothetically speaking. Let’s say you had a caregiver, let’s say, to parent who constantly needed you to be overperforming, and there’s a lot of that. I get quite a few clients who will say to me, “You know, if I got an A, it should’ve been an A+.” “Why didn’t you do even better?” And as if the parent is personally hurt or dissatisfied with them as children. And that kind of a thing, any early childhood messaging we get, we can really hold onto it. And if it’s a situation where there’s not direct abuse or something really, really overtly painful then we might even hold onto it longer because we don’t see how much it affected us. We just take it as, “Oh, this is just how I am.”

And so, to go deeper with this, once you get to the logic of it, I think dealing with the emotional side of it eventually, and this is talked about a lot in the self-help world, sometimes you have to be your own parent, and the side of you that was a child and had too much pressure as a child to please others or to take care of others, then needs to be acknowledged and some healing around that needs to happen so the more adult side of you can do that, say, “Okay, that wasn’t fair. My parent may not have been a bad parent, but that’s too much pressure for a five-year old to take or a 10-year old to take, and I don’t need to do this to myself anymore.” And those kinds of real decisions can really affect you. They can unravel a lot, take a lot of the pressure off.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, thank you for that. Well, yeah, that’s just the opener. Let’s talk about your book “Grace Under Pressure.” What’s the big idea here?

Lisa Wentz
You know, I wrote the book for a couple of reasons, but I think the big idea, really what I want the readers to get is that, one, you do not have to be some special person to be a great speaker. It’s not as though only a few people can do this kind of thing. Maybe only a certain percentage of the population have decided to really become great speakers because they needed to for their careers and this kind of thing. But anyone who really wants to be a great speaker can be a great speaker. That’s the first thing.

Talent, and we all have talent, talent really boils down to who you are. It’s you in your most authentic form and the rest is training. The rest is technique.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Excellent. Well, that reminds me a little bit of Aristotle there, some of these components. So, let’s talk about some of these things in particular with regard to technique and things that show up and impact things. Now, you are also an expert on posture, which is pretty cool. So, let’s talk about posture here in terms of its impact on presenting, and how should we think about it, and adjust it, and what difference does posture make when we’re presenting?

Lisa Wentz
Yeah, there’s a few areas we can talk about. One is your internal experience and, of course, then the experience of the audience. If you have, really, what we call a collapsed posture, sort of looking like a marionette with loose strings, like you look weighted down, like gravity is pulling you down too much. You know what I mean by that?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Lisa Wentz
So, oftentimes, the head goes back a little bit, hips forward, you know, slouching is another way of saying it. Now, for speaking, that’s not ideal because your ribcage and your throat are not going to be in a balanced position, neither will your head. And since we want, when we’re speaking, especially for long periods of time, we want to be speaking in a neutral posture, a lighter posture not one that’s weighted down because we want our breath support to be there, we want to be able to breathe freely. We don’t   want our chest collapsing because then we’re going to take in less air.

If our head is back, we’re going to strain our voice box and overuse it, too much tension, then it creates a strain on the voice. So, a lot of people who speak in their profession, even receptionists or lecturers, will have strained vocal folds. And by the time they start getting real damage then it gets to be too late pretty quick. So, there’s that part. There’s the physical, just the physical health part.

Then what’s interesting too is the audience’s perception of you. If you’re standing on stage, or even if you’re in a meeting, and you’re in a really collapsed state, what kind of a message does that give? Now, most people will not look at a speaker, unless they’re somebody like me who’s a coach, and say, “Wow, that person has really collapsed posture.” No, that’s not going to happen.

But what will happen is that there’ll be subliminal messages. They will read the person who’s speaking as too casual, too relaxed, not to be taken as seriously, sort of not low-low status, but not high status. And anything that distracts, physically distracts an audience, is you’ve got to get it out the window. Anything that distracts from your message should be gone. And being in neutral, you’re not distracting anybody.

The other thing I notice that happens to audiences, especially if it’s, say, a whole day of conference, or a very long speech, or something like that, if the speaker has a really collapsed posture and has that sort of weighted-down quality, the audience will start getting tired, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. It’s like using to convey a little bit of sleepiness, and so they’re picking up on that as well.

Lisa Wentz
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s review then sort of head to tail, what does a non-collapsed, neutral, optimal, presenting posture look like?

Lisa Wentz
Right. It’s a hard thing to just talk about, isn’t it, without the visual? So, neutral means that the skeleton, basically, is in a balanced position. The head is balanced on the neck, the shoulders are relaxed, they’re not pulled back, they’re not rolling forward, they’re in sort of a healthy neutral. The hips are just under that, in line with the shoulders. They’re not pushed forward, they’re not pushed back, and so forth. Knees are not locked.

I can certainly give you, there’s many examples of great posture out there because there’s great speakers out there. I have no idea why, but Laurence Olivier is popping into my head, first and foremost. Or you watch some of the older films where it’s expected that people would have really great posture and present themselves really well, yeah. Is that helpful at all?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, sure thing. And so then, let’s talk about the neck angle. Is it just sort of like straight ahead, like my eyeballs are kind of forming a 90-degree angle with, if we were to draw a straight line down from neck to the ground? Or how do we go about that?

Lisa Wentz
Yeah, think about it like, let’s start with the top of the head. If you were to think that the top of your head has a paintbrush on it and the bristles are towards the ceiling, and you could paint the ceiling with it, just little bits, that would be a balanced position. If that paintbrush is pointing back, or if the paintbrush is pointing too far forward and it’s not pointing directly to the ceiling, then you’re out of balance.

I think for most people the habit is to pull their head back and their chin forward. And so, I think most people can simply just drop the chin just a little bit. And remember that your eyes have a huge amount of range. You do not need to pull your head back to look up. For instance, you do not need to pull your head down to look down. For the most part, your eyes are in horizon line level, typically if we’re speaking, or if we’re just socializing, or whatever. Your eyes have a lot of range. You don’t need to pull your head around to get them to see what you want to see typically.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s amazing, as we’re having this conversation, I’m realizing that, oh, I could bring my desk up a little bit because where my microphone is relative to my posture.

Lisa Wentz
Yeah. Ergonomics, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s a handy feature of a stand desk because I could just pop it up an inch or two. Okay, lovely. So, that’s kind of the posture side of things. And so, you’ve got a bunch of suggestions when it comes to speaking and presenting well. I’d love to hear which ones do you see most often tend to be the most transformative in terms of your practices that you’re suggesting?

Lisa Wentz
The most transformative? Let’s see. I think, like I said a minute ago, people are unique, but if I have to choose one, I’d say developing a healthy mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Lisa Wentz
Because if we go into situations and, let’s just talk for a second here about what is the sort of dictionary definition of stage fright. Usually, it’s a combination of an expectation to be perfect and a fear of being judged. But when we really look at it logically, that expectation of being perfect comes from your own internal pressure. We aren’t trained to be speakers. Most of us are not trained to be speakers, right?

We don’t learn it in school. We don’t practice it in the home in the same way, and then suddenly we might find ourselves in a career where, “Oh, you’ve got to speak at a conference,” or, “Oh, you’ve got lead a meeting,” and we don’t have any practice with that or any training. So, you have an unrealistic expectation. So, looking at that and letting go of the pressure is a great way to start sort of a transformational movement to being a better speaker.

And the other part is fear of judgment. Most of the time when we’re watching a speaker, we’re at meeting, or we’re at a conference, we’re not thinking about how well they’re speaking or even about them personally usually. We’re just thinking about the content. And so, if you can take your mind off of, “Oh, what are other people thinking of me? How am I doing? Are they liking me? Are they buying into what I’m saying?” and just put your mind, your focus, on the work, or focus on your message, then you can make huge leaps and bounds. You could be more present, more in the moment with your audiences, more effective.

So, going back to answer your question, I think one of the key things that I focus on because it’s so essential is the way you think about how you’re going to present the material and what matters to you most. And, ultimately, whether an audience likes you or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is the work that you’re presenting or the idea that you’re spreading.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And so then, that’s handy in terms of just making everything flow in terms of not freaking out and kind of readily get more so into the groove of things. And so, I also want to get your take on a couple particulars. How about breathing? How should we do that ideally?

Lisa Wentz
Ideally, we think of breathing into the lower torso, so into the belly and the back and sides of your ribcage. Most of us will think, “Oh, I’m going to take a deep breath,” and then we pull our chest up. Well, really, the shoulder girdle and the clavicle area have nothing to do with how much air you’re taking in.

When you relax your belly and you breathe in, and your belly muscles move out forward, and your ribcage kind of swings out a little bit, that’s when your lungs are really getting filled with air. And if you’re speaking, particularly for, like I said, a long amount of time and you want the support and the power in your voice, you want to be thinking that way, “I want my belly to move. I want my ribcage to move.” Lower ribcage, that’s where all your power comes from.

Pete Mockaitis
We had Roger Love on the show earlier and he talked about a speaking phenomenon in which you start off with a whole lot of air, but then as you go on, it kind of gets a little that weaker, and he calls it the squeaky edge. And so, how should we think about avoiding that kind of situation?

Lisa Wentz
A really good warmup, a good breathing warmup so that your body is set and ready to go. Yeah, the kind of thing he’s talking about, I think, is going to happen if you’re really holding a lot of tension   because you’re getting in your own way. Ultimately, we’re meant to breathe, our lungs know how to work. Our body knows, thankfully, “We know how to do this,” right? It’s that we interfere with it is the problem. So, if we get nervous, we tense up and we forget to breathe or those kinds of things. But if you just access what’s naturally there, build on it a little bit, then you should be in the green light. You should be fine.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s a good breathing warmup look like?

Lisa Wentz
What does it look like? Starting in a neutral posture is always a good idea. Exhaling first just to empty the lungs so that your lungs want to take in more air. Breathe in very slowly into the belly, even though the lungs are not housed in the belly. That’s just an image. You breathe into the belly. Touch the sides of your ribs, see if they’re moving. And when you have a very full breath, let it out slowly on an S-like Sssss. And when you empty the lungs, pause before you breathe in again.

And you repeat that about four or five times. That’ll open up the voice for you because, again, in order for it to be resonant, you have to have your breath support. And get rid of excess tension. Plus, you’re getting more oxygen to the brain and, hopefully, combatting any kind of nervousness.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you’re breathing in, you’re breathing in through the nose?

Lisa Wentz
If you want more of that rib movement, you want to breathe into through the nose. By the end of the exercise, if you do four or five breaths, let’s say, you can start to breathe in through the nose and mouth at the same time, which is how we breathe when we talk anyway. So, you want to mimic speech. If I do a breath warmup with someone, or a vocal warmup with a client, then I will take them through sort of an aggressive actor’s warmup to a five-minute warmup.

By the end of it, we are breathing in the way that we breathe when we speak, it’s just that we’re accessing the belly muscles and the ribcage more so that we have more breath capacity. And then, instead of the S, we’re actually letting out speech, because you want to build up to get closer and closer, which we normally do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, after five-ish of the in through the nose S, then you’re kind of breathing more kind of mouth and the nose at the same time, and then exiting or speaking real words, and air is flowing out of your mouth that way. So that’s a nice little wind up there. Any thoughts for how long we’re inhaling and pausing and exhaling?

Lisa Wentz
You’d only want to pause for a few seconds. As far as much how you’re exhaling, you just want to exhale until you’re basically out of air. You don’t want to be pushing at the end of it or tightening. You know what I mean? Let it out and then pause for a second and then let it come back in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, likewise, is the inhalation just as long as it takes to fill up, no need to count or anything?

Lisa Wentz
No, you don’t need to count it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, so that’s the breathing side of things. You mentioned resonance and how breathing is essential to get there. What is resonance and what does it do for us as speakers and how do we get more of it?

Lisa Wentz
So, when we talk about voice and speech and we talk about resonance, what we’re really referring to are the sound waves that are leaving the vocal folds, so the sound of our voice. We’re not talking really about pitch or things like that.

One of the nice things that happens when we build up our breath capacity with exercise like that, we can then start to warm up the voice. So, instead of an S, you might start using a Z, so just a clean Zzzz sound, and that warms up the vocal folds. It can also really clear the throat. You don’t really want to cough or create any tension to clear the throat. You’re better off doing a resonance exercise.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you give us a sample? Like, what would a resonant thing sound like versus a non-resonant thing?

Lisa Wentz
Sure. Okay. So, right now, I’m going to assume that I have a relatively resonant voice because I don’t feel particularly tense and I feel like I have a pretty good access to my breath. So, lack of resonance would be, let’s say, if I started to talk like this, you know, maybe I had a virus. Or if I went to my roots and I went to my valley girl accent, then I would start to talk like this and the resonance would be like in the back of my throat. So, that would be sort of a lack of resonant sound.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you. So, it’s kind of like that maybe vibrational like [sound] going on and compress it there.

Lisa Wentz
Yeah, resonance really is the sound waves that are leaving your oral cavity.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Okay, so the Z is a means of warming up to get there. Any other thoughts to make sure you’re more often in the resonant zone?

Lisa Wentz
If you like to play around with it, you could start with the Z, bringing the sound more forward in the mouth, and then start to play with vowels. Like, ahh, or another vowel and just keep checking in that you have good breath support and that you can feel the vibrations. No need to push for this. Again, the voice is a really strong instrument.

And so, when I say feel the vibrations, you’re putting your hand on your chest, which can also be very calming, you know, right under the clavicle and you could feel the vibration really working, or putting a hand on your nose or any area of your mouth can kind of encourage the sound to increase.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. And so, also, I want to hear your view on when it comes to pausing and stressing words differently, I mean, there’s all sorts of ways you could speak a sentence. What are some of the impacts or how do you think about using pauses and different word stresses to really make your sentences sing?

Lisa Wentz
Yeah, you have to pause. You have to use pauses when you’re delivering a speech, even if it’s a short speech. And I think that many people will have the internal experience when they first start trying that as it being a really long time. It feels like it’s forever when, really, it’s not. So, I try to encourage clients to pause even longer than they think they should. And I try to encourage them to pause logically where they want the greatest effect.

So, let’s say right before and/or right after a key message that they’re delivering, something they really wanted audience to walk away with. Other places that you can pause are when you’re changing topic. So, you might say something that’s really important. You can be delivering, let’s just say, a pitch to an investor and you’ve already talked about your background, and then you’re going to go into, say, the money of it all and what you’re asking for, but you just continually speak. Well, you have given them no time to digest the information on the previous part before you move on, right? And you need that. No matter how smart an audience is, we need time to digest the information. So, those key places.

Also, questions. And this is something I see a lot of people miss. They like to ask a question to the audience when they know the audience isn’t really going to answer the question, but it’s a way of starting off a topic, but then they just start talking or they tell the answer. But think about giving a pause there, even if you don’t expect the audience to answer, you’re telling them, “I want you to think about it,” or, “I respect you enough that I’m giving you time to think about it. I’m not just going to give you the answer.” Does it make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, absolutely. And what I find is like when people are effective pausers, sometimes it’s sort of like my mind was drifting off somewhere else and then because there’s a pause, I go, “Oh, I’m supposed to…” I was like, “What’s going on?” It kind of like brings me back even though they’re not saying anything. It’s just sort of like, I guess, the contrast of speaking and then not speaking. It’s like, “Oh,” it’s sort of like it actually reclaims my attention. And so, you say people should pause maybe longer than they feel comfortable with.

Lisa Wentz
If they feel uncomfortable with it, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, some folks may think a pause is going on forever but it’s really not. So, what kind of range of time are we talking about here when we pause?

Lisa Wentz
Well, first, let me say the way to measure it is to record yourself. So, if you’re nervous about that kind of a thing, run through your speech, record just an audio recording, play it back and listen to it, and then you can tell, you can say, “Oh, my gosh, that felt like I was pausing for five minutes and it was actually only three seconds,” you know, something like that. So, there are ways to measure this that can increase your confidence. But how long if I had to count the seconds?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Lisa Wentz
Five seconds could be an effective pause.

Pete Mockaitis
And you bring me back to, boy, a number of times I’ve done some keynote speaking, and it does feel a little bit terrifying the first few times you do it. But then, afterwards, you just feel, I don’t know, for me at least, I just feel powerful. It’s like, “I don’t have to feel it every second. I’m cool with this. Are you? Can you handle this because I can? What?” I don’t know. Not so aggressively but I like that feeling.

Lisa Wentz
No, I love it. It should be. It should be a feeling of empowerment, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s the pausing element of things. And how about word stress?

Lisa Wentz
So, word stress, for me, again, I usually just start very logically and simply. In English, we stress content words. So, we’re going to stress nouns, what is the thing, we’re going to stress verbs, what’s the action we’re taking, and adjectives, what does this look like, and everything else is pretty much secondary. I think that that can make a huge difference when somebody can just look at their speech.

And even for those listeners out there who don’t necessarily want to write out their speeches because they don’t want to be boxed into a particular delivery. That’s okay, but you could try as an exercise writing out one of your speeches and then decide to deliver it differently later, or writing out an elevator pitch or something like that, and underline the words you really want to stress, and those should be content words.

And the way in which you stress them can depend on the type of delivery you’re giving. It could be that you slow down that word, it could be that you give it more weight, it could be that you over-articulate it, there’s many different ways to stress a word. You can even use the pauses for that. A pause right before and after a word, yeah. But, basically, you’re looking at the content words, what do you really want them to hear.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m thinking when you started talking about that notion of the stresses and pause, I’m just sort of thinking like the musical quality of some speakers. And I guess I’m thinking about Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, and Jim Rohn right now and, boy, when I hear some of their best recordings, of some of these folks, it’s just a thing of beauty in terms of like, “Oh, my gosh, it’s just like this musical phrasing at times that I just want to curl up and listen for long stretches.” So, I know we’re talking about some world-class masters of the craft here, but how do we be more like that?

Lisa Wentz
Well, it’s an interesting thing, isn’t it, because when think about people who inspire us or we think about a great speaker, that’s pretty subjective. There certainly are people that most people would agree are great speakers because they had a lot of conviction, they had good physical and vocal use and all of that. Like you said, it’s almost as if they’re singing or something like that.

But how do we get there? I think that that really inspirational effect on others has to do with being very committed to what you’re saying, removing your ego, trying to remove your ego any way from the occasion, so that again solely your focus is on the idea, or the work, or what it is that you’re presenting and what you want buy-in.

And it’s interesting that you mentioned Tony Robbins because I have nothing against Tony Robbins and he’s had a beautiful wonderful career and helped a lot of people. However, listening to him is hard for me. He clearly has vocal damage because of his speaking past.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, I completely have some of his recordings a couple of decades ago. I mean, you can hear it now.

Lisa Wentz
Yeah. So, I wouldn’t put him on the top of my list for like a really beautiful resonant voice. But how do you get that way? So, the answer is backing up what you’re saying with conviction, and then making sure your instrument, your vocal use, is in good shape.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Lisa Wentz
And we hadn’t talked about articulation yet and that’s a big part of it if we can talk about that.

Pete Mockaitis
Please do.

Lisa Wentz
Yeah, so when we are physically very articulate, when we’re really shaping sound well, that’s an interesting thing as well in terms of subliminal messaging. So, we talked about posture and how people could be affected by posture if they’re watching a speaker on stage. You can also be affected by how they articulate the language. And that’s not necessarily an accent thing there. I mean, there’s hundreds and hundreds of accents in English, right? But rather that they are really firmly articulating their consonants, and that their vowels are very what I would call fleshed out.

And you can see it in great actors because they go through all the training for that. You can see it in some of the politicians that you would probably consider great speakers and maybe a few others. But, basically, really great physical articulation is one of my favorite things to teach because you get a lot of bang for your buck. You get your message across very clearly, people will hear you, they don’t have to strain to hear you. And on the subliminal level, I really truly believe that audiences see physically articulate people as smarter.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, I buy it.

Lisa Wentz
They see it as leadership.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so could you give us an example of maybe a sentence with some great articulation versus poor articulation?

Lisa Wentz
Do you mean from specific people?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, just in terms of I’m imagining you can say the same words with great articulation versus poor articulation. Can we hear how that sounds?

Lisa Wentz
Sure. Let’s see. So, the book I wrote was called “Grace Under Pressure.” Now, that’s in my accent “Grace Under Pressure,” that’s articulate. If I wanted to say “Grace Under Pressure” then I barely move my lips and sort of sped through it and I was sort of slushy-sounding. Or for those of you at home listening, you could do a little articulation warmup, record yourself, then drink a couple of glasses of wine, and then say the same thing again and see how you sound.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Oh, that’s perfect. So, we have a nice contrast there. You’re reminding me my buddy Avon who, whenever he used to read at church, we used to razz him a little bit about his speaking style but in a way it was excellent. As he would describe it to us, he was Indian. Well, he’s still alive, and he still is Indian, he said, “I pronounce every letter of every word.” And he did and it was very clear. It was easy to understand what he had to say, and he did come across as very smart. He is very smart. So, then, can overdo it though, I guess, when it comes to articulation?

Lisa Wentz
If you overdo it, you’re probably going to come across as slightly condescending. So, I guess the answer is slightly yes. Do you know what that reminds me of? It reminds of the show “Friends.” I don’t usually quote sitcoms but there was a character on that show, which was very popular show, I forget his name now, shoot, the one that was always playing Jennifer Aniston’s boyfriend.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s see, there’s Joey.

Lisa Wentz
What a slight to not remember him.

Pete Mockaitis
And then there’s Ross.

Lisa Wentz
Ross. Ross. Sorry. And so, the other characters on the show would give him a hard time for being too articulate but, really, it was that, he was being condescending. So, I suppose there could be overdoing it but, in general, no. Most people will not overdo articulation.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that’s just a great way to frame it in terms of because I find, a lot of times, you’re trying to find a sweet spot. It helps to overdo it in one direction for a moment and say, “Okay, we’ll just back it up a little bit from there.” And so that’s a great way to say it. So, on the continuum from drunken slurring your words together, to pomp is articulation. That’s certainly seems like you think you’re far too good. I guess a British accent will come into play maybe as well. You sort of get the idea, it’s like we want to sound not like the drunk speech-slurring, and not like the “you think you’re better than me” but just a couple notches away from the pompous.

Lisa Wentz
Yeah, it’s funny. I think that that’s a great way of putting it. I think that the second there, the being over-articulate. It’s tone as well. If you’re being warm, you can over-articulate anything because of the tone. They’re going to pick up on the tone anyway, whoever is listening to you.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, tell me, Lisa, when folks are trying to learn and improve and grow in these dimensions, what’s sort of the biggest mistakes you see folks make over and over again as they’re trying to grow?

Lisa Wentz
I think I touched upon this already but one of the things is being liked, being focused on “How did I do? Am I great speaker?” those kinds of things, instead of focusing on the content, delivering the content in a way that’s really about the audience, making it bigger than yourself. I think that’s one thing. That’s a trap. I mean, we’re all human. We have our egos.

But setting aside your insecurities and your egos and being able to just focus on, “Why are you there? Who are you speaking to? And why does it matter?” I think that’s a mind shift that I see happening a lot in my office. So, I would say that might be a mistake that people make when trying to improve their speaking when they first start. Sort of like they’re trying to improve for the wrong reasons.

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

Lisa Wentz
Make sure to mention? No, I think I’m good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right then. Well, could you start by sharing a favorite with us, something that you find inspiring?

Lisa Wentz
Yeah, absolutely. One of the quotes I put in the book is from Martha Graham, it’s kind of a longer quote but I’ll read it here, it’s in front of me, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”

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

Lisa Wentz
That’s someone else’s then? Deborah Tannen is a great person to look at. She’s a linguist, teaches at Georgetown. She’s been around for quite a while, written several books. But I notice that I refer to a study she did relatively often, and it was in the corporate world. She sort of went into the corporate world to study how people communicate, and she boiled down sort of two personalities, two common personalities within the corporate world, and named them cats and dogs, and decided that there has to be a way for cats and dogs to communicate together and learn each other’s needs to make the working environment and the communication environment more effective.

And you can see it. When you really think about it, you could see it in many people. The dog-type personality is a personality that says a lot, they use a lot of words, they tend to over-explain, maybe even ramble on a little bit. They tend to even physically move more. I think that’s where she got the dog from, they sort of physically move more. They are people who tend to be more interested in being liked than respected, and they can be incredibly warm and very valuable.

But their counterpart, the cat, is someone who, by the way, cats are always executives and higher. They’re the VPs and the C levels. They need less words and they become very impatient when somebody is over-explaining. And they move less. They are more still and they’re quick-thinkers, sort of what we think as higher status. And I tend to refer to that every once in a while when I’m trying to explain to somebody, “If you’re faced with this personality, it’s not that they don’t like you, or you can’t work well together, it’s just that you have to meet in the middle on what each other needs.” Does it make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Gotcha, yes. Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Lisa Wentz
You know what? Anything written by David Sedaris.

Pete Mockaitis
I saw him live once. That was fun. And a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Lisa Wentz
Favorite tool? I’ll say a bone prop. Yes, a bone prop. A bone prop is an articulation device that you put between your teeth, and you practice articulation that way. It helps you move your lips and your tongue tip more. It’s quick. It’s effective.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d buy one immediately. Thank you. And how about a favorite habit?

Lisa Wentz
Favorite habit is breathing. Remembering to breathe even in high-stress situations.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you are remembering to breathe in high-stress situations, is it kind of the same rules applied, I mean, no need to count, just do it?

Lisa Wentz
Yup, just relax the belly, and make sure your ribs are moving, take things slow, and slow down not just your breathing but your thoughts as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your clients and your readers and you hear quoting it back to you again and again?

Lisa Wentz
Perhaps the piece that I tend to say, which is that not to compare yourself with others as a speaker, that you are meant to sound like you not like someone else. And it’s authenticity that audiences crave anyway, so it’s really about taking what you have and developing it further, not trying to mimic someone else or become like that other person you admire.

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

Lisa Wentz
My website LisaWentz.com I think is probably the best.

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

Lisa Wentz
I do but it’s twofold. So, one is if you are a person who is maybe very extroverted or just tends to speak up a lot at meetings, try taking a step back as a challenge, try listening more just to see how that works and how it affects you, and listen to understand not to interrupt, which is a different type of listening. And for people who are not, who might be more introverted or say less at meetings or hold themselves back, just start challenging themselves to speak up.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Lisa, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you lots of luck in all your clients and books and speeches and adventures.

Lisa Wentz
Thank you. Thanks.

406: How to Sharpen the Most Critical Communication Skill: Listening with Brenda Bailey-Hughes

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Brenda Bailey-Hughes says: "Listening is not the same as hearing."

Brenda Bailey-Hughes shares why and how to become a better listener.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The sad current state of listening
  2. How to fall in love with silence in a conversation
  3. The five focus areas of listening

About Brenda

Brenda Bailey-Hughes teaches communication and leadership skills at the Kelley School of Business undergrad program. She also teaches global leadership and emerging markets for Kelley Direct, the working professionals’ MBA program.

She’s authored 9 LinkedIn Learning courses and specializes in communication training and coaching for Fortune 500 executives such as P&G, Samsung, Cummins, and John Deere.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Brenda Bailey Hughes Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Brenda, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Thank you, Pete. Thanks for having me back.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, I’m excited to get into it. It’s funny, the subject of listening came up as something important and wouldn’t you know it? One of our favorite guests, you, happens to have done a whole course on it so that’s easy. Let’s make this happen.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
That’s right. My colleague Tatiana Kolovou and I did a course in the LinkedIn Library. We loved that course. We had a good time with that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, I want to hear a little bit about how you listen to yourself. I love the forced segues. I learned that you have been doing journaling since you were in third grade. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s the story here?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Sure, sure. I started looking back the other day to see how long have I been journaling. I found, they weren’t even journals back then, they were diaries. They’re little – they have rainbows and unicorns and little locks on them with little plastic keys. Clear back to third grade as a little girl. I’m not going to reveal to your listeners how old I am, but this is decades and decades and decades and decades and decades of journaling.

It started as probably someone gave me a gift of a diary and I started writing and kind of felt good about that and liked what I was doing and felt that my ideas were clearer and my thoughts were more sorted out when I wrote, so just continued this habit throughout my adult life.

If someone asks me now “Why do you journal?” and I say it’s sanity because it really is for me the place to put all the thoughts that swirl around endlessly into one place and get them sorted out and get the mind a bit stiller.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. I’d be curious when you crack open these journals with the rainbows and unicorns from third – fourth grade, what do you discover? Do you see any interesting themes in your life that have been present from your youngest years?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Oh, that’s a great question. The early ones are who did I have a crush on, what teacher am I mad at, what did mom or dad say that was a horrible thing to say to me. They’re really just childhood memories.

I was about to throw them away and then I kept reading. I’m reading child scrawl too, so it’s not even easy to read because my handwriting was such a mess as a second and third grader. But then I stumbled on a page where I’m talking about there’s a coal mining strike and so we’ve turned the heat down at home and at school. We’re using candlelight to conserve energy. I thought, hey, these are historical documents at this point. I’m not getting rid of this. But, there’s less of that than there is just the ramblings of a third grader.

Then I think the themes that emerge as an adult are interesting in the fact that there are themes. You can see me write on something for a year sort of working through something. I think that the journaling, you can’t keep writing about something day in and day out and day in and day out without sort of finally feeling inspired to go take action in your life.

I think the theme for me is to see that I have this sort of three-month rhythm. I will talk and think and write about something for three months and then I take an action and I’m on to a new thing for another three months of pondering.

For me, it was just discovering my own rhythms in life to some extent and getting comfortable with that that if I’m mulling something over for what seems like an endless amount of time, it’s probably not endless, but I probably am coming up on my three-month window of okay, your action is going to follow pretty soon.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. Yeah, that’s a cool pattern to have identified. It will be interesting to see over the course of the remaining years of life if that continues and how you can anticipate all the better.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Right, right. You said you loved the forced transitions, but I do see it as – the journaling really is connected to listening because by getting the thoughts out of my head and onto the page where I can get clearer, I can get clarity about them, it does still my mind. Having a singular focus when we’re listening, does make us better listeners. That journaling work does help me improve my listening.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk about listening, shall we?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d like to start with I think a lot of folks may assume that they already listen just fine or that there’s no need to learn or study or be trained in listening. Could you make the case for us for why ought we learn more about listening?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think that you’ve hit on one of the common misconceptions about listening and that is that listening is the same thing as hearing. It’s sort of like we all hear, unless there’s a hearing disability in our lives, we’re born hearing, so why do I need training on this? But that is a physiological process. That’s your eardrums hitting on certain bones. That’s all physiological.

Listening is not the same thing as hearing. It is what we do with what the ears can hear. It’s the processing, the interpretation, the decisions about how to judge, evaluate, how to store what we’re hearing into our long-term or short-term memory. All of that is listening.

That is a skillset. Just like any other skillset like when you learn to ride a bike or you learn to use Excel. It is a skillset to be learned, to be improved. I think that misconception that we all know how to do it is you’re absolutely right, one of the places we have to argue with ourselves to get inspired to learn more about listening.

Then maybe because we confuse it and think we know how to do it, it is the least taught of all the communication-related skills. When you think communication, you’ve got reading, writing, speaking and listening. If I were to ask you right now how many years of reading did you study, well all the way through elementary and junior high and high school, we’re immersed in reading and writing classes. Most of us have even had a speaking class, at least a workshop or two in speaking.

But then when I say to people “How many listening courses have you had?” Screech. No hands go up. It’s sort of mums the word. It’s the least taught of all of the communication-related skills and yet it is the most used.

The U.S. Department of Labor tracks what percentage of our time we spend in different aspects of our work and 55% of the typical professional’s job is spent in listening, 55% of their communication time. Of your reading, writing, speaking and listening time, 55% of that is listening. It goes up as you go up the ladder. A managerial-level employee is spending upwards of 63% of her communication time listening.

Most used, least taught, that’s our use case. That’s why we need to really practice and dig in to improving our listening skills.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. Brenda, I love it when you bring the numbers, so thank you for that. Maybe I’d love it if I could put you on the spot for maybe some more in terms of sort of what is the state of the quality of listening these days. I don’t even know how you’d measure that exactly, but are there any noteworthy anecdotes or audience surveys or research bits that have been done on this, like these days does the typical professional listen excellently, terribly, acceptably. Where would you peg it?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Well, if you’re thinking about recall as a test of listening and we do have some stats on that. We know that if you watch the nightly news and then we ask you to recall what you hear, you’re going to have about 17%, 1-7, 17% recall.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Let’s imagine, now we don’t know because we haven’t done this elsewhere, but let’s imagine that that number extrapolates. That means that when you go into your next meeting and everything that everyone says they feel is important, you’re only remembering 17% of it.

Or you’re having a conversation with your spouse tonight and something really important is getting shared and you walk away and remember 17% of it. That to me says, oh, I think we can get better at this.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Yeah, that’s intriguing. I wonder, talk about the extrapolation on the one hand, folks might say “Hey, nightly news, I don’t really care that much,” but on the other hand, there’s so many ways to consume news, if you decide to turn on the nightly news, you must be semi-invested in watching the nightly news.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Right, right. Well, and I would argue that at some of my faculty meetings, I’m also not all that invested, but, nonetheless, maybe I should be is the issue here because while I might not be invested in the subject matter, I am invested in those people. If I’m not invested in their communication and what they want to share, how truly supportive and invested am I being in the relationship itself?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s great. Thank you. Thought provoking. Now I kind of want to get your sense of so if we think we’re listening well, but in fact the recall is maybe around 17%, where’s the gap coming from? What is the holdup exactly?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Yeah. Some of it is that we have trained ourselves to listen only in order to prepare a response. If as I’m listening to someone, I catch myself already deciding how I will reply, I’m not really listening. I might be pretending like I’m listening. I may have listened to enough to decide, “Okay, I get it. I know what you’re saying. I’m going to cut you off now so that I can plan my response.”

But I think that’s one of the ways that we sort of deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re listening or that we’re a great listener and then oops, lo and behold, maybe we’re in that 17% recall list.

I think another space where we fool ourselves into listening is confirmation bias. I’m really only listening to enough of what is being said in the room to confirm what I already thought was true and that if you start saying something that contradicts or makes me feel a little “Eh,” like, “Wait, that doesn’t feel right. That’s not what I’ve always thought,” then I have all sorts of subtle ways that I just start tuning you out or twisting your words to make them mean what I want them to mean.

A classic example would be when my kids were still at home and they’re teenagers. I come home, they’re sprawled in front of the TV or a video game or whatever, and I say, “Hey, you should start your homework soon.” Now, what does the teenager think ‘soon’ means?

Pete Mockaitis
Not now and maybe whenever I feel like it.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Exactly. And what does ‘soon’ mean to mama?

Pete Mockaitis
Within ten minutes it should be initiated.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
I’m thinking now is what ‘soon’ meant to me, but okay, we’ll give it ten minutes versus their ‘when I’m done with this game,’ ‘when I’m done with this show.’ That’s because that’s what the teenager wants to hear is how the teenagers want to define ‘soon’ and so that’s how they interpret the word ‘soon’ what it should mean.

I think that confirmation bias, listening for what we expect to hear and sort of interpreting to confirm what we already expect are certainly some of the listening gaps that exist.

Social media has made that even easier for us. We read about the echo chamber kind of concept that we’re really not even exposed all that much to anyone who contradicts us because our social media bubbles pull us in inward more and more and more to our own biases to begin with.

But then if you take that echo chamber and even within it if a little bit of contradictory information or not even contradictory, just new and it doesn’t have a place to slide into our neatly organized mental habits, we go, “Eh, never mind. I just don’t see that. I don’t hear that. I don’t want to deal with that.” It just sort of gets scooched away.

I guess that leads us to one of our really important learning concepts is to push ourselves to seek out disconfirming information, to stay in the room long enough to say, “Okay, we’ve talked about all the reasons this is a good idea. I think it’s a good idea. Give me three reasons that it could blow up. What are the three risks we’re not looking at and how do we mitigate those?” I think that’s an important part of a professional’s responsibility and keeping a really open mind and being a good listener.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. I’d love it then if we can talk about some more of these practices. Maybe even before we go into the details, can you lay out sort of what then become all the benefits of listening masterfully as opposed to just sort of at a typical base level of listening to respond or listening to confirm what we already know?

I guess one natural consequence would be that you’re making better decisions because you’re getting all of the information that you might not have gotten. What are some other key benefits that come about if you are a masterful listener?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
I love that phrase, ‘masterful listener.’ I’m totally going to steal that for my LinkedIn classes.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please do.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Masterful listeners, they are business winners and they are relational winners. Dr. Nichols was one of the founding researchers in the discipline of listening. He was originally a college, maybe it was even high school, debate teacher, a debate coach. He had debate teams.

What he started noticing is that the teams who were winning debate after debate after debate and had access to the same research and the same coaching in terms of how they presented, the real distinguishing difference was that these debate teams that listened really, really well could then parse through the opposing teams arguments so much more clearly and make a much better argument or a rebuttal that they were debate winners.

We’ve got debate winning. All of us have our share of debates. Whether we call them that or not, we have these moments in our lives all the time where we’re trying to influence others, get people to see things our way. Even just getting friends to go to the movie that you want to go to, if you’re really listening to what that friend is saying, you’ll start to understand more of why they’re arguing for another movie and how you might be able to shift their position a little bit. We have some influence around that.

I’ve seen lots of examples of where people land clients and projects and business wins because of good listening skills. Just recently a client of mine, we had done the business that we had established and I was trying to win a little bit more business and it was kind of still just out there in the open space. We hadn’t locked anything down yet. I’m sure that the company was looking at some other consultants to do some work with them as well.

But I had listened so carefully to him that then when I stumbled on a TED talk of another person talking, I thought oh, this sounds so much like Kyle – I’ll call him Kyle. I sent it to Kyle and said, “Hey, this sounds like you. This sounds like the strategy we’re talking about in your industry.” I get an email ping right back just, “Oh my gosh, you totally get me. Thank you.”

Well, to be honest, Pete, this industry is energy and it’s very confusing to me. I still don’t really understand the strategy that he had been promoting, but I had listened enough to know what he sounds like and could then make these connections. Sure enough that lands the business.

Pete Mockaitis
He says, “You really get me.” Actually, I don’t, but I’ll take it.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Apparently enough that I got my foot in the door here and I’ll figure it out from there.

But we also have on a personal level, you talk to marriage therapists or relationship counselors and frequently they say that bad listening is at the root of many of the dysfunctional relationships that they interact with and that the flipside, that sort of really good listening skills is what bolsters our relationships, both personally and professionally.

If we’re looking for wins, they’re like you said, the good decision making; it’s around our influence wins; it’s around landing business, those wins come with good listening; and our relationships are better when we are good listeners. Those are the benefits.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, well, that sounds well worth it. Let’s discuss. You mentioned one of the problems is that we listen to respond. I guess I’m thinking if we have some diehard listeners to responders in the crowd, it’s sort of like, “Well, if I’m not formulating a response while they’re talking are we going to have a weird silence?”

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
We are. We are. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell us about that.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Yes. We’re going to get comfortable with that. We are going to get comfortable with “Hm.” And you’re fidgeting because you’re like, “Oh my gosh, no dead air space.” In fact Pete’s in his mind right now thinking “Well, I’ve got to edit out that little three-second pause.”

Pete Mockaitis
No, we’re keeping it. Charlie & Co., we’re keeping every half second of that. Please.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
But I think we can use what are called verbal encouragers. We want to use those when someone is speaking to us. Different people – if you’ve studied introversion and extroversion – one of the attributes of an introvert is they tend to listen in silence.

I encourage the introverts that are listening to us today, Pete, to say “Mm-hm, oh, yeah, a little bit more,” as they’re listening, just those little verbal reinforcers or encouragers to let people know that you are listening. Make sure you’re nodding, those kinds of things.

But then where we all feel though that we have to talk is when the other person has signaled that they’re done. It’s my turn now. You demonstrate that with a little pause or an upward inflection that kind of hands the baton over to me.

We just need to learn to go, “Hm, let me think. Yeah,” and then respond and give myself that pause because what I’m likely to say is going to be so much more respectful because it will paraphrase back perhaps what the person has said and it shows that I really listened all the way through to the end.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, in a way, you’re right. If there’s no transition, it’s a little bit fuzzy. It’s sort of like, “Are you still there,” especially if you’re on the phone or a digital medium. It’s like, “Hey, everything still okay over there?” But I think I love that phrase, “Hm, let me think,” or maybe it’s just something along those lines like, “I’m considering what you’ve just said,” and then you’re a silent for a few seconds.

In way you might have a hard time getting away with that in a six-person meeting or something, but one-on-one I think that that can just be amazing because they’re like, “Nobody ever thinks about what I say for several seconds. That’s awesome. I appreciate that.”

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Thank you so much for listening. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s nice. Then you’re getting okay and you’re getting comfortable with the silence. With those encourager words, what did you call them?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Verbal encouragers.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, verbal encouragers. I feel like that sometimes, maybe it’s more of an extrovert problem, when people give me the verbal encouragers like too much or too fast or when I haven’t completely finished the word, like they say, “Mm-hm,” before I finish saying the word, I don’t like it.

I don’t how to interpret what I’m feeling or what value or meaning I’m putting on to it, but I almost maybe feel like I’m being rushed maybe or like it’s a show. It’s like, “Are you actually listening or are you just following a script,” where I’m talking to a robot who say every seven seconds I’m supposed to say “Mm-hm” as opposed to timing your mm-hms after I have a pause and a breath and a sentence and a phrase.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Oh yeah, oh yeah. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
So you can count that as well, the over-encourager.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Yes, absolutely. I think you’re right. We see it with people who know they’re supposed to do that or they just kind of want you to get through what you’re saying. You’re talking, I’m like, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.” I’m rushing you. … get through this so that it can be my turn to talk or so that I can leave or whatever.

Yeah, you’re right. The intent behind it probably does matter because it does manifest differently. The verbal encouragers that ‘I’m encouraging you to hurry up,’ that sounds different and that feels different to the person speaking than a true, “Mm-hm, huh, yeah,” kind of that varied encouragers that are in sync with the words that are being spoken. That’s the kind of verbal encourager that works.

Pete Mockaitis
Hey, did I do it too early? I hope not.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
No, it wasn’t too early.

Pete Mockaitis
Because I really was ready to ask a new question, but I also felt like I got what you were saying.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
You did. You did.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, good. It’s like so meta. I’m so self-conscious now.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Well, okay, let me put us at ease. A spontaneous conversation when the conversationalists leave and we ask them to rate their experience and they say, “Oh, it was awesome. It was spontaneous. It was good. I felt good about that conversation.” When we go back and do a tracking of the conversation, there is overlap. There are those moments when the second speaker starts speaking before the first speaker has completely ended. I’m relieving you of that self-consciousness if we overlap because that is a part of it.

I’m thinking more of when we’re in those meetings or we’re doing a deep listening dive to someone who’s sharing very deeply about an issue in their lives or with their work and that’s when I think we need to get comfortable with the pause. It’s when we catch our brains formulating a response so that we don’t have a pause, that’s when we’ve got to get comfortable with it so we’re not doing that, so that we stay tuned into our speaker.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so if you’re listening and the goal is not to formulate a response, what should the new goal be and the internal questions you’re asking yourself and the focus that you choose when you are not talking and someone else is talking?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Right, right. I would these get into what I call the five focus areas of listening. The questions I’m asking myself, that internal dialogue, if it’s not to formulate my response, what should it be? It depends on what kind of listening I’ve set out to do.

For example, depending on what kind of a situation I’m facing, what kind of conversation this is, I need to listen differently. Sometimes I need to listen to recall the details. Sometimes I just need to listen for the big picture. Sometimes I need to evaluate the content. Sometimes I need to pay attention to the nonverbals. Sometimes I need to listen to empathize.

If we use this podcast for example, I think listening for the details, well, I know you love your stats and you love it when I bring the numbers. That’s probably not the most important listening here. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day whether the U.S. Department of Labor tells us we spend 55 or 56% of our communication time listening.

But you wanted that big picture. You wanted to be able to end the podcast and go, “Okay, I get it. We spend more time listening than any other communication piece and yet we have the least training on it.” That’s the big picture. I would think that’s what you’re listening for as you listen today.

Or maybe even some of that evaluating of the content. There’s a part of your brain that needs to be going, “Okay, is my guest today just talking crazy stuff or is there some legitimacy and some credibility behind this,” because you have to decide am I going to publish this. Am I going to roll this out? Do I need to push back and ask some more questions to find out where this research or this claim came from? What’s the research, the data supporting it?

Maybe there’s a little bit of an evaluative mindset to how you’re listening, definitely some big picture thinking. But if we go on through the rest of your day, what are some of the rest of the things on your calendar today, Pete? We’ll look at what kinds of listening you should be doing the rest of your day.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure. Well, another podcast interview, talking to an accountant about some treatment of things.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Now that recalling details suddenly might become pretty important.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Because when the accountant says, “Oh, you’ve got to do this here and you can’t do that here.” That’s a detail-oriented listening. You’re going to kick in to a totally different mindset when you go to your accountant meeting than you have with me and your next guest up. What else is on your calendar today?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then I guess there’s just sort of quiet work in terms of at the computer and wrapping things up.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
What’s the evening look like? Going home, going to have some dinner?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, hanging out with wife and baby and chatting.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Wife and baby, we don’t want you in evaluative content or even necessarily recalling the details depending on if you and your spouse are talking about dates that need to be on the calendar.

Pete Mockaitis
What the accountant said.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Right, what did the accountant – right. But if she’s just telling you what happened during her day and what cute things happened with the baby, then you’re all about listening to pay attention to be attuned to her nonverbals and to empathize with how your speaker is feeling. That’s the shift you want to make.

A huge part of listening effectively is thinking through what kind of listening is called for in this moment, in this conversation at this meeting and then pulling out the stops all about that type of listening.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent in terms of just getting yourself in the right sort of brain space in terms of what am I stepping into this conversation, what are my goals and how am I going to choose to listen.

I guess if I’m thinking about me personally, coming from a strategy consulting background and intense podcast listening associated with okay, what are the things people need to do in order to become awesome at their job. Give me the goods and give me the high-leverage, high-impact stuff that’s relatively easy to do. A nice bit of leverage is kind of what gets me fired up.

I guess I have maybe less intense practice at the listening for the sort of emotional empathy stuff. We had a great conversation previously with Aaron Levy about just how powerful that is for employees who feel like you really understand them. You really get them because you are conveying that so well.

Can we go deeper into this one in terms of what’s going on in your brain and how are you being as you are listening to understand really where someone’s coming from, what they’re feeling and any emotions and such?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Sure. I think this is an important piece, so for you, Pete, and maybe for your listeners that you’ve heard from, you’re saying it’s this emotional listening, empathy listening. I would have other people that I’ve coached that say “It’s that big picture. I get so caught up in the weeds. I’m taking down copious notes. I’ve got three pages of notes, but I can’t tell you what any of it meant.”

I think it’s a fairly personal self-reflection that needs to happen to identify “Where is my weakest area? What’s my strongest so that I know to leverage that? But which of these areas can I really build out and develop a little bit better? I think that’s going to be a pretty personal choice. People need to do some soul searching to figure that out.

Maybe even ask some friends who will be really honest and candid with you about it, “Of these, where do you feel like I’m strong and where do you feel like I kind of fall down a bit?”

But to the empathizing piece, I think the two, empathy and listening in an attuned way kind of go hand-in-hand. When I’m thinking about attuning, I’m asking myself “What can I see that I can’t hear?” The speaker is saying these words and I’m listening to those. I’m tracking on those and I’m trying not to prejudge those or allow those to come through my mental filter or confirmation bias. I’m really just trying to hear what the speaker is saying.

But what can I see that I can’t hear? Is the speaker squirming in his chair when he said it? Is he wringing his hands? Are his eyes lighting up and his voice starting to spark when he talks about that subject? ‘What can I see that I can’t hear?’ I think is a driving question when I’m really trying to listen for that emotional piece.

In fact, one of the ways I teach people and I’ve done this to practice listening for the nonverbal is to watch a television program that you’re not really familiar with and turn the volume off.

Then just see after you watch the characters and you watch the interaction, you’ll watch a 30-minute sitcom or a one-hour drama or something, and then figure out what was your best guess as to what the plot line was and what the relationships were between the characters and who was feeling what kind of an emotion at the different parts of the movie or the show. Then go back, replay on Netflix, watch it again, and see how close you were.

That’s a great training mechanism for forcing yourself to start tuning in to the nonverbals. Then after you do that for a while, you’ll find yourself walking into a meeting and lo and behold, you’re paying attention to who’s glaring at whom, who’s starting to feel bored with which subjects, who’s excited by which subjects and that is rich Intel to know those kinds of things. That’s a tuning piece.

Then the empathizing piece, the driving question there is not ‘what is my speaker saying,’ but ‘how is my speaker feeling.’ How does the speaker feel? I think one of the best ways to train ourselves to do this and simultaneously show people that we’re doing this is paraphrasing back both the content and the emotions that we think we’re hearing.

This is when we kind of say, “Well, okay, this is what I’m getting. This is what I think I heard you say,” or “Correct me if I’m wrong, this is what I heard.” When I say back what I heard, it’s like, “I think you’re really frustrated about blah, blah, blah, blah.” I’ve captured frustrated, the emotional tone, as well as the content. That makes the person that you’re talking to just feel so heard, so listened to.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious with regards to when you identify an emotion, what’s the downside risk of if you’re wrong. If you said, “It seems like you’re frustrated.” He’s like, “No, I’m not frustrated. I’m just resigned because I don’t care anymore. Nothing I do makes any impact whatsoever.” I guess those are kind of close, frustrated and resigned.

But … “No, I’m enraged, Brenda. I’m not frustrated.” I guess that’s just very frustrated is enraged. I mean, “No Brenda, I’m very sad actually.”

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Right, yeah. But that’s great that they would say that because then you have had – because you would have left thinking frustrated.

Then you find out by clarifying, “Oh no, it’s resigned. Oh. Well, I have different things to say to you now that I know you’re just feeling defeated and resigned and depleted by this. I thought you were still frustrated and agitated, but no, you’re in a different space,” and that’s important to me because how I’m going to reach you when you’re resigned is pretty different than how I would reach you if you’re irritated, agitated, frustrated or enraged or sad.

I think that moment of clarification is perfectly fine. It’s not as if you failed in the guessing game. It’s you won because you threw it out there, you got some feedback that you’d missed it just slightly and so now you are on board. Once again, engaging in that process of “Here’s what I think,” “Oh no. Oh, it’s this. Oh, thank you. Okay, I get it. Yes. Resigned, I could see myself feeling that too.”

That, again, allows you to wrap your speaker in this wonderful blanket of comfort and of knowing because I heard you.

Pete Mockaitis
As I imagine this fictitious conversation, I think the guessing game, if you will, if you get it wrong, I think you’re still winning points in that it shows that you cared enough to take a stab at it and the other person says, “You know? This person seems to give a darn about my feelings. Even though they’re wrong, I appreciate that because a lot of people don’t bother to take the time.”

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Right, so often the listening response is autobiographical. “Well, yeah, when that happened to me, I felt blah, blah, blah, blah.” Now I’ve coopted the whole conversation and made it about me. That is a response we’re so accustomed to hearing that if you’ve stayed with me, you’ve kept the focus on me, even if you got it wrong just a little bit, it’s still about me, so I’m still feeling pretty treasured at the end of the day.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. I like that. Well, Brenda, could you share as we’re kind of approaching the end, are there any sort of top do’s, don’ts favorite phrases or scripts that are super handy when it comes to listening?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Oh yeah. Let’s see. I think that one of the top do’s is getting rid of distractions. Put your phone down. Show those nonverbal attentive listening skills. We all know what they are. We know them when someone does it for us. They nod, they lean in, they make eye contact, the verbal encouragers that we talked about.

When we do that, the person talking feels heard and our own minds kind of follow the body, like, okay, my body is tuned in to this person, so I guess my mind says, “Okay, I’ll tune in too.” I think being non-verbally attentive, showing really good nonverbal listening behaviors can certainly enhance our listening and how well the other person feels. That I think is a great piece.

I love Marshall Goldsmith’s article, Listening is the One Skill That Separates. He talks about make the other person feel as though she’s the only person in the room. When we can do that at a meeting and a coaching a session and whatever, wow, that is great listening right there.

Pete Mockaitis
Any other key phrases that you think are super handy?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Key phrases. Well, for appropriate responses, trying to stay out of the autobiographical and instead practice the paraphrasing. If we can say back what we’ve heard, I think that’s a key phrase in our listening, being careful with it of course.

When I first learned about paraphrasing, I decided I’m going to paraphrase everything everybody says for a while. I came home that night after my listening workshop and my husband said, “Hey, it’s about dinner time. It’s a little after six.” I said, “So I hear you expressing a curiosity about the time.” He’s like, “What is happening?” So paraphrasing appropriately, not just parroting someone, but really trying to put our best understanding into it. I think those are great phrases to use as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, lovely. Well, now I’d love to hear about your favorite things once again, maybe there’s some new things.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Yes, but I’m going to do a listening one. Let’s do – what’s my favorite listening quote? You have two ears, one mouth. There’s a reason; act like it.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right, thank you.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Two ears, one mouth. There you go.

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

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Dale Goleman and Richard Davidson, it was October 2017 Behavioral Scientist article on mindfulness practices. It’s the one where they talk about eight minutes of mindfulness practice will cause less mind wandering. If you do that eight minutes for two weeks, the mind wandering stops so much that you have better focus, you have more working memory, people’s GRE scores were even going up.

I think that’s a great piece of research to link back to our listening that if we can just practice eight minutes of sort of meditative mindfulness – I try to practice my eight minutes in the afternoon. I remember Elizabeth Gilbert, the author, one time saying that she practiced eight minutes of mindfulness in the afternoons that a purist might call it a nap, but for her, she was calling it mindfulness. I love that.

My eight minutes of napping or mindfulness, whatever you want. But I do think that that practice stops the mind from wandering and when we teach our minds to focus, then we become better listeners. That’s a great piece of research for so many different reasons. Goleman and Davidson.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. How about a favorite book?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Again, let’s do a listening book. No judging here, but my favorite listening book right now is called I Have a Little Problem Said the Bear. It’s Amelia Hardman, so you can get this for your son. It’s about the little bear who goes around trying to tell people about his problem, but everybody is so set on fixing it and advising him and coaching him that he never really gets to talk about his problem.

I actually purchased this little children’s book and give it to a lot of the managers that I coach on how to be good coaches because as soon as we move into telling other people to do it, we’ve stepped out of coaching mode.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. It’s funny when you said ‘no judgment here’ I was like that’s a good name for a listening book.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
No, I was just warning you. Don’t judge that my favorite book right now is a kid’s book.

Pete Mockaitis
No, that’s totally fine, totally fine. And a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Thirty-day listening action plan. I schedule out 30 days. I look at a meeting or an event or something on my calendar for 30 straight days and make a notation in my digital calendar so that when I see the event I also see my note about my listening habit.

Last month I was working on paraphrasing. Right next to it for 30 different appointments on 30 different days it said ‘paraphrasing,’ just as my reminder. The month before that I was working on not interrupting, so for 30 straight days I found an appointment or an engagement or a conversation on my calendar where I really wanted to practice that skill. Thirty-day listening habits, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s clever. Very good. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with listeners, readers, clients, learners?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Yeah, it’s that Goldsmith quote, “Make the other person feel that they’re the only one in the room.” That really resonates with people. People will come back to me and mention that years after we’ve had a coaching conversation around listening.

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

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Hit me up on LinkedIn. Follow me on LinkedIn. I would love to have conversations on LinkedIn about listening and whatever else is on your mind.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Yes, 30-day challenge. Do it.

Pete Mockaitis
Do it. All right.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Thirty days of listening. Put it on your calendars. Come up with one skill, a listening skill that you think you want to improve and go after it for 30 straight days. You’ll be awesome at your job when you’re done.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, Brenda, this has been a good time once again. Thanks for sharing the goods and I hope you have many excellent conversations you enjoy listening to and that you just keep on doing what you’re doing. It’s a real treat.

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
You too, Pete. Thank you so much for having me back.

375: How and Why to Communicate Mindfully with Oren Jay Sofer

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Oren Jay Sofer says: "The single most powerful and transformative ingredient in dialogue is the intention to understand."

Meditation practitioner and author Oren Jay Sofer hashes out the tenets of mindful and non-violent communication to help get ot the heart of every interaction.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Key steps for getting what you want without causing defensiveness in others
  2. Two points of subtext to listen for when someone speaks
  3. How to gain emotional agility

About Oren

Oren Jay Sofer leads retreats and workshops on mindful communication throughout the United States. A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, he holds a degree in comparative religion from columbia University and is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and a Certified Trainer of Nonviolent Communication. Oren also creates mindfulness training programs for apps and organizations. He lives in Richmond, California.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Oren Jay Sofer Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Oren, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Oren Jay Sofer
Great to be back, Pete. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into it. We heard a little bit more about your backstory and fun facts in a previous episode, which wasn’t too long ago. I want to dig right away into the goods of you’ve got a book, Say What You Mean, coming out. What’s it all about?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, so the subtitle of the book is How to Find Your Voice, Speak Your Truth & Listen Deeply. It’s about understanding ourselves more clearly so that we can have more meaningful relationships and more effective conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
That sounds helpful. So you’re using the term in the mix, “non-violent communication.” What does that phrase mean, precisely?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, that’s right. The full title, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication. What’s unique about this book and about what I do is that I bring together a few different worlds.

We’ve talked already about the power of mindfulness and the benefits of bringing more awareness and balance and groundedness into our life, into our work, and the kind of clarity and sustainability that comes from that. What’s neat is that mindfulness isn’t just an internal practice, but it actually has all kinds of benefits for our relationships and conversations.

Non-violent communication is a process of not only communicating, but also being aware of our thoughts and emotions, desires, and impulses in a way that lets us work with others more smoothly. The process of NVC, which is the shorthand for non-violent communication, is about using words in a way to create enough connection and understanding in our relationships to collaborate, to meet whatever needs are happening more easily.

Pete Mockaitis
Maybe would you give an example of non-violent communication versus violent communication? Because when I think about violent communication, I think “I’ll kill you,” but I’m imagining there’s a whole range of subtle ways that we’re kind of aggressive in our communications.

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Pete. Maybe just a word or two of history to contextualize this and then I’ll give an example or two.

Non-violent communication was founded by a man named Marshall B. Rosenberg. He grew up in Detroit in the 40’s. He lived through the race riots there. There were about 40 people killed within a couple blocks of his house as a kid. This had a deep impact on him. It was a very powerful education into our world recognizing that people might want to kill you for the color of your skin.

Then when he went to school, he found out that people might want to do violence to you because of your last name. He was Jewish and experienced a lot of anti-Semitism. This had a very strong effect on him. But he also was exposed to people in his family, like his uncle—who would care for their grandmother, who was paralyzed—with so much joy and devotion and happiness.

He had this question that was burning in him from a young age of “what makes the difference between some people who are able to take a lot of joy in contributing to the well-being of others, whereas other folks, when they’re challenged, will resort to violence to meet their needs?”

What he found through his research and his work and his studies was that how we think and how we speak plays a big role in whether or not we see violence as a viable strategy when things aren’t working. As you recognized, violence isn’t just physical violence. One definition of violence is any avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs. When we think about that—

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll chew on that for a while.

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, yeah, so there’s a lot of violence in our world today, when you think about the level of human needs that aren’t being met.

How does this apply in our lives? Well, so if you and I are having a conflict, we’re having some kind of difference and I say, “Pete, you’re being really unprofessional and irresponsible.” In some way there’s a little bit of violence or aggression in my communication because I’m expressing what’s going on for me by blaming you.

In other words, one of the ways we’ve been conditioned to think about things, and this is so relevant for the workplace, is that when we don’t like what’s happening, when our needs aren’t being met, or some objective or goal that we have isn’t happening the way we would like it to, instead of being able to own that, to be conscious of it and say, “This is what I’m valuing. This is the objective I have and what I’d like to see happening. Here’s how what’s going on isn’t really matching with that. I’d like to talk about this.”

We make it about the other person being wrong or bad or somehow irresponsible or unprofessional or uncourteous, so we project our own unmet needs out on to others and blame them.

If we just kind of pause and step back and think about it for a moment, if I want somebody to do something differently, if I want somebody to help me out with something, change their behavior in some way that’s going to contribute to my life or my work in a better way, how useful of a strategy is it to blame them and tell them what’s wrong with them?

Has that ever worked? Does that ever inspire joyful giving and spontaneous change. “Oh sure you’re right. Let me do this differently.”

Non-violent is about understanding – part of it is about understanding this conditioning and learning not only to speak, the words are actually the last thing. What’s most important is where we’re coming from inside and learning to see situations differently so that we can communicate in ways that other people can hear and understand without getting defensive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, excellent. Well, so then, that’s a handy sort of backdrop there in terms of digging into the contents of your book. I’d like to get your view on first of all, with the title, Say What You Mean, what are some kind of key ways or categories that we fall short of saying what you mean and how is that detrimental?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah. I think a lot of the time we don’t know what we really mean to say. One of the things I talk about in the book in terms of the relevance of mindfulness is that to say what we mean, we have to know first what we mean and to know what we mean, we have to be able to look inside a little bit and be clear.

Instead of asking yourself, “What do I want to say?” you can recognize that whenever we speak, pretty much all of the time – most of the time if not all of the time, we’re speaking because we want somebody else to listen, we want somebody else to understand something. We’re trying to get some message across.

Instead of just focusing on what I want to say, it’s more useful to think about, “Okay, what do I want this person to understand? What do I want them to know or hear?”

When we only focus on what it is that I want to say or I want to blow off steam or I want to tell you this, without really placing our attention on, “Yeah, but what’s the effect I’m trying to have?” and “What is the information that I want you to really take in?” we end up wasting our energy.

When we fail to actually be aware of our purpose in communication and what we’re trying to really transmit to the other person, not only do we waste our energy and time and the other person, but we end up getting entangled often in things that don’t really matter.

How many times have you had an argument with somebody where you say something and then they get reactive and start responding to something that you don’t even mean? You’re like, “No, no, no, that’s not what I meant.” Now we’ve got to take ten minutes to kind of unravel this whole thing that is, isn’t even relevant.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. That definitely happens. I’d love it if you can maybe bring this to life a little bit in terms of making that switch from “what do I want to say?” toward “what do I want them to know or understand or to pick up from that message can make all the difference? Can you bring that to life for us?”

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, absolutely. Let’s take an example of something at work. Let’s say that your first impulse is to say, “You’re micromanaging me.” That’s not exactly saying what we mean. That’s just moving out of habit.

If we pause for a moment and think, “Okay, what’s the effect of this going to be?” Okay the other person is probably going to get defensive. “I’m not micromanaging me. You’re not a team player. You don’t know how to work with others.” Now we’re wasting our time arguing.

“You’re micromanaging me,” what do I really mean by that? We can use the steps that I lay out in the book to understand more clearly what’s happening.

First, we want to say, okay, what am I referring to? What’s actually happened? I’m not just making this up. This person has done or said something, perhaps several things that didn’t work for me.

We try to make some sort of a clear observation that the other person will recognize without getting defensive or arguing, like, “I noticed that last week you asked me to take care of this task by Friday and then on Wednesday you emailed me again asking if I had finished it,” so that’s what happened.

“You told me the deadline of Friday, but then on Wednesday, they were asking me if I had it done,” so there’s nothing to argue about there. It’s just like, “Hey, you emailed me, asked me to do this, and then you did that.”

Then the next thing we want to be clear about is what’s the impact this has on me? What’s the impact it has and why? What matters to me? What is it that I’m actually valuing in this situation? We can say, “I felt a little confused and slightly frustrated.” That’s different from saying I felt pressured. I felt blamed, which is again about putting the focus on the other person.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s them.

Oren Jay Sofer
Right, I’m taking responsibility for my part. I’m saying, “Look, I felt a little bit confused and slightly frustrated.” What is it I want? “Well, I really want to be able to work together in a way that we’re each doing our own piece and really supporting each other’s work with a lot of trust and collaboration.” That’s really clear. Those are values that we can get – that we can both agree on.

Then the last part is now I want to know, if I just stop there, the other person is like, “Well, okay. What do you want me to do about that?” or “Oh, I’m sorry, I guess.” We want to give the other person some kind of suggestion about what would be helpful. This is what we call a request, which is a suggestion or a proposal or some kind of indication of the direction we can go from here.

We might just want more information. We might just want to ask, “Could you tell me a little bit more about what your flow was? What was your process here because in my mind I was just expecting that I would email the report on Friday? I want to understand more where you’re coming from.”

Then when we find out, then we might start a move to making some agreements about, “Great, well next time I wonder if you ask me for something on Friday, but you actually need it sooner, could you tell me that so that I can kind of plan accordingly and we can work it out?”

Pete Mockaitis
So then the request phase seemed like you were kind of collecting more information and then sort of the agreement phase comes after the request phase?

Oren Jay Sofer
That’s right. Yeah. The more understanding we can establish between one another, the easier it is to make agreements and the more robust and reliable they’re going to be.

One of the things that we tend to get tripped up with in conversations and negotiations, particularly at work, is that we want the answer. We want to cut to the chase and get to the solution, but what that means is that we often don’t take enough time to really build the criteria for the solution.

What’s actually important here? What are we trying to accomplish and why? What are the goals the solution needs to meet and what are all of the concerns and considerations on the table? Let’s really suss that out and make sure that we all understand the full landscape as much as possible.

Whether it’s kind of a team decision, a project decision or an interpersonal situation, if we’ve established a really solid base of mutual understanding, it’s a lot easier to come up with an agreement because we both can see things from one another’s point of view. Then there’s more buy in for any agreement or solution we come up with.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s really cool. The first step is to sort of state that clear observation. The second is – well, the impact that that observation has on me.

Oren Jay Sofer
Mm-hm.

Pete Mockaitis
The third is declaring what you want for us in the collaboration. The fourth is kind of getting request or suggestion for some more information, understanding and then leading to ultimately an agreement in terms of how we’re going to operate a bit differently going forward. That sounds like it makes great sense in terms of being low probability of triggering hostility and defensiveness.

Oren Jay Sofer
That’s right. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, do you have any other thoughts when it comes to communicating to minimize the risk of the other person feeling like you’re attacking them or that you’re offensive in some way?

Oren Jay Sofer
You know, it’s a great question, Pete. I think that one of the things I emphasize over and over and over again when I teach is that communication is not about what we say. So much of our communication, so much of our relationships is in our body language, our tone of voice. It’s about where we’re coming from inside.

There’s a whole section on my book devoted to this, to the intention behind where we’re coming from because we can say things in really nice, pretty ways, we can use fancy words and whatever kind of communication technique you want to lay on top of it.

But if inside we’re actually saying in our mind, “You’re such a jerk and you’ve got to get your act together and I can’t stand working with you,” if that’s what we’re actually feeling and thinking and believing, they’re going to know that. They’re going to pick up on it.

The work in terms of taking that bite out and reducing the risk of getting embroiled in that kind of situation or just adding more tension to a workplace conflict that’s already uncomfortable is actually doing the work internally of transforming our own way of viewing the situation. This is why mindfulness is so essential for communication because you can’t do that.

You can’t really take apart your own emotions and perceptions and blame without some kind of tool to get in there and really say, “Okay, what’s going on here? Why am I getting so upset over this? Where is this getting me?” and start to actually understand more like, “Oh, okay, I see. I was wanting to be consulted in this decision and it feels like I’m not being valued enough,” or “I want clearer definitions of roles at work and it feels like this other person keeps doing my job. Oh, that’s what I need.”

Then it’s much easier to talk about. It’s not like you’re out to get me, it’s like, “Listen, I really want to make sure that we’re not stepping on each other’s feet here. Can we sit down and talk a little bit about what both of our roles are so that we’re both working toward the same end and not getting into these situations where we find ourselves locking heads?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, excellent. That’s good. Then when it comes to the intention, you talk about the work and the internal nature of it. I guess what that consists of is just really kind of thinking through clearly what do I want and I guess – I guess sometimes that can take a few loops or iterations to get yourself past “I want you to stop being such a jerk.”

Oren Jay Sofer
Exactly. Well, there’s a great tool we can use here. A couple of things. First, the single most powerful and transformative ingredient in dialogue is the intention to understand. When in doubt, just try to understand because that’s what communication is about. Even when we’re trying to just get something done, we rely upon mutual understanding. We need to be able to hear one another.

When in doubt, we can always come back to just the baseline intention of wanting to understand. “Let me see if I can understand you.” Just that phrase, just that phrase, ‘let me see if I’m understanding you,’ that in and of itself can start to change the tone of a whole relationship because the other person starts to feel our interest like, “Oh wow, you’re actually making an effort. You’re not just interested in getting your way.” Then they can stop trying to defend themselves and get about working together.

I said there were two things. Let’s see if I remember if I remember what the second one was. Intention. Okay, so the second one, so there’s a tool we can use to help us transform those knee jerk reactions and intentions to just blast the person or “Just stop being a jerk,” or “Get off my back.”

This comes from Marshall Rosenberg, who was as I said, the founder of non-violent communication. He suggested that when we want somebody to do something, that we ask ourselves two questions.

The first question most of ask, which is ‘what would I like this person to do?’ Now, if we stop there, if that’s the only question we ask, then we might go about all kinds of strategies to get them to do it. We might coerce them. We might threaten them. We might be passive-aggressive. We might manipulate them.

Now, some of those strategies can produce results, but they come at a cost. When I use my power to force someone to do something, I lose some of their trust and goodwill. This is huge, particularly for managers. Every time we get somebody to do something because we have more power than they do, we lose their goodwill. We lose that energy, that creative willingness to really engage in work.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so true. I’ve been on the receiving end. It’s like, “All right, well, I’m just going to give you what you asked for and—“

Oren Jay Sofer
And nothing more.

Pete Mockaitis
“—keep all my brilliant creativity to myself since you don’t seem to care for it.”

Oren Jay Sofer
Exactly, yeah. We take away one of the things that’s the most meaningful, which is our opportunity to contribute and give. We don’t just start by asking “What do I want this person to do?”

We need to ask the second question, which is “What do I want their reasons to be for doing it? Why? Why would I like this person to do this? Not just because they fear me or they want to keep their job. No, I want them to do this because they understand its value, because they see how this is going to contribute to the project, to the company, to the bottom line.”

When we ask that second question, now we’re going to approach the whole situation differently because now we’re not just trying to get the person to get to point B, we’re actually trying to change their mind. We’re actually trying to help them to see things in a different way.

That’s where that intention to understand comes from is saying, “Look, I think I’m seeing things in a different way than you are and I want to see if we can learn from each other here. Tell me how you’re seeing this because maybe you’re seeing something that I’m not aware of that’s important. And there might be something that I’m seeing that you’re not aware of,” so now we’re actually having a conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is a handy question in terms of what you’re seeing and then it covers a multitude of issues in which you’re just like, “What’s this idiot’s problem?” It’s like, “Oh, well, they may very well know something I don’t.” Then all of the sudden all sorts of things make a whole lot more sense when you go there.

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, yeah. The other thing, all of us have to work with people who it’s just like, “What’s your problem? Why-“ just people are grumpy or they’re short. There I think what’s helpful with these communication tools and the mindfulness tools is learning how to genuinely have that feeling inside of we’re all just doing the best we can.

You know what? Maybe they had a fight with their wife or their husband. Maybe their kids got a really rough diagnosis. We just don’t know where people are coming from.

When someone is really rubbing us the wrong way, even if it’s not around a work-related issue, when we can shift out of that perception and that way of thinking in terms of blaming the other person and what’s wrong with them and why are they such a jerk, we can say, “Wow, maybe they’re having a really hard time. Maybe they’re really lonely. Maybe they’re really angry. Maybe they’ve been carrying anger around for years. God, that must be so hard.”

Two things happen there that are really important. The first is one, we release ourselves from the burden of resentment and pettiness and judgment, which is just not a pleasant state of mind to be in. The other thing that happens is we start relating to the other person in a more humane way.

What I’ve seen again and again in my own life is when I relate to people with respect and kindness and patience, it has an effect. It might not be instantaneous, but over time if I consistently come from that place, they come around.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really cool. Then I’d to get your take then in terms of, since we touched on that a little bit, where sort of in the other side of the equation, where we’re doing the listening, how can we do that and even if someone is kind of short or accusatory, how can we do the job of listening without feeling that feeling of being attacked, offended, getting defensive, bubbling up in ourselves?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, that’s the other side of it. It’s such an important skill. This is – actually this is one of the most powerful tools that we can develop is the ability to listen to what someone really means regardless of what they’re actually saying. Yeah.

I’m finding myself talking about Marshall a lot on this – on our call today, but that’s for a good reason. He was a very wise man. One of the other things that he said that I love is he said, “I suggest you never listen to what people think about you. You’ll live longer and enjoy your life more.”

What he means by that is don’t listen to the blame and the judgments and the criticism that are coming out of people’s minds. Try to hear what’s in their heart.

We can actually train our attention to listen beneath the words to two things. One, how someone’s feeling. In the workplace, that’s generally going to be more of a silent awareness. We’re just like, “Oh wow, this person seems” – whether they’re pissed or frustrated or hurt or upset or confused or irritated or annoyed or stressed.

We can kind of pick up on okay, what’s going on for this person on the emotional level. Then that creates a little bit of a sense of empathy. We can feel where they’re at as a human being. Okay.

Then the next part, which is where the real transformation occurs is, “what matters?” What’s important to this person underneath what they’re saying, whether they’re blaming me or complaining about someone else, what do they really value here, what are they needing. That’s where we can start to listen to somebody and deescalate a situation without taking it personally.

For example, someone says, “God, you’re so critical. Why are you so critical all the time? All that comes out of you is just judgment and negative stuff?”

I can hear that. I can hear that. It’s probably going to take me a moment because I’ve got to do this little aikido move, where I don’t absorb that energy, I just kind of sidestep it, let it go past me and say, “All right, what’s going on for this person. Maybe they’re wanting a little bit more recognition, a little more appreciation for what they’re bringing forward.

I might ask, I might say, “I’m hearing that some of the ways that I relate or express myself don’t really work for you. Thank you, I’m glad you’re telling me that. It’s not my intention. I want to check. It sounds like you’re wanting some more appreciation or acknowledgement for how hard you’ve worked on this and the contributions that you’re making or is there something else that – is it something else?”

I’m actually trying to understand you. I’m not taking on that story. I’m just really listening for what’s important for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, interesting. Well said, sidestepping and not taking on that story. It really kind of sparks a visual in terms of there’s a whole lot of – I don’t know. I’m always … to think someone’s got a bucket of tar and they’re just sort of going to shove it such that it flies out of the bucket and in your direction.

You’re saying, no, no rather than get the tar and say, “How dare you? I’m a mess.” We’re just going to sidestep it and say, “how interesting that this person thought that that was something that they needed to do.” Let’s kind of – I don’t want to call it fun, but let’s – or enjoyment, but it’s sort of like – it’s a bit of a puzzle.

That’s kind of how I’m relating to it is you can get interested and engaged in that thing on a different level of “Oh, I’m trying to kind of get to the bottom of this,” as opposed to “I’m trying to conquer and overcome and win and be right within in this.”

Oren Jay Sofer
Right, yeah, yeah. There are two levels to this. One is understanding that when people are blaming and judging us, they have some unmet need. That blame and judgment is just a tragic and counterproductive expression of our own unmet needs.

When we really understand that we we don’t have to take on the blame or the story. We can just, “Oh, what’s going on for you? Something’s not working. Let me see if I can understand it.” That’s one level.

There’s another level here, which is kind of a meta level on the conversation, which is how are we talking to each other and what kind of workplace culture do we have? That’s something that we can address, but that it’s better to address outside of the actual moment.

We have the conversation. We deescalate things. We hear what’s important for them. We offer some understanding. Maybe we make some agreements or if we contributed in some way, we apologize, say, “Hey, I’m sorry, wasn’t where I meant to come from, but I can see how that had that impact on you.”

But then we can also have a conversation saying, “Listen I wanted to just – I wanted to just talk a little bit about how things came out when you said that I’m so critical and judgmental and I’m always nitpicking and I never care about or appreciate anyone else. That was kind of hard to hear. I’d just love to find a way that we can both express ourselves with a sense of care and respect for one another.”

We can actually address the way we’re talking to one another, but it’s best to do that outside of the moment. We’ve got to handle the situation that’s happening first.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that’s well said. I did want to dig into your take on sort of the best practices for how does one ask for what you need in an optimal kind of a fashion? It seems like we’ve already got a few kind of principles and processes to work through, but do you have any extra things to point out when you’re making a request?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, absolutely. Requests are tricky because a lot of us have been conditioned to think it’s selfish to ask for things from other people. Some of this falls around gender lines and how we’ve been conditioned or what our social location is, so based on our conditioning, we may feel more or less comfortable or willing to speak up and ask for what we need. A certain part of it is some of that internal work of just checking, “do I feel okay asking others to do things or help out or contribute to me?”

One of the keys there, because a lot of us have stories that, “I should be able to do it on my own. I’m selfish if I ask for something. I don’t want to be needy or dependent,” all of these kinds of junk that we pick up along the way in life.

But if we turn the tables around for a minute and we just think about if a friend or a coworker came to me and said, “Hey, I could really use some help. Do you have a few minutes?” If someone’s sincere and we have the time, we’re more than happy to help. We’re like, “Yeah, totally. What’s up?” That feels good. It feels good to lend a hand to someone when we can.

If we contemplate that, then we can recognize if I can ask in a way that’s inviting, I’m actually giving the other person something beautiful. I’m giving them an opportunity to contribute in a way that feels good.

That’s kind of the key behind making requests. It’s one, finding that place inside where we’re not demanding that somebody do something, which takes all the joy out of giving and helping, but we’re inviting them. It’s an open door.

One of the things that makes that the most possible is letting them know how it’s going to contribute to us. We need to let someone know why we’re asking. How will this actually help me? What’s the reason behind my asking? Then that gives the person a reason to want to help.

The other part is really making sure that we’re clear that there’s no obligation or demand here. This is a suggestion. I’m just saying, “How about this? If this doesn’t work for you, I’d love to see if we can find another way that this could happen.” Then, again, it becomes a dialogue. It becomes a collaboration.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s excellent. You’ve got another term I want to hear and touch about because it sounds like something I want. What is emotional agility and how can we get some more of that?

Oren Jay Sofer
Oh, grasshopper. Yes, emotional agility is essential in life. Emotional agility is that ability to be aware of what we’re feeling and have the strength and the capacity to manage it without it dictating our actions or our words. This takes practice, but it’s completely feasible. There are a few steps to it.

The first step is learning to be aware of our emotions, just using mindfulness to identify how we’re feeling and finding a way to experience our emotions with some degree of balance, so we don’t get swept away in the tide of thinking and reacting and sinking in the emotion or lashing out or the other extreme, which is suppressing and avoiding our emotions.

We find that middle ground, where we can just feel the way we feel and stay balanced with it. That’s a lot of the work of mindfulness.

Then the next kind of phase is starting to actually understand our emotions and the function that they play in our life, in our relationships. Emotions are there for a reason. If we feel something, it’s because there’s something that matters to us. We don’t feel emotions if there’s nothing that matters to us in a situation.

Emotions are sending signals. They’re sending signals either that our needs were met. Pleasant feelings: things are going well, my values and needs are being confirmed or met in some way. Unpleasant emotions: it’s a message, it’s a signal that there’s something not working for me here, there’s some need I have that isn’t being met.

What’s essential in understanding emotions is connecting them back to what actually matters to us and being able to identify, “What am I actually wanting here? What’s important to me?” When we can understand that, when we can really see it clearly, there’s a settling that happens inside because the message has been received. The emotion has actually served its purpose. Now we can go about figuring out how to meet that need. What action is necessary here?

Then the last aspect of emotional agility – so we’ve got being aware of our emotions and staying balanced. Then we’ve got understanding our emotions, “What message is this sending? What’s actually important to me here?”

The last part is learning how to communicate them constructively, how to hear other’s emotions and how to express our own emotions in a way that’s helpful. This is really where that training and non-violent communication comes in where we’re able to be aware of how we feel on the inside instead of those stories of blame, “I feel ignored. I feel attacked. I feel judged,” which are all pointing the finger at you.

Instead, being able to talk about, “You know? I felt a little bit sad when I heard that I wasn’t invited.” To be able to own how we actually feel instead of “I feel dismissed,” which is again, telling you what you’re doing to me. Being able to state our emotions in a way that’s about us and then connect them to our needs, to why.

“I really wanted to be included,” or “I really value being a part of the team,” or “I really enjoy your company and want to be able to build our relationship,” so linking our emotions and feelings back to our needs. That’s the kind of overview, the snapshot of developing emotional agility. I go into that a lot more in Say What You Mean, in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, one of the things when I heard the term emotional agility that I got to thinking about is how often I am in one emotional state, let’s just call it irritated. There’s a distracting noise that a laundry machine keeps making a bunch of noise and vibration that is drawing my attention away and I don’t like it.

But then the emotion that would be most kind of constructive might be in a conversation could be, maybe curiosity or interest or compassion. Do you have any thoughts for how can we – I know we’re not robots that can sort of flip a switch and execute new emotion instantly, but—do you have some pro tips for when we kind of need to access a different side of ourselves to rise to an occasion? How do we do that quickly?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, how do we do it quickly? I think it takes practice. It’s not something that happens overnight. If we want to be able to come from that place of curiosity or more genuine care or compassion, we need to actually practice it. We need to cultivate those kinds of emotions and intentions in our self.

Then when we do, when we’ve actually trained our heart or our mind to know how to find goodwill, how to find curiosity, then in the heat of the moment, it’s there for us and then we can come back to it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly.

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, I think one other key there – I appreciate the question – one other key there is one of the central perspectives to non-violent communication, which we’ve been dancing around, but I haven’t stated explicitly, which is a particular view or perspective on human behavior, which is at the heart of humanistic psychology going all the way back to Abraham Maslow and Mendel and Carl Rogers, which is that all human behavior can be seen as an attempt to meet some kind of basic needs.

When we view things in that way, we can always ask our self the question, ‘What does this person need? What matters to this person?’ That’s a way to get curious even if we’re reactive, to remember that sense of “Okay, human beings do stuff because there’s something that matters to them. What matters to this person?”

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. Any final things you care to share before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Oren Jay Sofer
No, it’s been great talking. I’m really happy to share all these tools with you and your audience. I just hope they’re helpful for folks in their life and at their work.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve given a few already on the show, but I’ll share one more. This really points to an essential communication tool. “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I like that. Thank you.

Oren Jay Sofer
It’s that simple skill that a lot of times we do over email. We’ll say, “Let me know that you got this,” but we can do that during conversation too.

We can actually check, especially when we say something important or meaningful to us or it feels like someone else is saying something important or meaningful, we can check. We say, “I want to make sure I’m still with you. Let me just tell you back what I’m hearing and you tell me if I got it right.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, thank you. How about a favorite book?

Oren Jay Sofer
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild is phenomenal take on culture, society and nature. It’s just a beautiful collection of essays that bring together a lot of wonderful ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
A favorite tool?

Oren Jay Sofer
A favorite tool, say more my friend. Do you mean a physical tool or a-?

Pete Mockaitis
It could by physical tool, it could be a piece of software, it could be a framework of thought.

Oren Jay Sofer
Great, yeah. Piece of software. I have a screen app that I use called Time Out that I can set it to different intervals and it reminds me to take a pause while I’m working at my computer for my physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Is there a particular nugget you’ve been sharing from the book that really seems to connect and resonate and get folks nodding their heads?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, one of the main steps that I encourage people to do in communication practice is to focus on what matters. That’s skill we can develop to keep coming back to that question of what really matters here in myself, in another person, in a situation and to get underneath the layers of the stories, and the judgments, and the what-if’s, and the who-did, and when, and why into okay, what really matters here. Focus on what matters.

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

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, there’s a great way to get in touch, which is through my website, www.orenjaysofer.com.

If folks want to learn more from me, I have a free gift to give away six guided meditations when you join my newsletter. The way to sign up for that is to text the word ‘guided’ G-U-I-D-E-D, like guided meditation, to 44222. You’ll get six guided meditations and then every month I send a free guided meditation or an article or a link to a free online event that I’m doing, so it’s a great way to stay in touch and also get some more teaching and tools.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, thank you. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Oren Jay Sofer
Yeah, absolutely. Take this on as a practice. Communication is a learnable skill. It’s not just something that some people are good at and other people aren’t. You can improve your communication if you set an intention to work with it. Bring more awareness and presence into your communication and focus on what matters. If you want to learn more, you can check out my book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Oren, this has been a treat once again. Thank you. I wish you tons of luck with the book, Say What You Mean, and all you’re up to.

Oren Jay Sofer
Thanks so much, Pete. It’s been great being back on the show.

361: Communicating In the Language of Leadership with Chris Westfall

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Chris Westfall says: "Common ground is what creates uncommon results."

Communications expert and pitch champion Chris Westfall illustrates how leadership is a language of the heart and how to achieve it through a perspective change.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three ways that people listen to each other
  2. Two ‘you’ phrases that will help you get what you want
  3. The thought that makes the impossible possible

About Chris

Chris is national pitch champion and an award-winning MBA instructor at a top-20 program, He’s the official ‘pitch coach’ at the fifth-largest university in the USA – where his strategies have helped raise over $30 million for student start ups. Originally from Chicago, Chris resides in Houston, TX with his wife and two daughters, and is an avid supporter of the performing and visual arts.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Chris Westfall Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Chris, welcome back to the How to Be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Chris Westfall
Pete, I am super excited to be here. Thanks for having me again.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to have you again. We’ve come a long way since episode five here at your first appearance. You’ve also come a long way in your career when you used to be a professional stuntman. I don’t think we covered that last time. Let’s hear the story.

Chris Westfall
Well, it’s absolutely true. I was a professional stuntman. In fact, Pete, that was what I had to stand up in front of my entire MBA class and tell them – much to everyone’s chagrin and surprise – because they ask us in a prompt, they said “Tell us what was your last fulltime job before you came back to graduate school.”

Everybody is standing up and they’re saying, “I was a professional engineer,” or “I worked at a big four consulting firm,” and that kind of thing. Then it’s my turn and I get to stand up and say “Well, I was a professional stuntman.” “Everybody is like how did he get in this room?”

Pete, quite frankly I was asking myself the same thing. Now, look, I studied for the GMAT. I had good grades and all that kind of stuff, but my background was wildly different than what I wanted to do.

Maybe folks listening to this podcast are thinking about a transformation for themselves in their career, I tell you, for me, going from the green room, being a stuntman and trading fake punches to going into the boardroom and really wrestling with some real business issues was the career transition that I had to make.

But I was part of a stunt show at a local amusement park. I was part of the Batman stunt show, Pete. I wasn’t Batman, but I was the host of the show and then I played one of the villains in the stunt show. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So as a stuntman it was in sort of live shows as opposed to film and TV?

Chris Westfall
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, interesting.

Chris Westfall
Which means it’s much more dangerous, much more risky because you’re doing it live and the pyrotechnics are live. If you miss a punch and hit somebody in the mouth or something, it’s happening live right there.

I learned a lot about risk and about calculated risk and about safety and also about capabilities because when you have to – again, this was in a southern state. I was performing in – it was 110 degree-heat and doing stuff outside in front of 3,000 people every day. You learn a few things in that kind of environment as you can imagine.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s so cool. Well, you’ve got a fun history. You’re doing fun work. Recently engaging with the Navy SEALS. That’s awesome. It seems like they always get the best people, so kudos on that get. That’s awesome. Then you’ve got a recent book, Leadership Language. What’s this all about?

Chris Westfall
Well, Leadership Language is a look at how people can change the conversation and change their results.

For folks who are looking to be awesome at their job, being awesome means leading others, whether that means that you are a leader in title and you actually have direct reports or you are someone who is aspiring to lead or maybe just to influence your boss to give you a raise or to buy into your ideas, all of those objectives, they all start with your story and the way that you communicate.

That’s what Leadership Language is all about. It’s about communication, it’s about connection, and it’s about leading across the generation so that your best ideas can come to life.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Can you unpack some of that for us in terms of what’s often the holdup when it comes to doing that connecting and inspiring?

Chris Westfall
Well, a big part of communication and connection is listening. This may sound counterintuitive, because I mean I’m like you, Pete, I talk for a living, but I also listen. I help my clients to learn how to listen and to be receptive. When you understand how to leverage listening, it’s the first step in leadership.

And I’ll tell you why, because none of us is as smart as all of us. The person who thinks they have all the answers and doesn’t need to listen, that’s the first mistake.

I talk about in the book that there are three ways to listen. The first is to listen to affirm, in other words to listen to confirm something you already know, like, “Oh, I think what he’s saying – I think Stephen Covey said that and probably said it better.” To confirm something that you already know, that’s one way to listen.

But when you listen that way, you’re really just listening to make yourself feel better about your education or your experience. You’re not really moving the conversation forward.

The second way to listen is the way lawyers listen. That’s to listen to defend, in other words you’re taking a position. You’re taking a position. No matter what comes out of your mouth, I’m going to take – it’s the discussion across the aisle in politics. It’s the “If you don’t see things the way I do, I’m going to take a defensive posture.” When you take a defensive posture, by nature you close yourself off to new ideas.

If the leadership conversation is about innovation, is about changing the status quo and challenging the status quo and making things better, you have to identify with the third way to listen and that is to listen to discover, which hopefully is the way that people are listening to this podcast.

It’s to discover something new, is not to affirm something you already know, but to find that new thing, that next thing, that discovery that’s going to propel your career forward, that’s going to make you have a greater impact and that’s going to make you more awesome at your job.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that little framework there. It reminds me of some of my coaching training about different kinds of listening. I guess this starts I guess in a way – these three forms of listening are first of all presuming that you’re paying attention to the words coming out of the other person’s mouth. That’s a decent start, actually, and not something you can just assume in the age of everyone’s got their smartphone or even just they’re hungry for lunch.

Their attention might not even by on the words, but once they are, I think that’s a nice reality check in terms of if you’re sort of thinking about yourself and your situation relative in a conversation, say “Wait a minute, what am I really doing here?”

I suppose there may be times when you need to listen to defend like you are a litigant, you’re in a criminal or civil suit situation, but certainly listen to discover sounds a lot more fun and useful in the majority of contexts.

Chris Westfall
Well, I think that’s what you’ve been sharing with folks on this podcast. If I can just pay you a compliment, the discoveries that you’ve shared with others and the guests that you bring on, that’s where the value comes from.

And for the folks that are listening to this, think about where your value comes from. It can really start with being a good listener and taking in information and then sharing that information in a way that’s compelling.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. It starts with the listening and then what would you say is the next step?

Chris Westfall
Well, the next step and this is counterintuitive, but if you want to be awesome at your job and create a greater impact for yourself, you’ve got to take your attention off of yourself because if you’re talking to someone, you’re talking to your boss, someone you wish to influence, you wish to have an impact in some way and you’re thinking “How am I doing?”

It’s like playing a game looking at the scoreboard or running a race when you’re looking at the clock. The real game is how is the person right in front of you doing, how is your boss doing, how is your team doing, how are you making them the hero of your story.

So many times when we have objectives for ourselves, we begin by focusing on “Well, I need this raise. I need this to happen. I need this idea to come forward,” but what happens when you flip the script and you think about what your ideas, your raise, your emotion, whatever the case may be, means to the person right in front of you?

When you phrase your goals and desires in terms of the impact that it means for others, you exhibit the four words that represent in my mind one of the key leadership skills. Here are the four words: “I’ve thought this through.” When you think through – you see what I’m saying?

Pete Mockaitis
I remember last time I was like, oh yeah. I was like wait a minute, are those the four words. There’s a contraction in there, is that five, four and a half.

Chris Westfall
There it is.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve thought this through.

Chris Westfall
This time – in the book Leadership Language I talk about not only saying ‘I thought this through,’ but ‘I thought this through for you’ because leaders look in the direction of impact. They talk in terms of outcomes and they think about impact and impact not just for themselves, but for the people that they serve.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you give us maybe some examples of sort of non-I-thought-this-through communication, what that sounds like versus “Oh, having taken it to the next level, I have thought this through,” communication and what that might sound like?

Chris Westfall
The communication that thinks it through, you’re actually looking – there’s one word you can look for and it’s a pronoun. It’s the pronoun ‘you.’ If people use ‘you’ language, what that means is they’re not just talking about how “I’m very customer focused” or, “I really pay attention to service,” no, they’re starting with the most important person, which when you use the word ‘you,’ you make the second person first.

When people are only talking about themselves, that’s your clue. When you’re using words like I, me, my, we, our, you’re only focused on your own objectives. What about the objectives of the people who are right in front of you? What are the … for your boss, your board of directors, your investors, your team and how can you express that using ‘you’ language?

I talk about it at length in the book and show several different examples because it’s one thing to say, “Let me tell you what you don’t know about engineering.” Well, that’s a nonstarter. “Let me present myself as the expert,” also a nonstarter, also instantly exhausting.

But when you say something like, “You know how.” If I say to you, “You know how, when you’re in Evanston in the winter, it’s going to be cold.” Instantly, you’re like, “Of course, it’s cold in Evanston in the winter. I know that. Of course.”

But what I’m doing—and this is a very simple example, I apologize it’s so simple—what I’m doing is I’m acknowledging your expertise. I’m creating common ground. I’m not trying to show off what I know; I’m trying to demonstrate what we know together. That’s the power in ‘you’ language.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. What’s so funny is it’s almost like a Jedi mind trick as you say it. It’s like I am poised to hear the next thing you say. It’s like, “Well, yeah. Totally, I’m right with you. Where are we going now?”

Chris Westfall
That’s the whole idea. If it comes from a place of sincerity without an agenda on it, it’s a place of connection. If you put a spin on it, then it’s called manipulation. But what you’re looking for is a reason for people to say yes because here’s the thing, common ground is what creates uncommon results. You want people to see that commonality instead of your expertise.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. I’m with you when it comes to the agenda. You’re right. People can sense if you’re trying to tie them down to a position or sort of box them into something using a series of Socratic questions.

We had Chris Voss, the FBI agent negotiator and his book, which is awesome, Never Split the Difference, talking about how yes makes people kind of nervous, like, “What am I committing to? What’s going on here?” But when it’s kind of innocuous, and as you mentioned, without an agenda, it’s sort of like, “Well, yeah, okay. Sure. Understood. Acknowledged. We’re on the same page, where are we going now?”

Chris Westfall
Exactly. That connection is really key to any leadership initiative that you wish to undertake and also to creating greater collaboration within your team, within your organization. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Could you maybe give us another example of applying the ‘you know how’ in sort of a workplace scenario and how that will come across way better than an alternative, which may be a common mistake?

Chris Westfall
In order to do that I need to have an objective for the workplace, but I think I can do it, Pete. I think I can. Think about how you can create something that everyone in the workplace is going to say yes to. You can use a ‘you know how.’ The other one you can use to introduce it is ‘doesn’t it seem like.’ “Doesn’t it seem like we need to make a change in … here.” I’m going to struggle with the speak because I don’t have necessarily a workplace agenda, but I …

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure thing. We’re looking to convince the boss to let us work from home one day a week or one day a month or something.

Chris Westfall
“Doesn’t it seem like office space is kind of at a premium here in the office?” “Doesn’t it seem like the investment we just made in the video conferencing software, we should really take advantage of it?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love it.

Chris Westfall
I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re like a pitch champion or something, Chris.

Chris Westfall
Pete, I am a professional. Don’t try this at home. But that’s the idea is turning it into something that people see because here’s the thing people think sometimes that a conversation needs to be adversarial or if I have a point of view that it’s going to be opposed to someone else. That can make you hesitate. That can make you stop.

In fact, the Harvard Business Review, there was an article that I read that says that 69% of managers are uncomfortable talking to employees for any reason.

Pete Mockaitis
Say that again. 69% of managers-

Chris Westfall
69%. I’ll send you the link

Pete Mockaitis
-are uncomfortable talking.

Chris Westfall
I’ll send you the link. Yes, sir. Can you imagine-

Pete Mockaitis
That’s your whole life is talking to employees. Do you mean their own direct reports or any employees? Please explain.

Chris Westfall
For any reason.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Chris Westfall
This is the thing that was so startling about this. I’ve got to send you the link.

Pete Mockaitis
This is nuts. Okay, we’ll definitely link to this in the show notes.

Chris Westfall
But yeah, everyone, sure, everyone wants – they have to talk to their employees, but the survey says they don’t like it.

Pete Mockaitis
Do we know why?

Chris Westfall
Do we know why?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Chris Westfall
That’s a great question. I’d have to pull up the article to tell you what they say, but as I recall, Pete, it’s very broad. It’s very general. Again, for any reason, so it’s not just performance reviews or corrective action. I think that maybe the survey was purposefully left very broad. Maybe that’s why they go that number, that’s nearly 70%. It’s over two-thirds of managers are uncomfortable talking to employees.

What this points to is that there’s never been a greater need for us to take a look at the way that we communicate and if our focus is on a conversation that we believe is going to be confrontational, it’s going to be something that we should fear, well, look at the common ground. What is it that you have in common with your boss, with your employees, with your team? What is that shared objective? Because that shared objective is called success.

Does it have to be a fight? Sometimes. Sometimes there is going to be something that you need to defend. There is going to be a time to have that hard conversation. But does it have to start there? If you say, “Well, yes, it does,” my second question would be why.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. That’s great. Okay, so we talked about the listening and we talked about the positioning things effectively in terms of how or ‘doesn’t it seem like,’ so what are some of your other top best practices in terms of this leadership language stuff?

Chris Westfall
Well, I think that one of the things that is key for people to understand the leadership language is where leadership really lives. One of the things that I went through Pete as I was writing this book is I was doing my research and reading what others had said and all the gurus, what they had to say about leadership, and it left me feeling – it left me feeling less than.

It left me feeling like I don’t have the same skills as that guy that landed that plane on the Hudson River. I don’t have the same skills as these various leaders in businesses and stuff like that.

But I look at that and I said wait a minute, how is it that I don’t have enough when I’ve been able to create lead teams all over the world? How is it that I don’t have enough when I’ve been able to lead my clients to help them to find over 50 million dollars in investment capital and coach my clients under Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank Australia. How am I able to do this if I’m so much – there’s so much lacking in who I am?

Here’s what I discovered Pete is that leadership is not something that’s out there. It’s not something that’s reserved for those guys or those gals or those folks that went to that Ivy League school or that went to some other college. It’s not about that. Leadership lives inside of all of us.

For everyone who’s listening to the sound of my voice, if it looks at leadership as something that is outside of you, look again because leadership language is the language of the heart. It is a language that is sincere and authentic and it requires you to get clear on the things that you want, not only for yourself, but for the people that you serve.

One of the key takeaways that I can share with you is – and I talk about this in the book – is to think about the people around you as your clients. I don’t mean clients that you’re trying to sell something to or that you’re consulting with your clients or something like that. I mean clients as the people on whom your success depends. They’re the people on your team. They’re the people on your board of directors. They are the investors in front of you who can fuel your idea or pull the plug on it.

That is a very useful focus because when you have intelligent people – I’m assuming the folks listening to this podcast are intelligent people – you don’t…when they understand how things work, then they understand how to make things work for them.

Looking inside of yourself at that internal place where leadership lives and taking a moment to really question your thinking because if you’re thinking, “Ah, leadership, I don’t know. I don’t know if I have those capabilities,” let me tell you, you do.

Because remember – when you were in third grade, did you think, “Do I have the capabilities necessary to lead these people in a game of tag?” No, no. You just play the game. But we grow up, we have responsibilities, we lose that sense of playing the game, but leaders play the game. Leaders play to win.

That’s not to say that they’re trying to game people or manipulate them. That’s not what I’m pointing at. But I’m talking about having fun. I’m talking about enjoying life and playing the game of life so that you can create the impact that you want without a lot of the other stuff on it. Does that make any sense at all?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. Talk about the leadership being internal. It’s sort of the language of the heart and you want to be coming from a place that’s sincere, authentic and clear.

I’m with you that, one, you can just sort of chuck aside the notion that “Oh, I don’t have leadership. I don’t have those capabilities.” It’s sort of you’ve got it inside if you’re accessing it. Maybe we can dig in a bit in terms of what are some of the road blocks and how does one go about accessing sort of potent levels of sincerity, authenticity, and clarity?

Chris Westfall
Well, let me point to a couple of things. First of all, a quote from Tim Ferriss, who said, “What might this look like if it were easy?” I think – that’s from Tribe of Mentors. I think that that’s a very powerful quote because so many times we look at situations in our jobs and in our careers and we get lost in our thinking. Everything looks – it looks impossible, it looks tough. Sarah in accounting won’t listen to me. It looks impossible.

But Tim Ferriss says, “What would it look like if it were easy?” I wanted to explore this idea of an effective approach to very, very difficult conversations, so I found someone who was in an incredibly difficult conversation – excuse me, I said conversation – I found someone who in an incredibly-

Pete Mockaitis
Who’s a real pain.

Chris Westfall
Yes, that’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
They’re always in your-

Chris Westfall
It hurts. I’m trying to listen, but it hurts. No, he was in an incredibly difficult situation. I was speaking to someone in an incredibly difficult situation. His name is Murray Wilcox and he is an extreme surfer. This guy, he lives in Cape Town, South Africa. He goes off the coast of Africa searching for waves that are 15 to 25 feet high.

Now, I know – I’m not a surfer myself, but I know from what I’ve read that even a 10 foot wave can weigh much as 400 tons. A 10 foot wave can kill you. Murray, my friend Murray, he’s on top of a 15 – 20 – 25 foot wave.

I ask him, “Murray, when you’re at the top of that wave, it literally is a matter of life and death—what is going through your mind?” Because I want to know, what is the mindset that allows you to survive in this extreme, incredibly difficult situation. “What is your mindset, Murray?”

Here’s what he said. “My mindset is nothing. Do you want to know what’s on my mind? There’s nothing on my mind. I’m not plugging in some attack pattern. I’m not trying to maneuver. I’m simply in the moment.”

I thought about that for a second. I went “Well, of course you are because you don’t know whether that wave’s going to break left or break right. You don’t know what is going to show up. The only way that you can survive – in fact, the only way that you can be at your best is when you have as little on your mind as possible.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s cool. Certainly. So that is powerful with regard to being able to respond and react appropriately, not getting sort of caught up in your own stuff and mental chatter, having some clarity and presence and awareness in that moment. That’s cool. Can you tell me more about this notion of how this question, “What might this look like if it were easy?” creates transformations?

Chris Westfall
It really does Pete. The question that also shows up that kind of points in this direction is this one, ‘How big is a problem when you’re not thinking about it?’ Think about that. Are you with me?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s intriguing because it’s sort of – the immediate answer is well, it’s like it doesn’t even exist, but then the implication is not, I imagine, oh, so then just ignore them and you’ll be fine.

Chris Westfall
But here’s the thing that it points to. It’s not ignore your problems and you’ll be fine. I’m not trying to say ignorance is bliss. Although, it may be.

But the point is this, what – consider the impact that our thinking has and when Murray, my friend, is at the top of a wave, what he’s trying to think about is as little as possible. He’s not plugging in an attack pattern. When we’re not thinking about our problems, they seem to cease to exist, which points toward this idea that our thinking is what is creating our experience.

That is what – by the way, if that’s not true, then how can you be super busy and not feel stressed or not really have a lot on your plate and yet feel extremely stressed. If it comes from our external circumstances, then we should all go out and try to self-medicate or buy toys until those feelings go away.

But you know as well as I do that when you’ve got the toys and you’ve created the life that you’ve dreamed of, happiness may or may not follow. Why is that? This is one of the aspects that I point to is the role that thought plays in people being able to access their authentic leadership skills and to really be at their best.

What I learned from Murray and from others that I feature in the book is that this idea of creating a mindset for success, so many people are chasing and here it comes Pete, call me a liar if you want, but that idea of chasing a mindset is actually the exact last thing that we need to be doing especially when the stakes are high. To be at our best, we need to be in the moment. We need to be able to access who we are.

If you think about it, you think about your favorite sports teams, the players that you admire, and any game, whatever that game might be, the people who are at their best, they aren’t following the playbook per se, they’re reacting in the moment to what’s in front of them.

That is something that is a capability that’s not reserved for great athletes or extreme surfers off the coast of South Africa. That’s something that’s inside you and me and when our thinking quiets down, we have the opportunity to see it.

There’s not a six-step process to make your thinking quiet down. It’s actually one step. It’s simply seeing that your thinking is just there, that your thinking is just thinking. Here it comes, just because a train of thought shows up, doesn’t mean you have to ride that train.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. There’s a lot here. There’s a lot here. What I’m gathering here is that that question, ‘What might this look like if it were easy,’ isn’t so much a prompt to spark a clever process innovation or new approach to doing something, so much as a reminder that “no, no, it’s just your brain and the way you’re thinking that’s making it hard” and you can choose to let go of that at any moment.

Chris Westfall
I can tell you story after story of things that looked impossible, things that – if you had caught me at a moment in time and said this never could have happened. This book at one time looked impossible. I thought there’s no way. There’s no way that I can do this. There’s no way that I can write this. Well then what changed?

What’s funny is that when my thinking settled down and I said, “What might this look like if it were easy? What would happen if I looked at this in a different way? What would this look like if it weren’t impossible? Is there another way of looking at this?”

If that sounds like a process, I’m saying it wrong because really all I’m doing is identifying that I have some thinking about a subject. It’s that thinking that colors it. I think it was Shakespeare that said “There’s nothing neither good nor bad in this world, but our thinking makes it so.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. You mentioned that it’s not a six-step process. It’s a one-step process. You’re just noticing that you’ve got some thoughts and that you don’t have to ride the train. If folks have a little bit of difficulty with train of thought, they always can’t seem to resist hopping aboard and taking every train where it cares to go, what do you recommend for these folks?

Chris Westfall
First of all, I would recommend that they hear me say this, me too, I’m the same way. I’m a planner. That’s the way that we are. As human beings we are wired to plan and to think things through and to roil around and to create scenarios in our minds so that we can do the mental equivalent of working through pi, trying to solve for pi. You know that it just keeps going, and it keeps going, and it keeps going.

If it’s true that our thinking is defining our experience, the key is to simply identify that the thing that’s making that look impossible – whatever that situation might be, it’s just a thought. A thought can’t hurt you. A thought is fleeting. In a few minutes or a few seconds even, another thought is going to come along. Have you ever had something where you’re so frustrated and just going crazy and then five minutes later you’re like “what was that all about?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Chris Westfall
Where did it go? Where did it go? The situation is still the same. That guy still – he did cut you off in traffic.

Pete Mockaitis
But now there’s a great song on, Chris.

Chris Westfall
Exactly. And now we’re experiencing something different. I think that that is also a message for how to be awesome at your job is to remember that as intense as things might be, you can step back at any time.

You can – you don’t have to go a beautiful part of the world. You don’t have to jump on an airplane. You don’t have to go for a hike or go skiing or whatever your flavor is of getaway. What you’re looking for is never more than one thought away.

I talk about that in Leadership Language. It’s understanding the nature of thought. There’s no process. It’s an understanding. When you have that understanding, you see that that reset, that place where you need to be is never more than one thought away. Often taking a look in the direction of what this might look like if it were easy, can point you towards a new perspective and ultimately new result.

Pete Mockaitis
It reminded me of another question I picked up. I think it was from Tony Robbins, which was ‘What’s great about this?’  When you’re freaking out about something that just seems like the worst and you say, “Oh, I guess it’s pretty great that I’m working with an opportunity so big that this is my worry. I can only imagine having opportunities so big and worries this big five years ago in my career,” or in whatever context.

Chris Westfall
Sure, absolutely. It’s like the old saying, “How would you feel about having to pay 100,000 dollars a year in taxes?” Pete, I would say I’ll take that all day long because you know how much money I would be making?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yes, more than 300,000 dollars.

Chris Westfall
You see what I mean? You would think, yeah. More than six shekels, which is what I have now. No, you see what I’m saying.

Sometimes success or fear of success is what stops us. Again, the question, ‘what would this look like if it were easy?’ Would it be okay if the thing that was so scary was actually just a thought? If it’s just a thought then a thought could change. When thoughts change and new thoughts show up, guess what? New perspective, new results, new opportunities.

The blockage, the thing that’s stopping you, the thing that’s holding you back goes away. Because here’s the thing, Pete, if something’s holding you back from something that you want, you have to ask yourself what you’re doing to enable that situation to exist.

Pete Mockaitis
What’s intriguing about this is that you’re a communications expert. You’ve done all this research and dug into it. It seems like what you’re saying is the heart of having these connecting, inspiring conversations isn’t so much about following a certain framework or process or protocol so much as just getting your brain in a place where you’re cool going there.

Chris Westfall
Yeah, because, again, leadership is not an external journey. It’s not a place that you visit or that other people know better than you. Leadership is something that – again, the world according to Chris, this is the way that I see it – leadership is something that exists inside of all of us.

When we understand the nature of the human condition and the way that our minds work, what we can do is create a natural enthusiasm, that contagious engagement that you’re talking about. What would happen if this were really great? How would I approach this situation?

That’s what comes through when our thinking dies down. That’s a big part of the work that I do in my consulting and my coaching is to take a look at the obligations and labels and the way that things look, which is really – it’s our thinking. It’s the way that we approach the world.

Those thoughts can appear so real and so restrictive. I know because I have them too. I’m wired the same way. I’m talking about myself. But actually I’m talking about all of us because this is – at its core, Leadership Language is a book about human nature and how to tap into that potential that’s inside of all of us.

When we understand the way that we work, the way that things that work, the idea is that you can make the things work for you and for the people that you care about, the people that you wish to influence. That’s really the nature of the connection and authenticity that’s at the heart of Leadership Language.

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

Chris Westfall
Well, I just want to make sure that people are aware that – of the resource that’s available on my YouTube channel. I don’t know if that’s – this is the time to talk about that or if we want to hit that in the end, but it’s YouTube.com/WestfallOnline. I’ve got over 200 videos on there. It’s a great resource that people can check out if they’re curious to learn more.

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

Chris Westfall
Something that I find inspiring. I’m going to go with Nelson Mandela, “It always looks impossible until it’s done.”

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Chris Westfall
Favorite study and bit of research is the Harvard Business Review’s study that you’ll find in the link down here on the page where this podcast will be located.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. That just makes me chuckle a little in terms of I’m uncomfortable about talking to employees about anything.

Chris Westfall
The thing that I love is mind-boggling research that points toward something and you’re like, “No way can that be the numbers.”

Ellen Langer is another one. She’s a Harvard researcher that did – she did research into the nature of mindset as well as the nature of agreement and stuff like that. Ellen Langer has done some interesting stuff as well with some numbers that are startling, but you’ll have to check that out to find out.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure. Well, you don’t have to drop us the specific number, but if you could just tell us for example, crazy number blank. Is there something that strikes you?

Chris Westfall
I’ll give it to you real quick. Ellen Langer and her team of researchers, they want to know what makes people say yes. They were looking at agreement and compliance. Here’s what they did.

They go into libraries. This was a few years back, Pete. This was a few years ago. They go into libraries where people are lined up to use the copy machine. They walk in and they say, “Excuse me, do you mind if I cut in line? I have to make five copies.” What percentage of the time do you think people said “Yeah, sure. Go ahead. You can make copies.” What do you think?

Pete Mockaitis
I think this is ringing a bell. That one was small because they were missing a key ingredient, Chris.

Chris Westfall
Which was?

Pete Mockaitis
The word because.

Chris Westfall
You’re exactly right. You’re on it. You’re on it. Actually the number – it wasn’t small. It was actually kind of surprising. It was 60% of the people said, “Yeah, sure, you can make copies.” But you’re exactly right, Pete. They went back in and they offered a reason and it changed the statistic from 60% to 94% of the time people said, “Yeah, sure. You can make copies.”

They introduced a number of other variables as well around this idea of saying the word because and offering a reason. But the key takeaway is that people want to know, not just your why, but your because.

It’s like that great book, Start With Why by Simon Sinek. Love that book. But I read that book and I’m like, well what’s step two. Step two according to Ellen Langer and her researchers, because. Offering a reason can be the key to being more persuasive. Anyway, that’s another little piece of research that I find very interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Chris Westfall
Favorite book, I love To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink. I also really like Impossible to Ignore by Carmen Simon.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, we had her on the show. She’s wonderful.

Chris Westfall
Did you?

Pete Mockaitis
Mm-hm.

Chris Westfall
Oh, she’s terrific. I quote her in Leadership Language quite a bit. She is terrific. Really like her perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. How about a favorite tool?

Chris Westfall
If I say iPhone, that’s just too broad, isn’t it, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we’ve heard it a time or two before, Chris, so I might challenge you to up the game a little bit. Maybe there’s a particular app or innovative way you use your iPhone.

Chris Westfall
Sure. Well, let me say this. The app that I like the most is probably vCita, which is like Calendly. It’s a scheduling tool. It allows people to connect with me and see my calendar online and set up times for us to have a conversation. As a guy who is all about helping people to change the conversation, anything that can help me to create that conversation for others is a very useful tool.

Pete Mockaitis
What I find awesome about you – if I can just brag for a moment is that that’s just wide open on your website. It’s just like anyone can go up and schedule some time with Chris, which I think is massively generous of you. Maybe it’s the cynic or the business strategist in me is like, a decent percentage of those must convert into paid gigs or else how could you invest that time in that way?

Chris Westfall
Sure. It’s true, Pete. But I’ll tell you what, like I say, I’m all about the conversation. Isn’t that what we – maybe not for every business, but certainly for mine, I’m very interested in a time to talk, so I take the time. If people want to – you can pepper me with whatever you want for 30 minutes. You can ask me anything and I’ll do my best to tell you what I can. Try to help.

Pete Mockaitis
What a guy.

Chris Westfall
Look, leadership is about service. Life is about service. What we’re doing here is to try to serve others and help them be more awesome at their job. That’s my way of serving. I can’t heal the sick, but I can help with communication.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. Well, it’s appreciated. Thank you. I encourage folks to check that out. It’s pretty cool. That’s the tool. How about a habit?

Chris Westfall
A habit that I have is to make sure that every day is different, that I don’t fall into a pattern. I’ll tell you why Pete and I’ll tell you why this is so important. I’m not just trying to be kicky here.

Imitation is not innovation. Every day I’m looking to discover something new and to create something new and to be better than I was yesterday. That means that today can’t look like yesterday. That also points towards resourcefulness for me of being able to not get locked into a pattern, to make sure that my thinking is expansive. My habit is not to get trapped into a habit.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so meta.

Chris Westfall
I know it. I know it. Sorry to be so meta.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks? They retweet it and they quote it back to you.

Chris Westfall
Well, this idea that where you are is not who you are is something that seems to resonate with folks. That means that where you are in your life, your relationships, your career, that doesn’t define you. It may look like it does, it may look like that is the box that you are in.

But if you think about it, Drew Brees is the top passer of all time in the NFL. His first play as a professional quarterback, he was sacked and he fumbled. From those humble beginnings, he’s become the greatest passer in the history of the NFL.

Whether you are someone who just got sacked and fumbled or you’re a stuntman, where you are is not who you are. It does not define you. Pointing people towards that internal resourcefulness and that internal journey is part of the work of Leadership Language and one of the things that I think people always need to remember, where you are is not who you are.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Chris, you mentioned the YouTube Channel. Any other key places that folks might go if they want to reach out or get in touch?

Chris Westfall
Well, you can find me on the Gram, Instagram. You can also find me on Twitter. Everything is WestfallOnline. My last name is like the direction and the season Westfall. That’s also where you can find me on LinkedIn, so WestfallOnline. My website is WestfallOnline.com. Those are some of the resources that are out there.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Chris Westfall
Say the most honest thing that you can. I’m not suggesting you walk into your boss’s office and go, “You know what? You need to lose weight.” I’m not suggesting that. But think about the most honest thing that you can say.

I want to challenge people to have the conversations that need to take place to face whatever fears might be holding you back from the thing that you need to say and do. Take that action because the only way that you change your results is by taking the action that brings your story to life.

If you’ve got great ideas, take the first step. That first step 99 times out of 100 is a conversation, a conversation with someone that can help you bring your ideas to life. Say the most honest thing that you can and see what happens.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Chris, this has been a lot of fun. I hope you have a smashing success with Leadership Language book and many engaging, and empowering, and lucrative conversation flowing through vCita on your website. Yeah, just good luck with all you’re up to here.

Chris Westfall
Well, thank you Pete. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you. You’re a great interviewer and great questions. Again, thanks for having me back on the show. I really appreciate it.

320: How to Exude Gravitas and Executive Presence with Anne Sugar

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Anne Sugar says: "The smartest people are the ones that ask the most questions."

Anne Sugar shares how she’s helped high potential individuals command executive presence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The two key components of building trust
  2. Ninja tactics that help you read a room
  3. Power questions that provoke solutions

About Anne

Anne Sugar is an executive coach and speaker who has advised top leaders at companies including TripAdvisor, Sanofi Genzyme, and Havas. Anne serves as an executive coach for Harvard Business School Executive Education and has guest lectured at MIT.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Anne Sugar Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Anne, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Anne Sugar
Oh, thanks so much Pete for having me today. I’m excited to chat with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Me too, me too. But first I’d like to go back in time a little bit if I could.

Anne Sugar
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
In your Texas childhood, you enjoyed visiting the stockyards. What is the backstory here?

Anne Sugar
I grew up outside of Fort Worth, Texas. I think – why did I bring that up? It’s just one of those interesting kind of memories that I have. It’s not so much about the animals in the stockyard; it’s watching all of the businessmen negotiate and yell, and negotiate with each other. That’s kind of the big memory that I have of that is all of the people interacting and how it was working.

My dad and I used to just walk around and listen and look. Just kind of – I think it’s a short way of saying this is exactly where I should be in terms of coaching people today is just that interesting thing of watching people and how you influence and get what you want, right? I do that today.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. You mean negotiate like, “200 dollars for this pig.” “No way. That’s a ridiculous price.”

Anne Sugar
Well they – it was like a Sotheby’s auction. The guy would be up there. But there would be all of these side conversations before the auction started, which was really interesting to me as a kid. Listening to those side conversations before the auctioneer went up and started the bidding process. It was kind of the backstory that was happening before he started auctioning. That was always just interesting to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Yes, every superhero has an origin story. Here’s yours. That’s fun.

Anne Sugar
It’s just an interesting kind of random memory that you have growing up. It’s kind of interesting why do we have these memories and things that are impactful to us.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a whole other podcast.

Anne Sugar
Sure

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a big one. Speaking of impact, it seems you’re making a world of impact with your executive coaching. Can you maybe just give us the quick overview picture of sort of what is your area of expertise when you’re coaching folks?

Anne Sugar
The interesting kind of piece is that I have a business background. I worked in advertising agencies for about 20 years and so I worked on large pieces of business like Apple computer and American Express. I coach broadly across HiPo executives from director, C-Suite level. I coach in companies like TripAdvisor, Sanofi, Genzyme, Havas.

I like the interesting dynamic of lots of different verticals, lots of different levels because it just helps me in terms of how I ask a good question and keeps me learning as well, which helps other organizations. I also coach in the Harvard Business School Executive Ed program, which are C-suite folks, director folks that come in for intensive three-month, six-month programs.

Pete Mockaitis
Just to be clear, when you say HiPo, you mean high potential and not an abbreviation for sodium thiosulfate, the photographic fixer?

Anne Sugar
Exactly, high potential individuals. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Anne Sugar
Who either have something that they need to work on. Pete, a lot of it has to do with the small details and those little things that we all need to tweak. Are people moving to the next level and have some areas to work on from that perspective?

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I love it when we dig into some of the small details that make a big difference. It’s such a leveraged way to learn. Maybe let’s dig into some of these areas.

I guess I’m really interested in the notion of executive presence or gravitas, which is an area that pops up a lot for you in the coaching. Could you maybe orient us to make it all the more real in terms of hearing a little bit about a client like, where they were, and what was sort of holding them back, and what was the intervention, and the result?

Anne Sugar
Sure. I think we all start at this level playing field of we’re all smart, we all have these very unique strengths that we all have that we bring to the business. But here’s an interesting story.

I was working with a gentleman, who’s a director in R&D. He was having – he had so many great insights and ideas he was needing to sell to senior leadership, sell his ideas so that he could garner budget for his team.

He was having this issue for himself that – when we think about executive presence, let me take a step back Pete, there’s so many different components of executive presence, but for him, … saw that gravitas and people listening, that’s where we fell short. One time we – part of the coaching process for him was to dissect the process of how he sold.

He was telling me this story that he was in a senior leadership meeting and was presenting his large in-depth document. He said to me, “On page five, we got to page five and the senior leadership team said, ‘That’s great. We’re ready to go,’” but he kept presenting the rest of the 20 pages.

He lost his “executive presence and gravitas” because he wasn’t listening. He’d already gotten “the sale.” He didn’t need to present the last 20 pages. He delivered on the first five.

For him, one piece about executive presence for him was really listening to the room and how did he influence. Now for him when he goes in to present his budgets and what he needs, he really sets forth in two ways. He presells before he goes in and he sits and listens to the room in terms of what they need and flexes from that perspective.

That’s how he just learned over time how to kind of to manage and watch the room. That’s one small piece of executive presence, but for him it was really impactful.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. I’m curious what – I guess there would be all sorts of things under the surface that leads one to want to proceed through all 25 pages when-

Anne Sugar
There is.

Pete Mockaitis
-it’s not there in terms of “I worked really hard on these pages. I want to show them to you,” or “I don’t think you really understand how critical this is,” or yeah, well, now I’m just so curious and wrapped up in the story. What was going on there?

Anne Sugar
Well, from his perspective – you’re absolutely right, from his perspective, I’m just going to make an example here. On page 30, he thought it was something that was very important that he needed to communicate, but for his leadership team it wasn’t important in terms of making the decision.

You don’t – I think … sometimes for leaders is they have a picture in their head of how the meeting has to progress. They have a linear way from where they start to finish.

Part – I learned this in advertising too, part of executive presence is kind of the theater of it. It’s not just a linear process of I’m going to start on page one of my PowerPoint presentation and hit to 50. It’s the theater and the story of how you sold. He sold his story on page five. He didn’t need to go further.

Two, I think that something that’s important an executive presence perspective is trust. He had the trust. He had built trust from an executive presence perspective, so they didn’t need to say see page 30 because he had built – when I think about trust too, it’s not just about walking the talk and that cliché phrase. It’s about competence as well.

There’s so many – we could talk forever, Pete, about the many different layers that go into executive presence, but it’s trust, understanding the room, reading the room, influencing the room, flexing, and not looking at this as just a linear – it’s just leadership is not linear in many cases.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I think that you outlined a nice little bit there in terms of the trust, the understanding, the listening, and the flexing. Could you maybe give us a couple pointers when it comes to – trust, it sounds like you’re going to build that over time by having great competence and such, but are there any maybe little ways that we fritter away trust even if we’re excellent?

Anne Sugar
That’s a really good point. I think the one area that I would say – that’s two areas actually. I was actually just coaching a senior executive on this. It has to do with relatability. Are you able – trust is about being able to relate and understand – and it gets to empathy – that person’s point of view.

I think too it’s about just a simple piece of caring. Do people believe that you care? I think that those are two really key components.

This is an interesting story. It’s not about actually a client of mine. It has to do with my daughter and her lacrosse coach. It’s interesting. She came home to me one day and she said – she has a very tough lacrosse coach. This lacrosse coach was trying in her way to flex and be sort of caring.

But my daughter said to me, “You know mom, she was trying to be really nice, but something felt really weird. I did-“ I’m talking about a 13 year old here. But it actually relates to everybody. For you as a leader, it’s just this authentic piece to it. What she was feeling, which she couldn’t articulate, but it was it didn’t feel authentic to her. It felt weird.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, in terms of – all sorts of examples come to mind in terms of if you’ve been told a behavior, smile, make contact, nod your head, ask, “Does anybody else have a perspective on this matter?” If it’s not – if you clearly don’t actually care, they pick up on that.

Anne Sugar
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
And thusly, it feels weird, inauthentic.

Anne Sugar
Absolutely. You have to decide at what point do you care. We think about I like to say that business is a team sport. Leadership is a team sport. We do need people. We do need to think in some way how can we be empathetic.

Here Pete, I’m going to contradict myself for a second when I think about coaching some individuals on this building trust. When people are working, when I’m working with people on a specific strategy or tactic that will help them from a leadership perspective, in the beginning it is a bit clunky.

It might feel a little bit inauthentic some of the things you might be working on, whether it’s “I’m going to test a new way to influence this person.” It’s almost like you’re writing with your non-dominant hand. Over time you see the change and evolution, but there’s that subtle difference of being inauthentic and working on a skill.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Understood. It can feel weird to you as you’re doing it and it may even look weird as others are picking up on that.

Well, next I want to kind of dig into the understanding and listening a little bit. Are there any particular kind of telltale signs or indicators that we should be particularly clued in on? In your example, the “Okay, we got it,” feels like a real gift in terms of that’s very explicit and clear in terms of what you think about things.

But often there’s the subtext, there’s the subtleties, there’s the tone, there’s the wincing or body language. What are some top things you recommend people look out for as indicators as to what’s going on in the room?

Anne Sugar
I think you bring up a fantastic point. I coach people on this all the time is that body language never lies. We can’t – in many instances, we can’t hide those subtleties. One way that I coach individuals to work on understanding and starting to pick up on the physicality and the nuances in the room is called turn down the sound.

When you’re in a meeting, almost turn down the sound and not listen to everybody, but watch everybody’s boy language. In many cases you can tell how the meeting is going. You don’t even need the words. That’s one specific way that I coach individuals to practice on that.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that.

Anne Sugar
Listening is practice. It’s just truly about practice. It’s the subtleties of the other very important point, I learned this as a coach, is slowing down and not formulating your answer before somebody is finished. If you truly relax into just listening to that person speak, then you have a much better chance of picking up on the subtleties, number one.

Many times you miss the last part of what they’re saying or what that question is because you’re already formulating. You can’t do two things at once.

I liken it to this person that used to work for me. I would speak and he would almost pause for a second and then talk and have these great nuggets and insights. It’s interesting, Pete. I would be – after a while I’d get so annoyed, “Just talk,” but actually really he was being very thoughtful in listening. I was a very naïve manager back then. Now that I think about it, he truly was listening.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. I think that people have a bit of a maybe a fear or concern. It’s like, “If I’m silent, then I’ll look dumb or slow.”

Anne Sugar
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Like I’m not with it and sharp and engaged and on top of the exchange. I’m thinking about the West Wing in which they’re always talking so fast back and forth.

Anne Sugar
It’s true.

Pete Mockaitis
And striding.

Anne Sugar
It’s true. It’s true. Very symptomatic when we’re in meetings, when leaders are in meetings, they fear of not being the smartest guy in the room. I was listening to somebody and he was speaking about that actually the smarter people are the ones that ask the most questions. That’s where you get the good listening and the learning. It’s not always about having the best point of view, frankly.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yes. I like that a lot. I’m intrigued when you say turning down the sound that I can’t recall the movie, but I know I’ve seen it before in terms of people are talking and then there’s the dolly push shot zoom in and the chatter blends together, that effect. Then you can really sort of observe what’s unfolding. Do you have scene in mind? I know I’ve seen this before.

Anne Sugar
I don’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
The listeners will serve us here. Tell us. See we’re asking questions. We’re listening. We don’t have all the answers. That’s good.

Anne Sugar
Exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. We talked about some broad concepts, but I’d love it if you could maybe even zoom in to a couple of tactical things in terms of some big dos and don’ts that are these little details that can make a world of difference.

Anne Sugar
Let’s see here. Some very tactical, impactful ideas for everybody. I think one is about asking a good question.

This individual that I was coaching, he was the director of sales, had a difficult time and unmotivated team. When we really drilled down into a lot of different areas, the one piece that he found was that people didn’t really think he cared about what they had to say.

He was really smart and he already knew the answer, but what he learned is asking just – this question is so impactful that really helps to motivate a team is it’s crazy simple, “So what do you think? “Just asking that person, “So what do you think?” opens up first, you might get an idea that you didn’t think of and frankly, people want to be heard, their point of view, whether right or wrong.

Maslow’s hierarchy of what we need, people want to be heard. I think that that’s one thing that is very tactical and specific.

I think something that I was just coaching a senior leader in HR today on is about the tactical piece of positive intent and that how when we’re working with somebody how do we look at it from a positive intent perspective.

Indra Nooyi from the CEO of Pepsi, she has a great quote on it. She looks at everything from a positive intent … and not looking of the problems all the time. How can you look at it from a positive intent perspective?

Pete Mockaitis
Positive intent means that we’re assuming that the person we’re talking to is doing their best, trying to support the team and make results happen, as opposed to – could you maybe sort of contrast real clearly, “Hey, this would be a negative intent versus a positive intent way to approach something?”

Anne Sugar
It might be for example this person was talking about they were all on instant chat and somebody was sending these terrible flaming remarks across. She really was trying to take a step back and assume that okay, maybe this person was upset because of X. When she pulled them into the office, she found that actually it was that way. But not assuming the worst in all cases.

Pete Mockaitis
Like this person’s a jerk, they’re a troublemaker, they’re selfish.

Anne Sugar
Right. Like “Why are you sending this flaming over the public domain to me? How can you be doing that?”

Then lastly, this is a tried and true, I just did a training on this, is actually taking the strength finder assessment. It was really impactful for this team to understand each other’s strengths. You can get the book the Gallup Cliff Finder StrengthsFinder 2.0 on Amazon. I think it’s for 18 dollars. You get your secret code and you take it.

I feel like a lot of times lately we’ve kind of moved away from the strengths piece but I think it’s important. You think about it too from almost a cross training perspective. How can I use this strength and this strength to help me here? Not so much of a blunt object, but how do I mold it into great together strengths.

Pete Mockaitis
Very nice. When it comes to doing some of these things with the trust, the understanding, the listening, the positive intent, the questions, how do we then sort of take this enhanced understanding to be more influential?

Anne Sugar
I think … but at the end of the day it’s how do you flex. Simply, how do you flex in delivering the information to the person that is the decision maker or that I need to – it’s my peers. How do I do that?

At the beginning when you and I were talking about the director of R&D. He wasn’t flexing. He wanted to go through all the details, but the senior leadership team just wanted the bottom line. It’s really understanding your audience and how they want the information served up.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you maybe unpack a couple continuums, continua, associated with how they’d like information presented? One could be the details versus bottom line. Another could be story versus data. What are a few more?

Anne Sugar
Another one might be process. I’m somebody that wants to see who went through the entire process. That might be another one.

Another way might be more from a people-oriented perspective. I want to hear about the impact of the people, how this will affect the people, not so much the process or the data in the details.

Two, think about that person sometimes when you go into a meeting they first want to hear about your weekend. You actually don’t want to talk about it at all. You’d rather just get to the bottom line details. That’s the disconnect and that’s where the conflict starts because they say, “Oh, you don’t care. You don’t care about the people.” They shut down and they’re not going to listen to what you have to say.

I’m not saying that people have to completely change who they are. It’s just about sharing of different modes and methods of delivering information and how you relate to people.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Excellent. I also want to get your take since you’ve done a whole lot of coaching, we had Michael Bungay Stanier on the show a couple of times talk about how professionals can be more coach-like. I’d love to hear what are some of your favorite go-to questions that really seem to have a nice track record of yielding good stuff, insights, conviction, brilliant ideas, it’s just power questions.

Anne Sugar
Sure. I think one of the biggest power questions that I use is people say to me, “Well, tell me what you think?” I say to them, “I will tell you what I think, but you first have to tell me three ideas,” so that I’m not clouding their interesting point of view with what I might think.

Another key question that I use is, “So I’m curious, tell me a time,” that works. Another key question I ask is, “So tell me a story of when it went right or when it went well,” because you can use that to diagnose. I think too what we’re talking about here is coaching people so that they come to you with solutions, that you’re not the leader who is force-feeding your ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
For the, “I’m curious, tell me a time,” is that in response to “No one ever listens to me,” or like a sweeping statement? That’s how you dig in or what’s the context for that?

Anne Sugar
It’s more. I think when I say, “I’m curious,” it could be I’m curious about that or I’m curious. When I say I’m curious, it lowers the intensity of the conversation because I’m just curious. “I just want to learn” is what I’m saying to you. It lowers the – sometimes it lowers the level of anxiety in a meeting. It’s just a – it’s almost like a door opener from a sales perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, as opposed to I’m asking this question because you need to prove yourself or-

Anne Sugar
Exactly, exactly. One question that I caution people on is “So why did you do that?” If I said to you Pete, “So why did you ask me that question?” that almost implies a feeling of “Well, what did I do wrong?” I’m not saying that why is not a good question. I’m just saying that sometimes it can put people on the defensive as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, right.

Anne Sugar
It’s those little subtleties. That’s what we started talking about. It’s the small little details.

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

Anne Sugar
I think that one thing that we – I want to stress and I coach a lot on this is conflict. The piece that I’d like to kind of convey for everybody is it doesn’t always – we want to be polite and kind in meetings, but actually conflict is good.

How do you look at conflict from a non-personal perspective and use the data and the facts. The piece about if I’m having a conflict and a debate, it’s actually that I care because I want to hear this different point of view. I think that’s one point that I want to stress to everybody because a lot of us shy away from conflict, but how can we use it and change our mindset that conflict is good.

Pete Mockaitis
And I just think all of the emotional stuff that’s wrapped into it.

Anne Sugar
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Any pro tips for just navigating those waters?

Anne Sugar
Yes. In fact, I was coaching a director of an oil refinery. He had 700 people underneath him. He dealt with a lot of conflict and crisis. If you think about it, there’s a lot of stress in the fact of damage and fires and all that.

I said to him, “Well, how do you deal with conflict? How do you deal with this crisis, the crises that happen?” He said to me, “It all comes down to dealing with the facts and not letting all the emotions get in the way, but … and really focus on the data and the details.”

I think another specific tactic that I would coach everybody on is when you’re debating an idea, don’t just debate one idea, but how can you as a team think about three different ideas that you debate.

Because when you’re only debating and having conflict on one idea, that’s where teams get competitive and that’s where the personal kind of piece comes in, “You didn’t like my idea.” But if you have multiple ideas, then there’s a less personal piece to it, so it’s about facts and many different points of view to debate.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Anne Sugar
I really think it goes back to the Pepsi CEO quote about really just focusing on positive intent.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Anne Sugar
Strengths in terms of it really has popped up more and more lately for me in terms of “How do I focus on my strengths?” We all have these areas that we need to be focusing on.

But it’s interesting that this one gentleman was telling me in frustration, he had somebody working for him that he just wished he could be more strategic, but he was never going to be that strategic, visionary, but he had so many other different great strengths.

Sometimes it’s okay. We all want to be strategic, but it’s okay. That researcher saying leveraging your strengths and not having to worry about that one area as much maybe and trying to force fit that from research from that perspective.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. How about a favorite book?

Anne Sugar
I have so many. But I think one that I really like is the Heath brothers, The Power of Moments. It’s really about how as when you’re a leader, how do you create these moments that are impactful for your team because it really gets down to at the beginning of the conversation, Pete, that we were talking about sincerity and caring and relatability. It’s really about those people moments.

I like everything that the Heath brothers have written.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Anne Sugar
I think actually I coach this with a lot of folks and I think it’s reading. Whatever – it’s not the sexy kind of habit, but many executives that I see that are successful are the ones that are continually learning and reading.

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

Anne Sugar
I would direct them to my website at AnneSugar.com. It’s A-N-N-E Sugar, just like sugar .com. They can also follow me on LinkedIn. I send out many … a day and ideas to help everybody.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Anne Sugar
I think that the most important thing is to continue learning. How do you continue to learn? How do you listen? Lastly, just try. Leadership is about testing all different kinds of strategies and figuring out what the best ways. It’s all about experimentation.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful.

Anne Sugar
Leadership strategies.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Anne, thanks so much for taking this time and sharing your wisdom. I wish you lots and lots of luck with the coaching the speaking and that you’re up to.

Anne Sugar
Thank you so much, Pete. It’s been great speaking to you as well.