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KF #20. Interpersonal Savvy Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

691: How to Listen Like You Mean It with Ximena Vengoechea

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Ximena says: "Listening really can be learned. It's a skill just like any other."

Ximena Vengoechea breaks down the formula for effective listening.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The psychological trick to help you stay in the conversation 
  2. The questions that create better conversation
  3. The cues to look out for in a conversation 

 

About Ximena

Ximena Vengoechea is a user researcher, writer, and illustrator whose work on personal and professional development has been published in Inc., The Washington Post, Newsweek, and Huffington Post. She is the author of Listen Like You Mean it: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection (Portfolio/Penguin Random House). 

She is a contributor at Fast Company and The Muse, and writes Letters from Ximena, a newsletter on tech, culture, career, and creativity. She is best known for her project The Life Audit. An experienced manager, mentor, and researcher in the tech industry, she previously worked at Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Twitter. 

Resources Mentioned

Ximena Vengoechea Interview Transcript

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

Ximena Vengoechea
Thank you so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom about listening but, first, I want to hear how your experience in user experience research helped you understand and think about this whole world.

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah. So, user research is a field and technology that I think not everyone is familiar with. I think of it as one of the more people-centric roles in tech, and my job as a user researcher is really to understand people and to get to know their needs and their motivations and perceptions, ultimately in order to help companies build better products.

And, for me, my specialty is in qualitative research, and so what that means is that the tools of the trade that I’m often using are conversations, workshops, interviews, and, crucially, listening. And so, a lot of the lessons that come from my experience in the UX lab, in the book, I’ve sort of translated them into everyday world, like circumstances and conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing and I imagine listening well can make or break the difference between getting that huge insight that makes the product fantastically better and just being blindly unaware that that is an issue for people. Go ahead.

Ximena Vengoechea
No, I was going to just agree with you. Yes, in the sense that when you are conducting a session and you’re trying to uncover a set of insights, if you are distracted by your own thoughts or if you believe too deeply in the product that you’re testing, and let that bias get in the way, then that’s definitely going to affect the outcome and what you’re able to learn in terms of that key set of insights that you’re trying to uncover.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you share with us a story, either from your own experience or someone you know who’s been working with your tools, where you saw such a transformation in terms of the listening got upgraded and, wow, what a cool result emerged from that?

Ximena Vengoechea
Yes. So, several years ago, I was conducting a study on meal planning, so I wanted to know, “How do people cook? How do they meal-plan? How do they budget for their meals?” And I remember that there was a really strong hypothesis on the team that certain features were sort of must-have features and others were less important. And, specifically at the time, there was a really strong interest in using things like voice activation in the kitchen, and it sort of made sense that you’re cooking and so you want to be able to tell Siri or Alexa or whomever, “Pull up that recipe. Tell me what to do next,” handsfree so that you can chop and do other things.

And, at the same time, it also kind of felt like a very “tech” kind of feature, like a very Silicon Valley desire. And so, one of the things that I did was I scheduled these sessions and we went out to Chicago, which felt a little more representative than the Bay Area of maybe the broader population, and we did cook-a-longs. So, I interviewed people but I also observed them in their kitchen. And we often think of listening as just using your ears but this was a great example of using your ears and your eyes, where you’re observing what someone is doing.

You have all of these questions in the moment that you want to ask them, but you have to really kind of catch yourself and learn to harness some patience because, if I were to interrupt a participant every time they moved from working on their phone to a cookbook or the back of the pasta box, if I had a question around, like, “Oh, do you normally do that?” that would totally change, it would completely alter the course of their actions. And, at worse, someone might begin to perform for me and think, “Oh, she wants me to cook in a certain way,” or, “She wants me to use my iPad but not my recipe cards,” which was certainly not the case.

So, in that study, that was an example of being able to go and immerse myself in an environment, crucially picked people who weren’t necessarily like me or my group of colleagues, and bring in both the aspect of listening, which is about asking questions and creating space for others, but also that observation piece and being patient and not letting that instinct, that I think many of us have in conversation, to say the first thing that pops into our head or ask that question right away, but instead just to take a beat instead and see what we can learn that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then so, in doing that, I’m curious, did you learn what you were seeking to learn? What was the takeaway, the insight, the aha? Are people into the voice-activated business or not as much?

Ximena Vengoechea
At the time, it turned out to not be a crucial feature and it was something that we didn’t pursue. I think the sort of less sexy but really basic features became much more important, like being able to filter and say, “I’m a vegetarian so don’t show me recipes that have meat in them,” for instance, or, “I’m lactose intolerant. I want to only see recipes that don’t have dairy.” Those kinds of basic but really important functionality end up trumping the sort of bells and whistles of anything like voice activation.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, having spent so much of your career doing listening and you’ve put some of your wisdom in the book of yours, Listen Like You Mean It, what are some of the most surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve made along the way about how we listen and form connections here?

Ximena Vengoechea
Well, I think one of the biggest takeaways and maybe the most counterintuitive thing that I’ve learned about listening is that we have this idea, when we think about listening, that we’re there for the other person and that it’s all about the other person. And that’s true, we are there to learn about someone else. But we also, critically, are bringing in so much of ourselves into conversations. And in order to really be an effective listener, you have to build some self-awareness about exactly what you’re bringing in.

So, those thoughts that you’re bringing into conversations, the emotions you’re bringing into a conversation, your personal experience, your personal history either with that person or a topic, all of those things are part of what make us unique but they’re also part of what can prevent us from fully engaging and listening to another person. So, it’s an interesting dynamic when you want to be there for someone else, but you really also need to be kind of tracking what’s going on for yourself in any given moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then let’s hear it, the big idea with the book Listen Like You Mean It. To what extent do you think folks are listening like they mean it? What’s the state of listening today?

Ximena Vengoechea
I would say we could probably all be doing a lot better. I think most of us are typically engaging in what I would call surface listening mode. So, we are catching enough of what the other person is saying in a given moment to nod and smile, be polite, to keep our relationships more or less intact, but we’re only catching the literal, the surface level of what’s being said, and we’re often missing the subtext, the meaning beneath what’s being said, and also the emotions behind what’s being said.

And I think that that, when you’re able to go all the way down to the level of emotions, that’s where the real human-to-human connection occurs, and that’s where I think we could all be playing…we could be going much deeper in our conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, so then could you maybe give us a demonstration here between what surface listening looks, sounds, feels like versus the deeper listening that creates the connections?

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah, surface listening, that is something where you’re catching a little bit but you’re also engaging in those thoughts that are running through your head. You might be thinking about your to-do list, or maybe you’re in a meeting and thinking, “Okay, I’ve already heard enough. I know what I need to do. I can tune out now or start on my list of action items,” or maybe we are kind of missing that the other person is upset or is having some strong emotional response where we’re just not tracking that.

Whereas, empathetic listening is when that thought comes up that we’re distracted or we’re creating that to-do list, it’s noticing that and it’s going, “Oh, okay. I’m getting distracted, let me come back to center.” Or, it’s noticing that we’re having an emotional response to something, and saying, “Oh, you know what? I’m feeling my throat start to tighten up a little bit, I’m feeling my chest start to pound a little bit. I’m having an emotional response. Let me see if I can center myself before returning to this conversation.” So, it’s about tracking those things and then returning to the present and being there for someone else.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, in practice, if we’ve got other thoughts going on or emotional reactions and such, how do we just stop and return? Do you write them down, your extraneous thoughts? Or, is there a mantra or a trick either with your mind or your body? How do we return?

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah, it’s a good question. I think it’s less about trying to forever stop those thoughts because I think even meditation experts would say, “It’s not like you have a completely blank mind. It’s just becoming aware of those thoughts and acknowledging them.” So, I recommend a trick that psychologists are using in cognitive behavioral therapy, which is labeling.

And so, that is actually saying in your head, “I am being distracted by this thought,” or, “I’m having this response,” so you’re labeling it. That helps you release it. Other things that can be helpful, one mantra that can be helpful is reminding yourself that if it’s really important, the thought is going to come back to you. Typically, that’s the case. We sometimes get nervous and want to cling to every thought that comes into our mind, but the really, really important ones tend to come back to us.

And then I also recommend focusing on the emotions of what’s being said. Sometimes we’re so caught up in trying to capture all the details, like there’s a tendency to want to write everything down in a conversation, or take copious notes, but you will remember if someone is upset or confused or stressed, and that’s the thing to hone in on. And so, if you can give yourself the benefit of the doubt of, “Okay, if I can get the emotion, the rest will follow,” that can also relieve some of the anxiety around, “I have to jot everything down right now.”

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, how do we go about getting to the emotion? Like, are there…? Because, in some ways, it just seems some people just intuitively just do this and others don’t. So, if you don’t, then how do you start?

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah. So, part of it is coming into conversation with what I call listening mindset, and that’s bringing in humility, curiosity, and empathy, and that’s different than how we normally show up in conversation, which is often we’re bringing in our own assumptions or opinions or ideas, and this is really about creating space for someone else. So, humility is taking the position of a student rather than an expert, and reminding yourself that there’s something that you can learn from the other person.

Curiosity is taking that a bit deeper by asking questions, asking in particular open-ended questions that allow the other person to lead the way. And then empathy is tapping into their emotional experience, not in the sense that you have to have shared a given experience. Maybe someone has just been laid off and you have not been laid off so you don’t know exactly what that feels like but you probably have some idea of what it feels like to grieve over something that you thought you had and no longer have, or to experience something like shame over that. And so, it’s tapping into those emotions as well. And all of these are really about shifting the focus away from yourself and towards another person.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s nifty. And I think sometimes it’s tempting and it may even really be the case that you know way more about something than the person that you’re listening to does. But I imagine you’ve got some suggestions when that’s the case. What do we do there?

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah, it’s a great point. Because I think when we do have a given level of expertise, those are the moments that are often the hardest to set that aside and really listen to the other person. So, in that case, I recommend asking yourself, “What else?” Like, “What else can I learn here? Even if I have expertise, what else might I learn? And, specifically, what can I learn about this other person?”

So, maybe there’s a topic that you’re a wiz at, maybe it’s like personal finance or something like that. Okay, so maybe you’re not going to learn much more from this person about that topic, but what does they’re talking about this topic tell you about them and how they relate to you, to this conversation, to that topic at large?

So, it’s looking for other threads, it’s looking for understanding someone else’s expertise, and that expertise may just be their lived experience. That’s what they’re an expert in, and you can learn something from that.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And then with curiosity, it’s funny, sometimes I’ve got tons of curiosity and sometimes I just don’t care if I’m just going to be really blunt and honest about it. So, I’d like to be curious. I feel like that’s the person I aspire to be. So, if curiosity isn’t naturally bubbling up, what do you recommend?

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah. So, I think this is somewhat common. I think we all have topics that we’re not naturally interested in, and that’s okay. And I think, in this case, you’re looking for what’s the overlap maybe between the other person’s interest and your interest. So, to give a tangible example, in the book I talk about sports as not being my personal thing. It’s something that I struggle to and pay attention to and really focus. And if my husband is talking about sports, I have a couple of options. I could totally tune out, and say, “Hey, I’m not the sports type so we’re not going to talk about that.” That’s probably not going to go over super well. Or, I can try and find something that I’m interested in that overlaps with what he’s interested in.

And, in my case, something that I know about myself is I’m interested in people and I’m interested in their stories. So, if I can get the conversation away from the scoreboard to, “Tell me about the coaches. Tell me about the team dynamics. Tell me about their rituals,” that’s interesting to me and it’s interesting to him. So, you’re looking for that sort of overlap between two interests, and that’s where you can start to tug and have a pretty interesting conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that’s clever and what’s funny is that is I’m thinking about the Olympics. That’s exactly what they always do. So, we got this sport, and then we go to zoom in on the Olympian’s life and their childhood and their history and their dedication and their story and their difficulty. And I think they do it because it works, in terms of, “Okay, we’re trying to maximize the viewership. We’re going to need to do more than just fancy triple axel spins on the ice-skating rink or running really fast on the track. We’re going to have to go there to rope in all the more folks.”

Ximena Vengoechea
People like me.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that’s a really lovely example. Let’s go with, I’m just going to put you on the spot here with another one. Boy, I get a little bit glazed over when we talk about like compliance-accounting things. It’s funny. Except, as I recall some conversations with my accountant, except when we’re discovering opportunities to save on taxes, I was like, “What, I can do that? Oh, wow, that’s amazing.” Like, I get really jazzed. So, I guess there’s one example there but I’ll ask you to do the same. And maybe you’re into that, I don’t know. But how might you curiously maneuver into a fun place there?

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah. Well, I think one thing I’ll caveat is that you’re not always going to maneuver into a fun place but you will maneuver somewhere. So, in the case of something like accounting and compliance, those topics that kind of leave you with eyes glazed over, if there’s not an obvious thread, if there’s not an obvious overlap that you can kind of pull at, and this is a conversation that you kind of need to have and you need to be present for, like it’s important, another thing that you can do is to look for the underlying need. So, what does the other person need from this conversation, need particularly from you in this conversation? And, in some cases, it’s going to be really obvious, in some cases it’s not going to be obvious, but you’re looking for, “What is the need and how can I meet it?”

So, maybe the conversation about compliance is super boring but there’s a need there for you to approve something or for you to sign off on something. The sooner you can uncover that need, the sooner you can meet it, the sooner you can have a different kind of conversation, or talk to someone else. And so, sometimes when you are looking for that common ground, it is about extending the conversation, sometimes it is about being more efficient with the conversation and just tuning in more quickly to, “What is the other person trying to get out of this conversation with me?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And then, as we’re listening for emotions, are there particular signs, indicators, that you’re on the lookout for in terms of vocal intonation or facial expressions? Like, I’m thinking about we had former FBI agent Joe Navarro who wrote “What Every Body Is Saying.” That was fun. So, I guess I’m curious, are there particular signals that grab your attention or you proactively look out for?

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah, definitely. I think the biggest thing that I look for is a change over the course of the conversation. So, if someone starts out speaking in measured tones or a deliberate even pace and then suddenly speeds up, or their pitch changes in some way, that’s something that I would want to pay attention to and try and figure out, if the topic is changed, or if they no longer feel safe in the conversation, or suddenly do.

So, we’re looking for or listening for a shift. Certainly, body language is part of that. So, I’m familiar with Joe Navarro’s work, and he talks about where your feet are pointing. So, someone can be looking at you eye to eye but their feet are pointing towards the door, and that’s a tell that maybe they’re ready to leave the conversation and just haven’t been able to articulate it.

He also talks about collar bone, like neck touching as a self-soothing mechanism. If you’ve ever seen somebody play with their collar, that kind of thing. So, you’re tracking voice and tone and body language, and also, obviously, what they’re saying as well. And I think it can be hard to do if someone is not explicit, if someone doesn’t explicitly say, “I’m really upset about X.” Sometimes it’s obvious that they are upset and we just need to ask about it.

Other times, we have to kind of feel around and they’re also feeling around in conversation, and so you’re listening for things like, literally, “I feel like…” when we place the word “I feel…” or if someone says, “I’m swamped with…” Okay. Well, that’s interesting. They’re underwater. They feel overwhelmed and under water. Do they feel under pressure and under water?

So, you’re listening for certain cues, signals in terms of what they’re saying as well that you can, again, get curious about, so that it’s less, “Oh, I’m swamped,” and you’re like, “Yeah, me too.” But, “Oh, you’re swamped. Oh, what’s that like? So, what’s happening? What’s on your plate? And how do you feel about that? How do you feel about having such a busy schedule?” That’s going to have a different outcome in terms of a conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, let’s say, so you pick on some emotions, and I guess maybe talking about the connecting side of things, what’s the best way to work with that? I guess I’m just imagining, like you could say, “It sounds like you’re really upset.” Sometimes that’s the right thing to say and sometimes it’s not. But how do you think about that?

Ximena Vengoechea
Yes, that’s a good question in the sense that we’re not mind readers so we don’t always know what the other person wants, but this is where I think there’s two things that can be really helpful here. One is knowing what your default listening mode is, so how you usually how you tend to hear things in conversation. Maybe you’re someone who tends to hear things at an emotional level; or someone who is more of a problem-solver, they tend to hear things through the lens of a problem to be solved; or a mediator, someone who tends to hear things through the lens of, “Well, what does this person think? What did that person think? How can we make sure that everybody’s point of view is present here?”

And all of these modes are good and useful but need to be matched to the current moment and situation, and that’s the need. That’s going back to, “What is this person’s need?” So, if you don’t know what the need is and you don’t know your default mode, then it’s going to be very hard. You are going to be taking a guess when you say, “Hey, it sounds like you’re upset.” You’re kind of going out on a limb there to see if that’s what they need.

But if you’re able to identify your default listening mode, then you have a little bit of a gut check. So, you can check with yourself, “Okay, my instinct is to offer advice here. Is that what’s really needed? What does this person need?” Sometimes it will be obvious to you because you have a personal history with them, and you know, “Oh, this, for instance, colleague always talks around their requests. They don’t say point-blank, ‘I need another resource for this.’ They kind of give you the long and winding road.”

Sometimes you won’t have that context, so here’s where asking clarifying questions is a great path forward and so you can ask things like, you can say, “My instinct is to offer advice. Would that be useful here?” Or, “I actually have a similar experience. Would you like to hear how I’ve navigated this in the past?” Or, and I think this is the most general clarifying question but really useful one, is, “Would you like me to listen or respond?” Because sometimes there is nothing for us to do, and I think that’s very hard for us to internalize. But the only thing to “do” is to bear witness to someone else especially when it’s emotional.

And so, if they’re sharing something and we’re not sure, we can be there with them and give them that space, and maybe reflect back what they’re saying because it’s affirming, or maybe just check in with them on what would be useful in that moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is a beautiful question because it’s like because you can respond any number of ways and that maybe you hadn’t even anticipated. Because I imagine, in my imaginary conversation I’m having, which you’ve said this to me, I can imagine saying all kinds of things, like, “What I need from you right now is to tell me I’m doing a great job.” It’s like, “Well, okay, that would not have occurred to me but, yeah, I’ve got tons of things to say about that, and so glad you asked. And here we go.” Or, it might be, “You know what would be awesome is if you could somehow just make hours appear in my life because things are insane.” It’s like, “Oh. Well, sure. Well, hey, how about you don’t bother with these three meetings that we got scheduled.” It’s like, “Oh, cool.”

And so, it feels actually kind of rare that someone would just ask that question and, an effect, is really giving a gift. That’s like, “Oh, all right. I am at your service.” And somehow it feels a little bit more specific and real and meaningful than, “Let me know I could be helpful to you,” which feels like that happens a lot in conversations of like a network-y format. And it’s funny because I never quite really know what I should ask for because it’s like, “Well, if you want to like, you know, promote the crap out of the podcast, that’d be great.” Whereas, when it’s seated in a conversation, you say it like that, it goes, “Okay. Well, yeah, here is really what I need from you.”

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah, and I think those other questions that you’re mentioning are hard to respond to. They’re so broad. They’re so vague. I like the question of, “Would you like me to listen or respond?” also because it gives you two options. It gives someone something tangible to respond to. And, usually, the response, the actual need, is what they’ve been trying to say maybe implicitly.

Maybe they haven’t been able to explicitly say, “Hey, what I really need from you right now is to feel supported, and here’s how you can do that.” Or, maybe they thought they were saying that. Like, most of us aren’t very practiced at being explicit in expressing our needs. And so, offering this question is a really gentle way of saying, “I am here for you and you can guide me in a way that would be most helpful to you in this moment.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. Well, so that was a lovely question there. Can you share with us any other favorite phrases, questions, that you just love and are very versatile and useful in many conversations or maybe some phrases, words, questions that you don’t love and we’d probably be better off losing them or using them much less frequently?

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah, so I would say this is where the type of questions you ask really can make a big difference in conversations. So, we’re often not really paying attention to the questions we ask and they can be leading or biased in some way, and those questions, they don’t take the conversation anywhere. They end in one response or, yes or no responses, they tend to be close-ended in nature.

And so, that’s questions that start with do, is, or are. For example, “Are you nervous about tomorrow’s presentation?” “Are you nervous about this meeting?” That suggests that the person might have reason to be nervous, which maybe they should be, or maybe that’s your own, your nervousness being projected onto someone else. You’re going to get a very different response than if you start out with something more open-ended, like a how or a what question, “How do you feel about tomorrow’s presentation?” Okay, now the person can say, “I’m super excited about it. Like, I’m stoked and I’m ready to go,” which is a totally different response than we were leading them earlier. So, I think shifting from close-ended to open-ended questions is key.

And then the other thing I would say is to avoid having too open of a conversation, where the conversation is just like so broad and sprawling. You also do want to have handy follow-ups in your pocket. And so, those follow-ups if there’s a thread that’s particularly interesting or promising, you can say something like, “Oh, say more about that,” or, “What else?” or, “Tell me more,” or one that I really like is just to say, “Oh, and that’s because…” So, whatever it is they said earlier, I ask, “Oh, because?” and then the person will naturally fill it in. So, you have both the open-ended questions and then these gentle nudges that keep the conversation going.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what’s lovely about that, “Oh, and that’s because…” is that it, well, it’s much less defensiveness-provoking than “Why? But why?” It’s like, “Explain yourself,” like an interrogation. Whereas, “Oh, and that’s because…” is effectively a why without the threat. So, that’s cool.

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah, and that’s why I don’t recommend asking why very often. Of course, we all want to know why but it does sound defensive to our ears. And so, you can ask the question of why in a different way using, “That’s because…” or even, “How do you feel about that?” or, “What do you make of that?” Again, those how and what to start to get the why without kind of grating on the other person’s ears.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. And then, I’m curious, when it comes to the third part of your book is about resting and recharging. Well, hey, I’m all about resting and recharging, but didn’t expect to see that in a book about listening. So, what’s the importance of this and how do we do it well?

Ximena Vengoechea
Well, I felt this was really important to include in the book because when you are practicing this type of listening where you are getting down to this emotional level and just really past the surface, it does take work and it is a natural side effect of this kind of listening to feel a little bit drained. It’s almost a sign of good listening at play. It’s like when you go out and you have a good workout, you’re excited but you’re also a little bit tired afterwards.

And so, we want to be able to take care of ourselves so that we don’t push ourselves too far because I think a real risk, if we’re not careful with this kind of listening, is that we start to create space for someone else in a conversation and we never take up space ourselves. So, become a sort of vessel for receiving everybody else’s feelings without having that same care and support returned to us, which really just means that the conversation has moved from a dialogue probably to a monologue where we’re on the receiving end of it, so we don’t want to go that far.

So, ways that you can take care of yourself in the process are thinking about things like what’s your magic number in terms of the amount of these kinds of conversations you can have a day, and how do they need to be distributed throughout your day. So, really concretely, when I was managing a team, I remember in the very beginning, I would try and stack my one-on-ones, like, “Okay, I’ll do all my one-on-ones on Tuesdays. We’ll just do them back-to-back and we’ll bang them out,” and I was exhausted by the end of it, and I also, frankly, wasn’t doing a great job of listening because I would be context-switching from one person’s challenges to the next without having taking a beat to pause and breathe.

And so, in my case, I learned, “Yeah, you probably shouldn’t have five back-to-back one-on-ones in a day. You should maybe try and spread those out over the course of a week or to a couple on one day and a couple on another day.” So, it’s about figuring out what is your magic number, how many of these kinds of conversations can you have effectively where you’re still listening and not exhausted, what kind of breaks can you have in between.

And I talk to a lot of people who say, “Well, I’m not in control of my calendar. Like, I am at the mercy of my calendar. So, what do I do then?” And to that, I say you can always take a 90-second breather in between meetings. Just you’re taking a little bit of a palette cleanser to reset, to say, “Okay, this person just gave me this. I’m going to put it aside, and now I’m going to be present for the next conversation.” So, even if it’s a microbreak, that becomes really, really important for helping you keep things running along.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I’m curious, in a 90-second, a microbreak, what are some great things to do that make a world of rejuvenation difference in just a few seconds?

I’ll do some sharing right now. I’m taking a look at my silent mini-refrigerator in my office, which is pretty wild. It emits no noise, which I like for recording. And I have a bin of water, a little Tupperware bit of water, that’s cold, and I will shove my face in it. That’s weird but there’s cool science behind it – the mammalian dive reflex. And when you stick your face in cold water, you’d wake up in a hurry. So, that’s one of my quick rejuvenation rituals. I’d love to hear what you and others do that makes for some great recharging for more listening in a short amount of time.

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah. So, I think it could be something like that. It could be maybe a more toned-down version, like just splashing water on your face, like room temperature water on your face can also maybe give you a version of that. But, yeah, another thing that you can do is to take those 90 seconds and write down every thought that comes into your mind, just like brain dump it out because sometimes that’s what we’re holding onto in between sessions. So, you can just write it and release it that way.

Sometimes just our closing your eyes, like literally just closing your eyes. Set a timer if you want, think about whatever you want, that can do it too. Don’t use that 90-second microbreak for doom-scrolling, for news-reading, or social media. It’s not going to have the same effect. It’s probably just going to cloud things even further. And then I also think there are certain mantras that you can repeat, especially if you are in a profession or in a role where you’re going to be carrying something, kind of on someone else’s behalf, where you can say, “Okay, this isn’t mine to keep. This doesn’t belong to me. I can safely let this go.” That’s especially useful, let’s say, if you’re in a caregiving role or industry, something where you’re really taking on someone else’s emotions.

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

Ximena Vengoechea
I think the last thing that I’ll mention, and I hope this is is clear from this conversation, but I think we often think about speaking, presentation skills, effectively negotiating, influencing, those are things that can be learned and we think of listening as something that people are innately good at or not, and so we might write it off a little bit if we’re not one of those people who is just magically good at it, but it really can be learned. It’s a skill just like any other. And that’s, ultimately, what the book is trying to do, is to really explicitly lay out what are some of those techniques so that you can begin to take them up and practice them in your everyday.

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

Ximena Vengoechea
Yes, so a quote that I love is “Never judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his shoes.” And that’s from a book called Walk Two Moons. And it’s really about empathy. It’s about not judging someone, and understanding that people have rich lives beyond what we know, and making space for that to be the case, which I find helpful in general, but especially when you’re…the day someone cuts you off while you’re driving, or if someone is slightly rude to you in a meeting, it’s like, “Okay, something else is going on. It’s probably not about me.”

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

Ximena Vengoechea
I find myself often returning to Sherry Turkle’s work. So, she is the author of Reclaiming Conversation and several other books. She looks at the intersection of society and technology, and she’s done a lot of research on how devices are changing our conversations in person, things like how even having a cellphone on the table, even if it’s face down, decreases our ability to empathize with the other person in conversation. So, I find her work to be very interesting.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Ximena Vengoechea
A favorite book, I mean, I do return to Reclaiming Conversation quite a bit so it’s certainly top of mind. And another book that I just finished, which is a totally different topic, is called Big Friendship, and it looks at maybe underrated relationship in our lives that doesn’t get much attention, but it talks about relationships, specifically in the context of friendship and how we treat those versus other relationships in our lives.

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

Ximena Vengoechea
I really love analog tools, so my favorite being Post-Its and Sharpies. I find that I’m far less precious with my thoughts and that I don’t get overly attached to ideas. If I start something where I’m just in a deck and I’m immediately trying to work on a presentation that way, things look better than they are if you just write them on a sticky note. You kind of know that that’s the rough draft and I find it easier to rework ideas that way.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you say precious, it means you’re more attached to it the more it’s all digitally dressed up and beautified. It feels like, “This is something that I cannot throw away or dramatically rework because of attractiveness.”

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah. And I think you also tend to rework in minor ways, so you’d be like, “Oh, something is off with the sentence. Let me move the comma or fiddle with this thing.” And it’s like, “Well, something might be off with the idea.” So, Post-Its allow you to work at the level of the idea and then, once you’ve gotten beyond that, then, sure, go and refine and prettify your deck and do all that stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. And I also find that when I’m in the constraint of a slide, it’s sort of like, “Well, this is the point I’m making, and this is the cool chart that I have, so I only have this box to do the thing.” It’s like, “Well, maybe it doesn’t need to be confined in that box in the first place.” And so, the format kind of pre-ordained or influenced the content prematurely. Well, I’m going to chew on that. Thank you.

Ximena Vengoechea
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Ximena Vengoechea
A favorite habit, taking breaks in terms of taking walks. Like, if I’m stuck on a challenging topic or can’t break through, I have learned to step away from the screen and just take a walk. I think our brains will often noodle things, on things, on our behalf when we’re not paying attention.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you frequently?

Ximena Vengoechea
I think the default listening modes really resonates with people because they can easily identify a mode, and whenever you have a type, you feel like, “Okay, I get this now.” And then the other one, I would say, is the role of silence in conversations is something that’s come up a lot where I talk about waiting 10 seconds, waiting a little bit longer than is comfortable in order to give the other person space. And that seems to be resonating with people because it’s hard and it goes counter to what we usually think about silence in conversations.

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

Ximena Vengoechea
Best place to get in touch is on my website, so that’s XimenaVengoechea.com, and that’s kind of the hub for all of the offshoots, social media, and newsletter, book, all that good stuff.

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

Ximena Vengoechea
Yeah, I would say do your best to uncover what that hidden need is in conversation, especially in professional settings. The person’s job, function, whether they’re in marketing or sales or design, is a really good starting clue to uncovering that need.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Ximena, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you many great conversations.

Ximena Vengoechea
Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

678: How to Win Trust and Connect Masterfully with Riaz Meghji

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Riaz Meghji says: "There's two teachers in the room in any conversation."

Riaz Meghji reveals the key behaviors that lead to more meaningful connections.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The one trick to becoming a better listener 
  2. Where to draw the line between vulnerability and oversharing 
  3. How to be assertively empathetic 

About Riaz

Riaz Meghji is a Human Connection Expert. He has 17 years of broadcast television experience, and, during his time as host on Citytv’s Breakfast Television, MTV Canada, TEDxVancouver, CTV News, and the Toronto International Film Festival, has interviewed thousands of experts about human connection and collaboration, undertaking critical training that helped shape the tangible takeaways he shares in his new book, Every Conversation Counts 

Resources mentioned in the show:

 

Thank you, sponsors!

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Riaz Meghji Interview Transcript

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

Riaz Meghji
Pete, it is good to be with you, man. Thanks for having me on.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to talk. And I also want to hear, you’ve got a story, you’ve got some Canadian TV background, and another Canadian star, Eugene Levy. I understand there’s a story involving you, him, and eyebrows. Tell us about it.

Riaz Meghji
I love it. This is what happens when you fill out the questionnaire beforehand, “Tell me some tidbits of where we can go.” Eugene Levy, a national treasure here in Canada, and he was filming a cameo role on a sitcom called Package Deal which was being filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, where I am right now, and we had a chance to go on set with Eugene, and, obviously, a legend in the comedy game. He’s honed his craft, you could tell the entire cast and crew respected him, we had 20 minutes to do an interview, and he was so generous, so gracious about how he’s achieved success, how his family succeeds. A lot of people know about Dan Levy in Schitt’s Creek.

And then, towards the end of the interview, he just took a moment to pause and say, “Hey, thank you very much for bringing the energy, the enthusiasm to the interview, but if there’s one piece of advice I can give you, if you want to succeed in this business, and if you want to play the long game, there’s one thing you need to know.” Obviously, when Eugene drops that, I just leaned in, I’m like, “What is it?” He’s like, “Make sure you insure your eyebrows.” I’m like, “What?”

I know we’re on the podcast right now but, hey, game recognizes game. He’s got those thick caterpillars, these south Asian roots are giving me those thick caterpillars too, and I said, “Eugene, awesome, man. I don’t know if they do that, but that is an amazing trademark to make it in the entertainment business. Game on.”

Pete Mockaitis
Insure the eyebrows, yeah. It’s hard enough to get an insurance company to do anything outside of their cookie-cutter legal boilerplate. That’d probably take some doing to pull that off.

Riaz Meghji
Yeah, they would put a new box to check, “Diva, yup. Correct. That’s Riaz. He wants his eyebrows insured. Let’s just focus on the mortgage and the home.”

Pete Mockaitis
There’s an extra premium for the diva. It’s like a young driver, they’ll slap you with that. So, we’re talking about you got a book here, Every Conversation Counts: The 5 Habits of Human Connection that Build Extraordinary Relationships. I’d love to hear you’ve done a lot of conversing and connecting in your years. What would you say is one of the most surprising lessons you’ve picked up along the way?

Riaz Meghji
That there’s two teachers in the room in any conversation. Two teachers in the room, and this was a great lesson that was presented to me by a very popular host in Canada. His name is Ron MacLean, a magnificent storyteller, and he has this gift of anybody he interviews, his primary gig is Hockey Night in Canada, but he is such a masterful interviewer with athletes, not just seeing what’s in front of us, but seeing what the story is behind the lens. And he really talked about the idea that the interviewers out there that can do their research and come in with the greatest intention, get asked their job to just stay as curious as long as possible.

But how somebody really listens, how an interviewer really listens to draw out the story that isn’t being told is the opportunity to be a teacher, because the person answering the questions, they’ve got the ideas, they’ve got the stories they’re going to share, but the art of listening and being the interviewer, you can be a powerful teacher to just be a mirror and create a heightened level of awareness that that subject might not even know about.

And when he said that to me, that there’s two teachers in the room, it always reminded me, whether you’re asking the question or answering the question, there’s a chance to learn from each other in just very profound ways.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Certainly. And listening is huge and I think a lot of my guests have commented, “It’s nice that you don’t just sort of move through a pre-set list of questions.” I mean, where’s the fun in that? In terms of the live back and forth is where a lot of the magic and fun is, so amen to that.

Riaz Meghji
You know, it’s so true. And I can say this, early on in my career, I’ve been doing television for almost 20 years now. Earlier on, I would do that exact same thing, Pete. I’d do all of the research, come up with a list of questions that I thought were brilliant, and then I would check the box of, “Was this a successful interview?” And the gauge on that would be, “Did I ask all of the questions I brought in to the conversation?” And then, slowly, I was realizing the moment was being missed to unlock something from that subject that you can’t Google. And one of the simple things I would do in the green room with any guest, no matter how much research I would do, which would give me confidence, I would slowly begin to over-prepare to improvise.

And the way I would do it is in that green room. I would greet the guests, we’d go past the formalities, but I’d simply start that by asking, “Hey, so what’s on your mind?” And the first thing that came out of their mouth would allow me to understand what the priority is for them. So, no matter how much research I did, I would park it, prioritize their priorities, and then lean in and listen and be ready to improvise. And I found that’s where some magical moments would really happen with the people in front of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool because, I’d imagine, if that’s their priority, and you give some love and attention up front, they’d think, “I like this Riaz guy. I can open up. I can trust. I can share a little bit more. I can not be as guarded,” and good things can flow there.

Riaz Meghji
Yeah. And that approach allowed me to really understand that there are three questions that stood out when you’re trying to unlock somebody and get them to open up and just truly share who they are. That the three questions we all ask ourselves, especially the first time we’re meeting somebody are, “Do you care about me? Are you listening to me? And can I trust you?” And simply recognizing the value of those three questions really allowed some beautiful moments to be shared not only in the green room but that trust to convey something really powerful when it was on live TV which can be nerve-racking for anybody involved.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, those are some great questions right there. And, I’m curious, I guess you’ll get the answers you want if you actually do care, you actually are listening, and you actually are trustworthy, so I don’t know if there’s any tricks or hacks that can be implemented there but, nonetheless, I’m going to ask you. How do you make it so that the person you’re talking to picks up the good stuff, assuming that you do have a good heart and intentions, and you really do care, and you really are listening, and you really are trustworthy? How can you make that all the more apparent?

Riaz Meghji
I think it’s saying less and listening more and following their lead. And what I found is, over the years, a lot of the times when you look at any conversation or any interview, the person who controls the conversation is the one asking the questions. And sometimes that initial question that you ask, I would get caught up in the trap early on, Pete, where I would come in with, like I said, all of this information, and I would overcomplicate things, and I would unleash this overcomplicated set of I have like multiple questions in that first question where somebody is saying, “Okay. Well, hey, that’s great, all this research. I don’t even know how to answer this because you asked me like 10 questions in one.”

So, I think really getting to the point and simplifying things off the top, and then how you make it apparent to that person that you’re dialed in, is the value of the follow up, and those expansive questions that are starting with the what or how that have a high emotional component as well. Because I find a lot of the questions that happen, and maybe it’s because people are overwhelmed with, one, information; two, with stress; three, with the awkwardness, especially coming out of this pandemic of “How do we connect? This has got to be perfect,” is forgetting about the facts and putting the facts in the background and focusing on the emotional connection you can have with somebody.

And I find that’s, that feeling, someone could have where you’re asking a question that really taps into a feeling they’re experiencing, that’s where that magic happens where they begin to really appreciate that you want to be where they’re at, and you’re exploring that important space for them.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so let’s dig into some of the particulars then. So, you’ve said in your subtitle “The 5 Habits of Human Connection.” So, what are those five and how do we do them well?

Riaz Meghji
Yeah. Well, we kind of touched on the first one being listening, but the habit I really wanted to articulate is listening without distraction. And this culture that we’re in right now is one culture of convenience with technology. We’re flipping the camera and we’re flipping a microphone on, we’re having our meetings, and everything is moving so fast with this convenience, so it is easy. Looking at the science of our brains and how we connect, in many ways, I feel like we’re all just too smart for our own good simply because our brains can absorb 400-500 words per minute. Yet, the average person is speaking in a rate of 125 words per minute.

So, that means, with that extra capacity we have when we’re listening, we can easily get caught up in technology, in multitasking, in daydreaming, the emotional distraction of shutting down if we disagree with somebody. So, I think the first thing, if we’re going to listen without distraction, is listen to ourselves on a daily basis. And if you’re listening to this right now, auditing ourselves to say, “What are the distractions, on a daily basis, in your everyday communication that are pulling away the focus and gift of undivided attention you could give somebody?”

And not trying to remove those all at once because that can be completely overwhelming, but just becoming aware of what they are and then slowly starting to pick those off one by one, and that will allow us to be so much more present not only with our listening ear but, more importantly, with our curiosity to dive deeper with what somebody might be sharing with us, especially if it’s something quite vulnerable or real.

Pete Mockaitis
And that notion about being too smart for our own good and the word count differential, I’m intrigued with the awareness of distractions. Can you give us some big categories because I think it’s pretty obvious? Like, okay, the phone. You can look at your smartphone, you hear the dings and the buzzes, and you’re just, “Who was that? What was that? What’s going on just right there?” So, that’s one, and I think that’s kind of obvious. But what are some of the other ways that we fill that word count gap in between our ears that’s distracting and unhelpful?

Riaz Meghji
Yeah, if we’re feeling uneasy, it’s so easy for us to get caught up in our agendas. If we’re rehearsing our elevator pitch, or think about the interview process, you’re thinking about, “Okay, did I get to this question? Did I get to this question?” we’re missing out on what that person is giving us. So, it really comes down to, “How do we just let go of our agenda?” Let go of that pitch that you had and ask more and try to unlock something with someone.

It’s easy with our own biases to have assumptions unconsciously get in the way of thinking, “This is the way it’s going to go. This is the way it’s always been,” and missing out on an opportunity to have a breakthrough with somebody. And that really ties into the idea of judgment as well and our negativity bias. So, checking our bias, our judgment, our assumption, and even our agendas, on that emotional level, I think that’s one of the biggest, Pete.

I think the first thing people will say, “Oh, it’s technology. It’s our screens getting in the way.” But I also think it’s us. And with all of the mental game that could go on trying to achieve an outcome, we might lose sight on the opportunity of enter every conversation of how we’re going to build this pure and meaningful relationship as opposed to go through all of these mechanical or just methodical ways to achieve your objective, so to speak.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s really good with the agenda there in terms of when you’re focused on that, you’re necessarily not focused on what is being said in the moment. And, it’s funny, I think maybe we have a suspicion perhaps that if we don’t give mental energy to remembering the agenda, it will be forgotten and catastrophe will befall us. But, in practice, I find that once there’s a pause, it’s just like, “Oh. And, oh, now this thing.” It doesn’t go away if you stop thinking about it. It’s still ready for you and you could just write it down.

Riaz Meghji
When all else goes, write it down. And you know what, that’s actually a very good point because one of the most important things that I’ve learned that has really helped, I mean, you asked an important point of, “How do you make this apparent in the conversation itself that you care, and that I am listening to you and I trust you?” Those things you write down, especially those uncommon commonalities that might pop up with unique passions, whether it’s maybe something in your career, something in your health, something in your relationships, but something that’s so specific.

If you’re able to write that down, and let’s be real, we’re not going to be able to remember every single detail, but if we write it down and we follow up with somebody a week, a month, maybe even a year down the line, instead of me emailing you and saying, “Hey, Pete, hope you’re well.” But if we can replace “Hope you’re well” with “Hey, Pete,” and then insert a moment we shared, immediately someone is going to say, “Wow! I can’t believe Pete remembered that,” and it’s going to start opening up that idea of, “Yeah, they listened. Yeah, they care. Yeah, I could trust him because he valued what I said.” And that takes effort on our part when we’re listening and also being real with documenting these moments, too, because, realistically, we can only remember so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. All right, so we have the habit of listening without distraction. And the second habit is to make your small talk bigger. How do you recommend we do that?

Riaz Meghji
Yeah, man. A lot of people dread the idea of small talk. I bet you, you just use those two words, small talk, people will think, “I don’t want to go there. I’m just going to dodge it. I’m going to avoid it altogether.” And looking at the exercise of small talk over the years, I’ve just come to realize that small talk is such a defense mechanism because what it really does is it prevents us from the embarrassment of getting emotional in front of someone we don’t know. Or, maybe hitting a nerve with somebody else and we’re not ready to process their emotion and be a witness to what they’re experiencing.

And I think with small talk, if we’re going to make it bigger, especially right now, the big change I feel we’ve all seen in the past year is that, in many ways, we’ve all been in the constant state of grief whether we realize it or not, and it’s grief over the loss of the way we used to live our lives. Like, those conversations of convenience at the watercooler, or dropping into somebody’s office, or maybe hanging out on the sidelines at a sports game with parents as you watched your kids. Those are gone. Temporarily, those are gone. But the conversation that’s top of mind for everybody right now is the psychological struggle of how they’ve waded through and kind of survived through this pandemic.

So, if we’re going to make our small talk bigger, here’s a real opportunity, and maybe this was a silver lining of this uncertainty being our universal commonality with the pandemic, is just, yes, less facts, more emotion. And if you have no context of the person in front of you, like as interviewers, we could say, “Hey, yeah, okay. We had time to research the subject. We have some ideas. It’s going to make this small talk go deeper a lot easier.” But if you have no context of that person in front of you, being a proud Canadian, I call this the happiness hat trick, and this is courtesy of the late great psychiatrist Gordon Livingston, who did terrific work on the happiness equation for people.

And he found the happiest people have something to do, they have someone to love, and they have something to look forward to. And if you have no context of the person in front of you, start there because all of those have a high emotional component of what matters most to the person in front of you, and that will start to unlock that sense of feeling of where somebody is at, and then, yeah, let them lead with that and be that teacher that ask those questions to help unlock where they’re at and where they want to go. And that conversation, that relationship, will deepen in a really meaningful way.

Pete Mockaitis
And that notion of the small talk being a defense mechanism, I think that really rings true though I haven’t quite thought of it that way. If someone says, I just walk in a place and say, “How are you doing?” I don’t think…well, it’s true. I don’t want to say, “Well, I feel really weird and restless because we moved and they have no idea what’s going on with the truck and all my stuff, and I’m just like, ‘Is it lost forever? Should I buy all new stuff?’ It’s very unsettling.”

So, on top of not knowing very many people, and so, I don’t know, I’m sad, I’m anxious, I am unsettled. It’s sort of like, “That’s how I’m really doing,” but I’m not going to say that. It’s just like, “How is it going?” when you walk into a Starbucks. And so, effectively, that is a defense mechanism. It’s like I guess just a nicer way of saying, “None of your business.”

Riaz Meghji
It’s so true. Yeah, our answer when somebody says, “How are you?” and you’re like, “Good. Thanks.” Translation, “It’s none of your business.” But if we could switch that question, because it is second nature, it’s just a greeting, it’s autopilot mode. That’s what that question is. But if we switch it with one word, it could provide permission and that opportunity to let that person know, “Pete, I really want to know how you’re doing.”

And it’s, “Hey, how are you really? Like, how are you really doing?” And that one word allows that person to know, “Oh, this person is really checking in. This isn’t just superficial BS of, ‘How are you? Yeah, let’s go through it. Now I’m going to order what I want from Starbucks.’” But there’s an intention of how we ask the question that can really break that autopilot mode so someone could say, “Oh, this is an authentic opportunity here.”

And by you sharing that and somebody being in that space, at any point on any given day, something powerful could happen, and that could change your life, that could change the listener’s life, and that’s up to us on how we engage with our small talk.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And it’s true in terms of what gets opened up and then where that goes. I was chatting with my barber and he started talking about how the Wim Hof breathing approach has transformed his life, and how he met Wim and did some stuff. All this stuff is like, “Well, okay.” He just mentioned that he’s winding down being a barber, it’s like, “Oh, what are you up to?” and he just got going. It was like, “Well, this is fascinating. I’m going to go. I’ve heard of this guy. I’m going to get the app. Whatever. And so, yeah, and we’ll see how transformational it is.”

Riaz Meghji
You said Wim Hof? Was that it?

Pete Mockaitis
Wim Hof, yeah.

Riaz Meghji
I’ve never heard of that. What am I missing?

Pete Mockaitis
He might be on the show. He’s famous for climbing Mt. Everest in his shorts and setting some world records for ice exposure, and there’s some cool science behind some of his breathing and stuff. So, yeah. Anyway, I learned about that in chatting with my barber.

Riaz Meghji
Well done.

Pete Mockaitis
You never know what’ll pop up. Cool. So, let’s hear the third habit there – put aside your perfect persona. What’s the story here?

Riaz Meghji
Yeah, this notion of us practicing imperfection through technology. We see it on social media. It’s kind of become a second nature habit. And the idea here is to really invite people to show up and have the courage to be themselves. And this is easier said than done. It’s an idea that came to me in a conversation with Darren Hardy, which happened a few years back. And, Darren, for those that don’t know, he’s the author of a terrific book, it’s one of my favorites, it’s called The Compound Effect, of how the small things can have a profound effect in your life.

And he’s a renowned CEO, coach, and mentor for leaders around the world, and he was in Vancouver for an event. We sat down for 20 minutes, and he’s interviewed some of the greats as well, like some of the greatest interviewers. And I said to him, I’m like, “Darren, what is your secret to having people truly open up and show you who they really are?” And he kind of smiled and he looked at me, and he said, “Two words.” And I said, “Lay it on me.” And he said, “Go first.” And I said, “Go first. Okay, tell me about this.”

And he said, “If you want to motivate somebody, find out what motivates them and help them achieve that. Say go first.” He said, “If you want somebody to trust you, go first and reveal something that’s raw and candid, and show them that this is a safe space. They have the psychological safety that you’ve given them a part of you, and it’s safe for them to return the favor.” And I thought this was so fascinating of the idea of going first because, and it’s maybe it’s the cautious or skeptic part of my mind, it’s like, “What’s the difference between going first and oversharing because that could backfire on you?”

And I know you had Jon Levy on the show and he was talking about the Pratfall effect, and that is a very important part to consider of conveying credibility before vulnerability, and establishing that responsibility and that point of authority, and then that reveal can really draw people closer. And if they’re questioning your competence to begin with, then you’re tripping over yourself and you’re flooring the gas pedal with all of this candid vulnerability, it can really backfire and create distance instead of that connection.

So, this notion of putting aside your perfect persona is really going first with a piece of yourself. And one of those examples that we recently saw, I’m a big Will Smith fan, and when I saw Will Smith pull stuff, “Hey, I’m going to be real with you all. I’m in the worst shape of my life.” I don’t know if you’ve seen his photo, but he put himself out there. He’s just in his boxer shorts showing that the guy that’s all muscles and cut in movies, for the first time, he doesn’t look that way. And it gave permission for people to talk about their bodies and their pandemic bodies, and celebrate the fact that, “Hey, we’re all in this together. We can all get through this together.” And he’s inspired people going on new workout routines and transformations just by going first with the challenge he has. So, I think it shows up in many ways.

Pete Mockaitis
That is powerful. And I do want to hear if you’ve cracked the code on that oversharing kind of complexity there because, I guess, what comes to mind is I was chatting with one of my podcast guests, and I guess he already had tremendous authority and credibility in my eyes because I’ve researched him, I know his bio and stuff. And I say, “How are you doing?” He’s like, “Oh, you know, it’s been a difficult week. I’ve got a son who’s been struggling with drug addiction, and we thought we had that kicked, but, unfortunately, this happened.”

So, he shared that and it only took maybe 20 seconds to reveal, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry.” And the way I received it, I did not find that off-putting at all. I felt for him, I thought, “Oh, man, this has got to be so hard. I’ve got toddlers today. I can only imagine struggling with that in the future.” And it really did, it made me like and trust him a bundle, and I’ve been sort of eager to connect with him whenever I’m in his city.

So, in a way, and that’s pretty darn vulnerable in terms of what’s going on in your life for real. That’s hard and that’s real. So, I did not receive it in, “Whoa, easy, fellow. Simmer down. Too much information.” I didn’t receive it that way. I don’t know, maybe some people would, but I don’t know, he just seemed so great, it would be hard to imagine.

So, I don’t know, how do you think about that dance?

Riaz Meghji
If I’m going to share something like that, the question I’m asking myself is, “Is the person or is the audience ready to hear this? Are they in a space where they’re ready and willing to accept the emotional intensity I could bring on them?” And I’m not surprised by your reaction. You’ve mastered your craft doing these interviews. This is what you do to bring out the best in people to see who they really are. But if we’re on the street and the circumstances, things are moving fast and there’s only a limited amount of time, and I’m dropping that on somebody, I don’t think I’ve set them up for success if, say, we’re walking and they’re trying to get to a destination, maybe they’re trying to pick up their kids. They’re not in the right space to be able to receive it and support me.

So, I think it’s important to pick the spot. And if the spot is right, and there is time, and somebody is willing to accept it, I think the flipside of that is if I’m going to share something that I’m struggling with, I really look at, “How can I share a bit of the transformation going on?” Because I find, as listeners, we’re always looking for that moment of, “How is this moment, how is this story, how could this make my life better?” And if I’m going to share a bit of the struggle and the conflict, I always think, “What is the point of reflection or lesson I’ve learned through this that I could share with somebody if they were to hit this roadblock too?”

So, it’s almost like the struggle becomes a share and point of service to be like, “Here’s what I’ve worked through, here’s what I’ve learned, and here’s what I’m still trying to get to.” And that awareness, that reflection, and perhaps a teaching moment, gives somebody a gift of real-life perspective as opposed to just an emotional dump where they’re thinking, “What do I do with this?” And I think Ray Dalio said this, and this really stuck with me, of pain plus reflection equals progress.

And I think that’s a powerful statement. And I also think about all the things we’ve individually gone through during the pandemic, when somebody asks, “Tell me about something that happened during the past year that had a positive impact on your life? Or, tell me about something that really changed things for you.” That’s on us to really absorb, reflect, write about these moments in our lives and, one teach ourselves, and then, two, have the opportunity to share in profound ways so people will be grateful for the share, not only because, hey, you trusted me with that but you’re teaching me as well about what the struggle really means and how to work through it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think that’s great. And it’s handy and it is of service. And, in a way, it’s, I don’t know, maybe it’s a sort of a sad commentary on human nature. It’s like, “Okay, so you’re struggling but what’s in this for me?” And, yet, that’s kind of there, so if you serve that up alongside, it’s helpful. So, I’m all for it.

Riaz Meghji
Yeah, and to that point, Pete, if the audience is asking, “What’s in it for me?” If you are a close confidant, there’s an opportunity, maybe that person who’s struggling is not giving you something but maybe they’re coming to you for something, and that can light you up as well of that, “What’s in it for me?” “Here’s my chance to help you,” and that’s a powerful point of building a relationship too. Because I find a lot of the times, we’re just quick to interrupt or drop unsolicited advice, but if I’m surrendering and saying, “Hey, Pete, can you help me out with this? Like, you’ve interviewed so many people, what’s your take on this?” That’s a chance to celebrate your wisdom and that’s a powerful tool as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, let’s hear the fourth one – be assertively empathetic. How do we do that?

Riaz Meghji
When you hear those two words, assertively empathetic, does that strike you as odd, like those two can’t go together?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s different because the emotional vibe of assertive is like, “I’m stating this is my position and this is what I need,” versus empathetic, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I really want to understand.” They have a different emotional charge to them. So, yeah, when they’re side by side, it’s unique.

Riaz Meghji
Yeah, I asked that question because I find anyone that’s come across it, they say to me, “Well, is that an oxymoron? Like, how do you do both?” And the assertive side of things kind of touches on what we talked about in the listening without distraction of checking ourselves. In this time where it’s a polarized climate, whether it’s political views or just different ways of living life, it is so easy when we disagree on something to jump in, to challenge, to interrupt, to give that unsolicited advice to what we just talked to, and forget about the idea of acknowledging that person.

So, the assertive side really comes in checking ourselves and acknowledging, putting the focus on acknowledging that person even if you disagree with them, and allow them to express where they’re at and what they’re experiencing. And our philosophy really is, “How can we discover before we dismiss any type of idea and be curious longer?” And when we’ve acknowledged them and we’ve kind of heard about what’s going on, confirming, “Okay, our understanding is this. Here’s what you’re going through,” and then once the relationship has been prioritized, then it’s the opportunity to bring in logic and focus on what we can agree on.

So, like, “Pete, what’s the real challenge here for you? Like, what does your ideal scenario look like? And what would it take for this to work for you?” And the big goal of this, as we check our own emotional limitations and put that focus of “Look at you” is greater than “Look at me” in this, especially when things are heated, is we want to create a dynamic where it would be you and me, Pete, versus the problem instead of me versus you. And that takes assertiveness to check our own inclinations to jump in. And then the empathetic aspect to lean in, be curious, even when we disagree, to just give someone the opportunity to be understood.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I really appreciated those sample questions you were dropping there because I got the vibe. It’s like you were assertive in the sense of it’s like, “Oh, you’re really going for some territory here,” and how you’re approaching it. It’s like the heart of the matter, it’s the real deal stuff, and we’re not getting distracted by the irrelevant pieces. So, in that sense, it is assertive, but the content that we’re getting after is empathetic in terms of like the emotional stuff that we’re going for there.

Riaz Meghji
Yeah, and the power of questions really stands out. I found it fascinating, there was a study at the University of Wisconsin back, I think this was back in 2013 on difficult conversations. And they said, “Well, how do you create a safe space when someone has to convey negative news or you completely disagree on something?” And they talked about the notion of how we can own our own emotions. And it came down to the use of “I” statements. Like, “I’m feeling frustrated here,” “I’m feeling exhausted,” “I should’ve known better with this, Pete,” or even using the “I” statement in the question. Like, “Pete, how did I fail to show up for you here?” or, “Pete, what’s the question I failed to ask to understand where you’re at?”

All of that is a great deal of assertiveness to own the fact that something has been missed on my side, but, at the same time, the direction is complete empathy because you’re trying to get to the understanding of bringing somebody in so you show it’s us in this together and we can productively disagree as opposed to just have an unproductive confrontation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. Perfect. All right. I’m just going to leave it there. I have nothing to add. That’s excellent. Let’s hear about making people feel famous.

Riaz Meghji
This final habit really kind of touches on what I believe people need most right now. And given everything we’ve been through, I feel like what we benefit from the most is having a cheerleader, or some sort of champion in our corner, and someone that’s going to say, “I see what you’re doing, Pete. Like, I see the great work you’re doing in this podcast. That previous episode you had with that certain guest, that gave me something that made my days better.”

And it’s this point of appreciation, recognition, but above all, specificity. And when we talk about this generic, “How are you?” the easy thing you throw out, it’s autopilot. It’s also autopilot, if I’ve listened to an episode that you’ve done, and for me to just email you and say, “Hey, Pete, great job on that last episode.” It’s such a throwaway. It’s such a missed opportunity for me to make you feel valued in terms of the work you’re doing but, more importantly, hone in on what it was. Because I can say, “Great job,” but the question on your side might be like, “Well, what exactly made it a great job?”

And a simple way to make people feel famous is how we practice specificity and how we praise others, and how we make it specific to a certain moment, how we make it personal of like, “Listen, this is how it changed my life.” How we make it public and champion it and share it on social media, and say, “Hey, check this guy’s podcast out. You want to be awesome? This is it. This is the place to be,” but connect it back to purpose, and saying, “This is how I made a difference in my life and here’s what I’m trying to do.”

And if we can do that and practice that habit of specificity and lifting people up and making them famous, so to speak, above all, it creates this culture of feeling valued and appreciated when we have this opportunity now to start to go back to work, and organizations are going to try to retain talent, there are going to be some big factors when people are deciding, “Where do I want to work? How do I want to work? And who do I want to work with?” And this final habit really touches in the idea of being seen and having a powerful sense of belonging. And it’s a simple thing we can do but I think it can have a profound effect.

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

Riaz Meghji
I just hope, if you’re listening to this right now, that the opportunity of breaking out of autopilot mode is something we all can control. And the whole objective of this message, if every conversation counts, is just to encourage people to just be more intentional whether that’s with how we listen, how we get curious, how empathetic we could be, or how specific we could be when we’re trying to lift people up. Let’s break out of autopilot mode right now and find ways to just energize our relationships and lift each other up.

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

Riaz Meghji
This one was given to me by my editor of my book last year when we’re writing in 2020 because I’m totally the guy that overanalyzes and overthink things, and my editor said, “Look, you cannot edit a blank page.” And that really resonated with me because the notion of trying to get it perfect the first time, I mean, you put aside your perfect persona. The editor encouraged, “Just put it down on paper whatever idea that might be and then let’s go to work on it and make it stronger and poke holes in it. But we can’t do that unless you just have the courage to just put down that initial thought.” So, I love the simplicity of it. You cannot edit a blank page. If anyone has a writer’s block, just put it out there, test it, experiment with it, and that’s how we can make it better.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Riaz Meghji
I really dig The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier. And the reason I dig it is the simplicity of the questions that he asks. I mean, sure, it’s a book about coaching, but it really demonstrates the power of curiosity to open up windows of stories and conversations and deepening relationships. Simple read. Digestible read. Memorable read. So, The Coaching Habit is one of my faves.

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

Riaz Meghji
Well, I like this Blue Yeti mic. How’s the audio sounding so far on the podcast?

Pete Mockaitis
Sounds pretty good. Not too echo-y which is the only downfall of the Blue Yeti. But when in a low-echo room, it’s just right. So, I agree, for what it’s worth.

Riaz Meghji
You know, building on the simplicity of technology, it’s funny, like working in the keynote spaces and when you have the chance to contribute, the TV side of me wanted to complicate things and think, “Okay, we need this high-tech studio. We need all these things.” But, at the end of the day, the value is the message and how we’re going to move people, make them feel something. And kind of simplifying things, somebody introduced this Blue Yeti mic, I’m like, “Don’t I need like a fancy Shure 570?” And I know those mics are gorgeous. But they’re like, “No, just get the Blue Yeti. They’ll do the job.” So, as a tool, this has helped me. And if it’s sounding good for you and it’s sounding good for you listening, then, hey, I’ll go with the favorite tool as the Yeti.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty. And is there a particular nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you and retweet it often?

Riaz Meghji
I think two things. The first being that pandemics don’t change our identity. They reveal it. And the big reveal that came from the last year is that human connection isn’t an option. It’s a necessity. And we all felt it at a deep level when those conversations that we’re used to, social rituals of high fives, hugs, handshakes, those are gone, and we lost a piece of what made us a community. And that human connection, now, is up to us to bring that back in impactful ways. So, I think those two thoughts right there about how pandemics impact identity and reveal it, and just the value of human connection, are two thoughts I’d like to share that seem to resonate.

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

Riaz Meghji
Just to the website RiazMeghji.com. I’ll spell it out because who can spell that name just hearing it for the first time? It’s R-I-A-Z M-E-G-H-J-I.com.

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

Riaz Meghji
Reach out to somebody. If you’re listening to this, reach out to somebody in the next 24 hours. Maybe it’s somebody that gave you a helping hand, maybe it’s somebody that gave you a confidence boost over the last few months, look, maybe it’s somebody that gave you a wakeup call, and called you out so they could call you up, and maybe you didn’t let them know how much that meant. And if you’ve been thinking about somebody, my challenge is reach out to them. Get specific on how they made a difference for you and watch the dynamic that can create.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Riaz, this has been a treat. I wish you lots of enjoyable conversations in the future.

Riaz Meghji
Pete, love you, man. Thank you for inviting the message on and just being in conversation in the space.

667: How to Cultivate Your Influence and Build Powerful Connections with Jon Levy

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Jon Levy provides foundational principles for connecting better and building your influence.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why relationships are the #1 predictor of your success 
  2. How to make networking feel more natural
  3. How to build trust quickly with vulnerability loops

 

About Jon

Jon Levy is a behavioral scientist best known for his work in influence, human connection, and decision making. Jon specializes in applying the latest research to transform the ways companies approach marketing, sales, consumer engagement, and culture. His clients range from Fortune 500 brands, like Microsoft, Google, AB-InBev, and Samsung, to startups.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

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Jon Levy Interview Transcript

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

Jon Levy
Thank you. I’m super excited. I also want to learn how to be awesome-r at my job. I’m looking through like osmosis and hanging out with you I could enjoy my work more.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly. Well, I’d love it if you could kick us off by sharing a story. We’re talking about influence here. Could you tell us a cool story about a professional who really transformed their career by cultivating influence?

Jon Levy
So, one of the people that I think is super interesting is a woman named Jean Nidetch. And Jean was, kind of in her eyes, an overweight housewife. And one day, while going to the supermarket to pick up some food, she was going through the aisles and an old acquaintance of hers says, “Hi, you look great,” and she was feeling very beautiful. And the acquaintance said, “When are you due?” And Jean was mortified, the woman thought she was pregnant.

And she said to herself, “I’m going to change my life. I’m going to finally lose this weight.” And what she did was she signed up for a weight-loss course provided by the city of New York. And she had lost some weight but she realized she was really lonely. So, she invited a bunch of women to her home to play mahjong, some game like that, but really it was an opportunity for her to talk about weight loss and her struggling with it.

And the group bonded so much that they kept meeting, and then, eventually, that turned into Weight Watchers and became an international sensation of a company. She became a multimillionaire, a celebrity. And the way that she fundamentally did it was by gathering people and creating an intimate and safe space and, over time, that grew into her influence. And I just loved the story especially because, at the time, she couldn’t even have a credit card with her name on it, it said Ms. Marty Nidetch because women couldn’t really have businesses back then.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, then the magic happened when she did some inviting, and said, “Hey, come on over.”

Jon Levy
Yeah, it’s pretty incredible. So, in my personal view, our influence is a byproduct of who we’re connected to, how much they trust us, and the experience of belonging that we share. And what she was able to do was find something to connect with people that they cared about, which is their health and wellness.

She created an incredibly safe space of trust, and then the people who participated in the program had this incredible sense of community because it was that one place where they could speak openly about the trials and tribulations that they went through, the shame that they experience, the struggle from day to day to not eat some cake. And I think that that’s pretty incredible that she was able to do that, and then figure out how to make that scale so that people around the world could really have that experience and belonging.

Pete Mockaitis
And your book You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence, you’ve got a number of principles and stories along these lines. Can you share with us kind of what is the big idea here?

Jon Levy
So, here’s what’s kind of funny, in my 20s, I kept trying to change my life by like reading every self-help book and setting my alarm for 6:00 a.m. to go work out and then I’d beat myself up for not going to the gym or hitting snooze ten times. I was overweight, I was broke, and I was single, and I couldn’t seem to figure out how to get my break.

And I was sitting in a seminar, and the seminar leader said, “The fundamental element that defines the quality of our lives are the people we surround ourselves with and the conversations that we have with them.” And I said, “Well, if that’s true, then maybe, instead of beating myself up for not going to the gym, what I should do is make friends with a whole bunch of athletes and then it’ll be part of my social circle to exercise. It’ll just be a part of my habits.”

Well, it turns out, these two guys Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, researchers, were curious about the obesity epidemic, and what they found was kind of startling. They found that if you have a friend who’s obese, your probability of obesity increases by 45%. Your friends who don’t know that person have a 20% increase chance, and their friends have a 5% increase chance, which means that everything flows through our communities or our social networks, and that’s true for happiness, marriage and divorce rates, smoking habits, voting habits.

And so, the basic premise of the book is that if we can curate the people who can have the biggest impact on our lives around us, and create deep and meaningful relationships, that’ll have a profound impact on everybody’s life in a positive way. And that’s true whether it’s business or it’s longevity. The greatest predictor of human longevity is not exercise or eating healthy. The greatest predictors are, number two, strong social ties, and, number one, social integration, you’re part of the community.

On the business front, you can measure employee sick days, profitability, and stock value to the level of oxytocin, that cuddle chemical, in employees’ bloodstreams. So, the basic premise is, “How do we connect? How do we build trust? And how do we give people a sense of belonging so we can really have an impact on our lives?”

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And so, when you’re talking about cultivating influence, you’re not so much, well, you tell me, talking about how to be super persuasive so much as cultivating the influences around you, to you, and for you.

Jon Levy
Yeah, I’d agree. So, it’s interesting, right now, the word influence has kind of shifted because of people taking photos of avocado toast on Instagram. And, don’t get me wrong, I really respect people who can cultivate a large audience. It’s like a skillset that I fundamentally do not have. But when we really look at the kind of influence we care about, it’s less about that, it’s less about like marketing a product or getting people to sign up for something. It’s really like, “Do I know the right person to get my kid into the high school I want to get them into?” “I’m not feeling well, do I have a friend who’s a medical expert who can answer a question?”

And so, it’s mostly things that are a byproduct of relationships, “Do I have enough trust built up with that client for them to close the deal?” Like, that’s the kind of influence we want, I’d actually argue in general. Now, proxy for a lot of people is follower count but my guess is that that’s probably generally less satisfying than having a close friend.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, certainly.

Jon Levy
And, like, I don’t know. I don’t have a really large following but I do have a lot of close friends and I really love having them, so.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so lay it on us, that sounds like a great thing to have, influence and this view of it, and we’ve got a bit of a key prongs there to pursue in terms of making friends and having great conversations with them. So, how, in practice, can one do that well?

Jon Levy
Great question. So, let’s split it up into three topics, is that okay?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Jon Levy
There’s, “How do we get people to want to connect with us? How do we build trust quickly? And how do we really develop an experience of belonging?” So, it turns out that what we’ve been touting in our society is that people who are great at connecting go and network. Now, I don’t know about you, I hate networking.

It is anxiety-ridden, it’s uncomfortable, you’re never really talking to the person you want to talk to. It feels really transactional. And, in fact, research by Francesca Gino from Harvard Business School found that people feel, in an unconscious way, dirty. They feel the need to wash, the implicit association. Nobody wants to network.

Now, what’s interesting is we do not feel that way when we’re making friends. And so, let’s forget networking and let’s ask the question, “What will have somebody want to be our friend?” And so, what we have somebody to want to be our friend is kind of like basic things. If there’s something interesting or novel. Meaning, what you’re up to or doing, does it stand out in some way that would make me curious or interested? Are you in a curated group? Are the people that you spend time with really interesting and maybe from diverse backgrounds so that if I engage with that group or community, I’d get a lot of value?

For some people, it’s around skills, and opportunities, and access, and resources. So, what value do you provide? So, if we want to get people’s attention, the context is, “What will attract them?” And I would say that our best bet is to actually just invite people to do something with us. And the reason I say that is very specific, it has to do with that second characteristic, which is trust.

And I’ll give you an example. Do you have any kids?

Pete Mockaitis
I do. Two toddlers.

Jon Levy
Okay. Two toddlers, perfect. So, let me ask you a question. You know, how in life, traditionally, if you want to win some deals where people will take you in the business world to a business dinner?

Pete Mockaitis
All right, yeah.

Jon Levy
And do you find those particularly enjoyable?

Pete Mockaitis
It’s hit or miss.

Jon Levy
Yeah, but that’s exactly the point, is that if the person is really dynamic and fun – great. Otherwise, you’re stuck there and locked in for like an hour and a half and it’s miserable. So, giving somebody or paying for something for somebody doesn’t necessarily get them to like you more or trust you more. If you go to a party and they give you a swag bag, what do you intend to do with that swag bag?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s so funny, I’ve had the experience many times where I have a rental car and I am driving into the rental car lot where I’m returning it, then I have the bag and I’m looking at it over the trash can and deciding which items I’m going to go and take versus pitch.

Jon Levy
Yeah, yeah, because then you have to travel back home on a flight and you’re like, “Oh, my God, I’m not going to carry a, I don’t know, a Powerade onto a flight.” Like, “I don’t want 14 postcards from these brands with their stickers on them.” It’s just not anything I care about. And that’s the point, is that we don’t win people over with gifts. You can. There are very specific situations.

So, let’s say I found out you have two toddlers, if I get you like the most amazing, I don’t know, Baby Bjorn or something like that, in the world, like a toddler holder, you’d be like, “Oh, my God, Jon, you’re a lifesaver. You totally get the situation in my life.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. So much more for targeted, specific, applicable.

Jon Levy
Exactly. But that doesn’t scale very well. Like, I can do that a few times. I can’t do that with a thousand people. So, the question is, “What actually does work?” And it turns out, the exact opposite of gifting works, which is it’s called the IKEA effect. It states that we disproportionately care about our IKEA furniture because we had to assemble it.

So, if I can figure out a way for you to invest effort into our relationship, you’ll care more about it. So, you know how a lot of people are like, “Oh, I don’t like asking for favors”? Terrible idea. Ask for favors. People, generally, feel flattered that you asked, and by them fulfilling on the favor, they will actually like you more. So, the first thing is that. Let’s apply the IKEA effect.

A second is let’s find an activity or an opportunity to apply the IKEA effect. So, rather than take somebody for a drink or a dinner, go workout together. This will cause the two of you to invest effort into one another and care more about each other in the process. So, when I was 28, I was trying to figure out how to connect with really influential people. I developed these models and I end up launching a secret dining experience.

Twelve people are invited, they’re not allowed to talk about what they do or even give their last name. They cooked dinner together, and when they sit down to eat, they get to guess what everybody does and, of course, eat a terrible meal. I mean, 12 people who don’t know how to cook really don’t make a great meal.

Pete Mockaitis
Also, I think you’re going to need a big kitchen with 12 people actively doing stuff.

Jon Levy
I live in New York. I actually don’t have a huge kitchen. I actually kind of like the fact that they’re stuck rubbing elbows up against each other because it creates more intimacy. But you’ll notice the IKEA effect is in full force. They are working together towards a joint goal with a time that’s time-locked so either they get the work done and we eat, or the meat is undercooked.

So, this leads to a lot of effort being put and a lot of fast bonding. And, in general, human beings don’t bond well when they’re just like interviewing one another. We’ve developed, as a species, that works well together. And so, by having a shared activity, it takes the social pressure off of conversation, and then conversation flows more naturally.

And so, it turns out that if we want to connect and build trust quickly, the best bet is to find an activity that we actually enjoy, and then invite people to participate with us in that activity. Now, let me emphasize, I might a bit more extroverted so I might do something for 12 people. You might be more introverted and just invite two people to come with you on a hunt, or for an art class, or for some kind of activity that you really enjoy, maybe playing basketball. I don’t know.

Whatever it is, it just needs to be something you enjoy because, otherwise, it’s going to feel like a real chore to keep doing it to meet people.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I guess I’m curious, like if you’re inviting someone, is there a minimum level of something that needs to be in place before you issue an invitation? So, like, let’s just say, I bumped into you, you are someone who knows somebody I’m having coffee with, you say hey to that someone, and then I say, “Hey, Jon, do you want to go on a hike on Saturday?”

Jon Levy
That’d be super weird.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. So, how do we think about the pre-invitation relationship?

Jon Levy
So, there are two or three things that we want to look at. One is I’d encourage for it not just to be a hike. That doesn’t possess novelty.
Human beings are driven by novelty. When something is new or different, they want to engage. And so, in general, rather than just have a hike, add an additional layer of novelty. Have it be like, “Oh, each person brings one problem they’re struggling with, and by the end of the hike, the entire group coaches them through it.” So, now it’s an idea exploration hike and it has direct value to the people participating, especially if we add this additional factor, which is it’s not just novel, but if it’s well-curated.

So, if I say, “Hey, we’ve never met. You’re friends with Tim’s? Great. We both know Tim. Pete, I run an idea hike and I run it with a group of people who are all entrepreneurs who have companies that do over a million dollars in business. Five of us go at a time, each of us brings one idea that we’re struggling with, all of us are experts in different areas. So, one is an internet marketer, the other is an author, and another one is TV show writer, whatever it is. I think it would be super fun if you joined this great group of people. We’re going on a hike on Tuesday. Can you make the time?”

Now, suddenly, you see something novel, something that has shared effort, something that is very well-curated, all these successful people that you get to connect with, and you have a direct value, it’s a very generous experience. You see, “Oh, wow, maybe I’ll finally find the solution to this issue that I’m struggling with.”

And so, you see, you can take a simple idea. I’ve never, listen, I literally made this up with you right now. I’ve never heard of a hike like this. But the fact that it has all this value in there, and it’s a really simple design. Pete, how much would it cost to go on a hike like that?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I mean, if you try to package it and have a fancy landing page and all that, it could be thousands of dollars.

Jon Levy
Yeah, but I mean like if I just say, “Hey, this is something that I do,” it wouldn’t cost anything in the sense that people can get themselves to the bottom of the trail, and, let’s say, Hollywood right there is all the Runyon Canyons and all that, like it doesn’t matter how much money you have. You can absolutely gather people or connect with them and create deep connections with them without spending a fortune, is kind of what I’m pointing to.

There’s this misconception that in order to connect with people, especially the people that we want to do business with, it’s going to cost a lot of money. But it turns out that, since human beings are wired for connection and wired for developing relationships, it’s the people who have the least amount of money who are often very good at it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. Well, I want to make sure we covered that piece then. So, what are we thinking about with regard to the pre-invitation? So, you’ve boosted the value proposition, if you will, of your invitation, like, “That thing you’re talking about sounds real cool.” So, how do we think about sort of like the minimum level of pre-connection to issue that invitation?

Jon Levy
Oh, I think that you actually need none if the event is novel enough and has some proof of concept. So, if you’re allowed to mention some of the names of the people, I think it was the book Made to Stick or something like that, talked about the Sinatra role, this idea that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. All you need is like one example that, “Oh, the founder of Allbirds. It’ll be like the last time we had the founder of Allbirds and the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a… whatever.” Then, suddenly, you have proof of concept. Those are the types of people who come.

So, in that case, I can say, “Oh, I saw you on the Forbes 30, under 30, or whatever it is, list. You seem to be doing really interesting things. This is the activity I host. Would you like to join sometime? Here are the upcoming dates.” And you could literally, whatever your thing is to meet people and connect with them, you could go on two hikes a week and so that there’s always something to connect with people, and always an opportunity to have really healthy pro-social behavior and activities.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m intrigued. So, the novel dimension is, I get it, that’s really cool in terms of dopamine and excitement and…

Jon Levy
Creates curiosity, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I get that that’s awesome. But now I’m thinking about sort of the big five personalities and how, you know, I’m thinking of folks who are low on extraversion and openness to new experiences. It’s like the things we’re talking about, they sound really cool to me, but other personalities would be like, “Oh, that seems like a bit much in terms of it’s, I don’t know, risky, scary. I’m not that adventurous.” So, Jon, do you have any, I don’t know if the word is boring, but…?

Jon Levy
Safer. Let’s put on the safer suit. So, I’m going to lean on another book and thought leader on this. There’s something called The Creative Curve, it was a book by Allen Gannett. And in it he suggests that something is created when it’s familiar enough that it feels safe but new enough that it’s exciting. If it’s too safe, it’s boring. If it’s too novel, it’s esoteric. It’s like Bjork’s music.

So, I think you’re absolutely right that there are personality types that may feel uncomfortable with going hiking, and I respect that. That’s totally fine. So, there’s two or three different ways to look at it. One is, maybe, invite a few friends that write for Outlet to come or make friends with people who write for Outlet, and get a story done about it so that you have additional proof that you’re not like inviting people to steal their kidneys. That’s one angle. But that happens over time. It’s not going to happen your second time. It’ll happen your 10th time, 20th time, whatever it is.

The second is you can also do like a board game or a dinner party, and use formats that are more familiar to the people than hiking. The issue is that you’re not necessarily looking to connect with everybody. You’re not trying to boil the ocean and make friends with the entire world. What you’re doing is trying to find people in certain industries that have values that you care about, and sometimes that means that you won’t meet specific people, but that’s okay.

Like, frankly, if people are so introverted, they’re probably not going to networking events anyway, or conferences. And in those cases, you’re probably better off with just a direct introduction and hoping that you get to meet them for something more quiet. That’s it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. So, there we have it. So, you have an activity and it’s sort of a clear offer that is somewhat novel and fun and valuable, and gives an opportunity for people to meet and connect and connect better than just chatting because they’re doing something together, so all that’s excellent. So, then let’s say you’re in it. So, here we are, we’re cooking, we’re hiking, we’re doing the board game, and we’re doing the thing, any particular do’s and don’ts for connecting well in the moment?
Jon Levy
Sure. So, here’s something I only learned while researching this new book. We tend to think that trust precedes vulnerability. Like, if I trust you, I’ll be willing to risk more. But it turns out that it actually doesn’t work that way. It turns out that it’s a process called a vulnerability loop. So, let’s say I started working for you, Pete, and I’m sitting in a cubicle or whatever not far from you. And you hear me say, “Oh, my God, I’m so overwhelmed.” I’ve just signaled vulnerability. I said, “I don’t know how I’m going to handle something.” Now, if you ignore that or make fun of it, trust will be reduced.

Pete Mockaitis
“Ah, Jon, you loser. Buckle down. You can handle it.”

Jon Levy
Now, in certain environments, you might be like in the Navy Seals, it’s probably like the culture but in most offices, people are going to feel really insecure and then not put themselves out there again. But if you acknowledge it, and say, “Jon, my first week I was totally overwhelmed. What are you dealing with?” Then you’ve just signaled vulnerability and now we can trust each other at this higher level. And it’s these vulnerability loops that actually develop trust. That’s why trust, generally, develops over time through small actions.

Now, the IKEA effect, one of the reasons I think it exists is because, as you’re investing effort in a joint activity, it creates a bunch of these vulnerability loops, like, “Oh, my God, pass me the…” then you throw me like whatever I need. And, suddenly, we’ve opened and closed a bunch of loops. Now, this also means that when we meet people, we want to be aware of when they’re putting out loops which we sometimes we don’t notice.

So, if you’re saying, “Oh, how’s your week?” “Oh, my God, it was so stressful.” That is the opening of a loop and that’s your opportunity to increase trust. Now, watch out, there are some people who will verbally vomit all over you but, for the most part, being aware of them and acknowledging them and giving people a space for that means that you can increase trust faster.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s a really interesting framework right there in terms of, “Can you pass me the salt?” I mean, that is like the tiniest bit of vulnerability but, at the same time, it’s like, “Look, I’ve got some stuff sizzling on this pan. This is the perfect moment I need the salt and, yet, there’s 12 people in the kitchen, I can’t reach it right now, so hook me up.” So, that is a little something and I see how that takes you there.

So, let’s zoom way in on these bits. So, some says, “I’m so stressed, I’m so overwhelmed, I’m tired. I’m worried about this thing. My toddler has been screaming all afternoon. He’s driving me nuts.” So, someone puts one of those out there, let’s hear some best-practice responses.

Jon Levy
And I also want to add something that, for some people, saying, “I got a promotion” is a vulnerability loop.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Jon Levy
It has to do with the level of comfort that somebody feels.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s true. Like, if someone disclosed a financial item to me and I’m trying to keep it as vague as possible and respectful, and I can tell, it’s like, “Whoa, that is vulnerable” in that I know that something about your situation that is surprising and could cause me to look at you in a different light, better or worse, like, “Holy crap, I didn’t know you were so loaded,” or, “Oh, dang, government assistance, I didn’t know you were really struggling.” Either way, it’s vulnerable and it could be vulnerable in a positive way.

Jon Levy
Yeah, it’s super interesting. And the issue is that, in general, we don’t flex the vulnerability muscle in a great way. Part of it is that we can accomplish a vulnerability loop both by paying attention when other people are opening them or by us opening it in a way that gives them an opportunity to close it. So, if I said, “You know, Pete, I am so impressed with what you’ve accomplished with this podcast. I tried to launch a podcast a while back and it was, I did a bunch of episodes and I just didn’t have the energy to keep it going. I’m beyond impressed.” That in itself is a vulnerability loop. I just called one out on myself.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re right. And it’s easy to let them just blow right past you, it’s like, “Hey, man, you’re not that lucky. You just got to keep on hustling and grinding and get a good team.” It’s like, okay, that actually did accomplish nothing in terms of like relationship-building.

Jon Levy
It blew it off. It said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m whatever,” on your opinion of me. And so, we aren’t really good with that kind of stuff, and the issue is that when we mess up or think we’ve messed up, which is more common than actually messing up, like an overshare, then we get scared to do it again, and understandably which is uncomfortable. Vulnerability in its core is the willingness to be open to injury of some kind.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Literally, vulneo, Latin, to wound. You’re right. And, in a way, boy, this is really a skill and you kind of got to slow it down at first, like, “Okay, okay. Oh, Jon is opening up a vulnerability loop here.” And so, sometimes, boy, I can overthink it so, let’s hear some best-practice responses. I guess it’s something along the lines of validation, like, “Yeah, man, it’s freaking tough. It takes hours and hours and hours, and then you feel like you got to deliver for an audience, like, “Where is my next episode?” and you don’t want to disappoint them, and so you feel that pressure. And then that pressure can get you all the more tired and overwhelmed. Okay, so that’s where like connecting to the emotion.

Jon Levy
That’s one possible sign. So, the other is, “Wow, thank you so much for noticing that. Most people just see the success and think it comes easy. And, I’ll be honest, I’ve clocked in sleepless nights trying to figure out how to make it better, and I really appreciate that you noticed.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good.

Jon Levy
So, there isn’t a one way to do it. I think the more important is to acknowledge it and give like a real answer or response. Here’s another kind of fun thing about trust that most people are unaware of. When you say, like, “Oh, what’s the most important aspect of a relationship.” Everybody always says trust.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Jon Levy
“Great. What is trust made out of?” And when you ask that question, people are like, “Like, being vulnerable? I don’t know.” And I didn’t know either until I researched this book. It turns out that trust is essentially made of, most researchers agree, three things, some say four. I like the three model. And it would be competence, your ability to do something; honesty or integrity, your truthfulness; and the third is benevolence.

Now, here’s what’s interesting. Not all of the three pillars are equally weighted or important. So, for example, let’s say you have an episode and it bombs. Do your listeners go, “Oh, I can’t trust him to deliver anymore,” or do they seem like, “Oh, that one was just okay, whatever, and he’ll be back to normal. He probably got his second COVID shot and had an off day”?

So, you can see that you can breach competence and it’s not a big deal. But if you were to breach honesty, like somebody lied to you, you would probably doubt everything that they say moving forward, but there’s kind of like this funny loophole. So, let’s say the two of us were walking down the street and it’s like a year from now and we can congregate in large groups at this point. And as we’re walking, I say, “Hey, Pete, do you mind if we stopped by a friend’s house? I need to pick something up.” And you’re like, “Yeah, sure.”

When we walk in, 40 of your closest friends jumped out and screamed, “Surprise!” Now, it would be super strange if you turned to me and go, “Jon, you just lied to me. We can’t be friends anymore.” Like, I clearly breached honesty, I did not tell the truth, but you were okay with it because I did for benevolent reasons.

Now, if you’ve found out that your doctor was getting kickbacks for giving you prescriptions, that’s a lack of benevolence. You’d be like, “That’s really messed up. I need a new doctor.” So, we can see that we value benevolence above honesty, and honesty above competence. And here’s what’s really interesting when I was doing all this research, I discovered that, apparently, and I’m very clearly not a Navy Seal as you can tell just by looking at me, that when the Navy Seals are reviewing potential candidates, apparently, they ranked them on their skill, their competence, and their team orientation, their kind of benevolence.

And if you scored very high on competence but very low on benevolence, or team orientation, then you’re a terrible candidate because it means that you’ll be very arrogant. But if you are very team-oriented and less skilled, they’d much rather have you because you can always upskill a person, you can train them, but what’s really hard is teaching somebody to be benevolent.

And so, I think when the important thing, and you see this to some degree with these vulnerability loops, is that human beings tend to trust when they feel that somebody has their best interest at heart and when they’re being honest, and competence can increase over time. And if you look at misinformation right now, and I know this is kind of a random side topic, but a lot of the misinformation that’s believed seems to be about, like, very wealthy elite people. And my hunch is that it becomes so believable because, although whoever is very competent at doing things, my hunch is the people that believed these things, like they’re trying to microchip us or whatever it is, don’t necessarily feel like that they’re benevolent.

And so, I think that that’s a lot of the issues that we’re facing, is that when the narrative around our relationships are non-benevolent, it’s really hard to trust. In competence, we can kind of get over.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, yeah. You know, that’s interesting because I remember when I fired somebody, there was some incompetence going on for a while and I was like, “Okay, we got to work on it. We got to work on it.” And then I remember there was some hourly reporting going on, and in a conversation I had with her about what seemed like over-hour reporting, she over-reported the hours she spent having that conversation with me.

Jon Levy
Oh, my God, that’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
I was like, “You could see the timestamp on the Skype and we’re talking about the thing right now.” It’s just sort of like, “I just don’t have any hope that this can be turned around. I guess we’re done here, you know.”

Jon Levy
Oh, my God, that’s so awkward. Oh, but I think that that’s a perfect example of hourly reporting is a vulnerability loop, right? You are literally saying, “I trust that you are going to be respectful of my business, my work, my livelihood, my ability to support my family, and I’m going to trust you to accurately assess your work.”

And what’s interesting about this one is that it’s not up to debate. You either, like an hour is a length of time that you can measure. Like, sure, maybe you got up to go to the bathroom, whatever, like you’re allowed bathroom breaks so I’m not like measuring that. But she breached that vulnerability loop, like trust was fundamentally reduced to the point that it’s not acceptable to keep working together.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, right. So, I mean, that just rings true in terms of benevolence trumping honesty, trumping competence, because competence, you know, I was being lenient for a good while there. So, insightful stuff, Jon. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Jon Levy
This has been super interesting exploring the idea and I loved that you brought up an example. And the book is, like I mentioned, super fun. It explores how human connection, trust, and belonging are really the greatest predictors and kind of breaks down the signs and stories of how to bring it to life.

And I think one of the interesting things is that we did a deep dive into how to actually accomplish it digitally because, right now, teams are really having a tough time at distance, maintaining culture, of feeling of belonging, and so that was super interesting on how to actually accomplish it.

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

Jon Levy
“If you wish to improve, be willing to be thought as stupid and foolish.” Epictetus. So, I cannot count the number of times I felt like an idiot. I’ve embarrassed myself more times than I can count. I have opened more vulnerability loops that were never closed. I have put myself out there, leaned in for the kiss in my early days, before I was married, and was rejected. Like, you put yourself out there like some romantic trope and then you’re like, “Oh, no, we’re best as friends.”

So, the fact is, that human beings function in like an anti-fragile process, meaning, “I dropped a glass, it breaks. It’s fragile.” But human beings are anti-fragile, which means that when we apply pressure to ourselves, we get stronger. We lift weights, we get stronger. We try and learn to interact socially, it’s embarrassing at times but we get stronger. And so, I love that quote by Epictetus.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study?

Jon Levy
There’s two that are kind of fun. One is by Gilbert. I think he’s at Harvard. He’s kind of like the leading happiness researcher. And what he did was he had people take a, I think it was a series of Monet prints, I think it’s like six of them or 20 of them, whichever number it was. And he said, “Oh, please organize these from most appealing to least appealing.” And then he, essentially said, “Oh, I have number three and number four. You can pick one of them to take home with you.”

A week later, they came back and they had them reorganized, the print order, or put it in order again from most to least, and number three, which is what most of them took home, became number two. And number four became number five. So, essentially, making the decision or commitment actually changed people’s preferences.

Now, people argued, “Oh, that’s because they have the print and they remember it.” So, he repeated the experiment in one of these centers for people who can’t form new memories, like 50 First Dates or Memento. And so, he comes in, does the experiment, walks out of the room, walks back in, the person doesn’t remember them anymore, doesn’t remember the experiment, and then has them order the pictures again. And somehow number three becomes number two, and number four becomes number five.

That means that our decisions and our preferences can actually be rewired based on our actions independent of our memory, which means that our preferences are malleable and it’s kind of silly because we view ourselves as the person who likes this drink, and likes this activity. But maybe if we just made a slightly different decision one time, we could learn to like anything. And I think that that’s totally wild.

Another study I kind of like is called the Pratfall Effect. So, for the listeners, you know how like in romcoms, people love the hapless fool that falls over themselves, like one we want to cheer for? A study was done that looked at people going into job interviews and had some people spill a bit of coffee on themselves, and it turns out that they were rated as better and more preferable because they were human. It’s kind of like that vulnerability loop that I was talking about.

So, it turns out that being a little silly, or falling on yourself a bit, or having these moments that humanize us, actually get people to like us more. So, the things that you’re probably embarrassed about are probably working in your favor.

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

Jon Levy
So, my name is Jon Levy, and I’m pretty easy to find on all the social platforms. I’m jonlevytlb across Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Clubhouse, if that’s still a thing. Who knows? It could be gone in a week or whenever. And my website is JonLevyTLB.com, and the book is called You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence. So, feel free to reach out. There’s also a bunch of games on my website for people who want to connect better digitally, and they’re a ton of fun.

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

Jon Levy
Yes. So, people tend to be most engaged when they’re doing something just outside their skillset, like that point of slight discomfort. So, my encouragement is for you to look at the different aspects of your job and ask yourself “What would make you just slightly uncomfortable? What would be exciting for you to try and do?” Maybe that’s go to your boss and say, “Hey, I would like to do a presentation in front of the team.”

Even if it’s not a necessary presentation, just building up that skill because it’s exciting for you is super beneficial. And having like a playground to do it in and that’s safe is essential. And so, whatever that area that makes you a little bit nervous and excited, find that and go and pursue it just so you can develop better skills.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jon, this has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun in all the ways you’re cultivating influence.

Jon Levy
Thank you. And this is an absolute blast. Thanks for having me on and for sharing your stories with me. It’s a pleasure.

661: How to Connect Meaningfully with Susan McPherson

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Susan McPherson shares her surefire method for building better connections.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The winning strategy to building connections
  2. Better alternatives to small talk
  3. How to maintain connections efficiently

About Susan

Susan McPherson is a serial connector, seasoned communicator and founder and CEO of McPherson Strategies, a communications consultancy focused on the intersection of brands and social impact. She is the author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Relationships. Susan has 25+ years of experience in marketing, public relations, and sustainability communications, speaking regularly at industry conferences, and contributing to the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Forbes. 

She has appeared on NPR, CNN, USA Today, The New Yorker, New York Magazine and the Los Angeles Times. Susan is a Vital Voices global corporate ambassador and has received numerous accolades for her voice on social media platforms from Fortune Magazine, Fast Company and Elle Magazine. She resides in Brooklyn.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Susan McPherson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Susan thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Susan McPherson
I’m very happy to be here, Pete. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to dig into your wisdom about the lost art of connecting. And I understand you have made a fun connection. You’re pals with Kevin Bacon. How did that come to be? And what’s it like to be buddies with a famous person?

Susan McPherson
Well, first of all, I wouldn’t go so far as say buddies.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Susan McPherson
I don’t want to embellish it. His older sister has been a friend of mine for years and we live in Seattle, and I moved to New York not knowing anyone, and she so graciously introduced me to him, and I spent my first Thanksgiving in New York City at his home with his wonderful wife and kids and extended family.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Kevin Bacon, of all the celebrities you might be connected to for you and what you’re doing, that’s just priceless.

Susan McPherson
Oh, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Six degrees or five degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Susan McPherson
Six degrees, and that means now you’re two degrees.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, you know what, that feels really…I’m having a surge of feeling powerful right now, actually, as you highlight that, so thank you. Well, so tell us, we’re talking about connecting. What would you say is one of the most surprising and fascinating things you’ve discovered about connecting which might be counterintuitive to folks?

Susan McPherson
Well, what has enabled me over the years to be successful is always leading with, “How can I help?” rather than “What can I get?” which is counterintuitive to what we have traditionally thought of when we’ve been networking and meeting others. We tend to go into things, like, “What can I get? What can I learn? Who can I meet?” as opposed to, “What can I give? How can I support? How can I be the one making the introduction for you?” And I have found, by leading with that, it actually has helped me and opened more doors and created a lifelong world of people everywhere.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that sounds great. And so then, let’s talk about the “How can I help?” mindset first and foremost, and I’m thinking also about Keith Ferrazzi. That’s one of his key principles, is generosity there. So, can you share with us just all the kinds of ways that people might need help? And people sometimes don’t really speak up about what they need help with. They’re embarrassed or they’re shy or they open themselves because they haven’t thought through it.

So, how do you think about identifying what people really need? And what are all the different ways that you can help? Because I think sometimes people might say, “Oh, I’m not rich. I’m not powerful. I’m not connected. What do I have to offer?” So, lay it on us, how does one help well?

Susan McPherson
Well, I will tell you just a little bit of about what’s in my book. I lay out a very, very detailed methodology, which I won’t bore all your listeners with in terms of detail but I can certainly give you kind of the high…the 30,000-foot view, and it’s gather, ask, do.

And in the gather section is when you do some meaningful self-reflection to actually determine what it is that you have to offer, what is it that you bring to the table, what is your chief differentiating factors, your secret sauces. And notice I say “sss” because everyone has many. The next is the ask.

And, yes, there is always a time and a place for you to ask for what you need and what you want and what you deserve but, in this case, it is learning the art of asking meaningful questions so you can find out what is important to someone else, what do they need help with.

There’s even a chapter in the book that gives you questions that you can have in your back pocket that actually helps you ask people questions that will lead you to understand what they are hoping and dreaming for.

And, lastly, if you ask the meaningful questions and listen carefully, you can then get to the do, and what you do in the do is actually the place I like to be the most, but that’s when you become helpful, reliable, trustworthy, following through. And I hear your question about, “Well, what about if I’m not a rich heiress or a philanthropist, etc. how do I help?” Well, this goes back to that secret sauce and that chief differentiating factor.

Every single one of us has things to offer one another, and sometimes it might just be an introduction to someone else we know. So, don’t overthink it but it really comes down to asking the right questions and then better understanding what it is that you can be doing to be helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, let’s walk through a bit of that gather, ask, and do then.

Susan McPherson
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when it comes to gather and zeroing in on what it is we have to offer, well, maybe, first, let’s contextualize. It seems like it’s what we have to offer is pretty broad, it’s not just in the work sphere. It’s kind of just like anybody we might bump into. Is that fair to say?

Susan McPherson
Well, my book is a business book, okay, so the context of the book was written very much around how do we do this from a business perspective. But I always joke, “There’s not a work-Susan and a home-Susan,” and I decided about 15 years ago, it was tiring being two people and much easier to be one. And a lot of times, when we are incredibly passionate about the work that we do, it doesn’t feel as much of being work.

So, I have also learned that many of the kind of secret sauces that I bring to the table, literally, cross boundaries of work and home. It doesn’t necessarily fall into. And I run a social impact communications consulting firm, so just the notion of making impact in the world, you could question whether that is work or not work, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, certainly. Okay. Well, so then, thinking about it from a professional world, which can, indeed, be broader than we could contextualizes it at times, what are your pro tips for zeroing in on, “Huh, these are some of my secret sauces”?

Susan McPherson
Sure. Well, it really depends on where you are in your kind of career, and I talk to a lot of 20 somethings that are just out of school and tend to think they don’t have a whole lot to offer, but they may speak multiple languages, they may be very technically mindful. I joke sometimes that a 22-year-old may be able to say two things that would really help me out, and that is TikTok, and things like that that could be very helpful to someone like myself that is in the world of communications. So, it’s a very personal thing but I think all of us have to look internally and think about.

I’m going to ask you, Pete, what are your secret sauces?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. Well, the first thing that comes to mind is just, from the StrengthsFinder report, like Ideation lately. I’ve just been getting so many ideas and putting them into action, and Activator is another one of them, so that’s part of it.

Susan McPherson
That’s great.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess the podcast itself is a thing in terms of, well, a lot of people want to be on it and we candidly reject the vast majority of incoming pitches, so great job, Susan and Nina, your publicist.

Susan McPherson
Well, she’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Because most people, frankly, we proactively hunt down based on listener requests these days but sometimes we go, “Ooh, that’s actually spot on so let’s call her.”

Susan McPherson
Oh, I feel special. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
You are special. So, yeah, those are some of the things. And I think I have a knack for researching something with an intensity or vigilance that can almost seem obsessive but, in so doing, discover things that most people don’t because they don’t go past the first page of Google. And so, sometimes, like I can really vibe with investigative journalists, like, “Yeah, totally. I’m in the same mindset as you many times.”

Susan McPherson
Well, that’s a gift and it’s also a secret sauce. I often say leading with curiosity is such an enormous skill, so right there you’ve just named. But you had to do some deep thinking to think about that, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, I did it before we talked in terms of just general self-awareness work. And then when you prompted me, I did take a few seconds of thought, so certainly.

Susan McPherson
I love it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we dig into those things. And so, in my own instance, I’ve thought about, okay, what are some times I’ve relied and impressed people with, “Wow, that’s really great work,” or I’ve looked at some assessments like the StrengthsFinder to surface some stuff. What are some of the other sources that can serve up the secret sauce?

Susan McPherson
Sure. I’m a big believer in asking your close confidants, your brain trust, the people…your family members, your dog, you name it. But it is a type of thing where you can really gather this information to help you do that self-reflection. I have a funny story back in 2007. I went away with eight girlfriends for a weekend. And the goal that weekend was for each of us to come up with our secret sauce, our elevator speech.

And it was during that weekend that I finally coined the term that I am a serial connector. And I’ll be completely honest, when I said it, I almost peed my pants because it sounded so ridiculous. But it took the group to give me the guts and give me the permission and, also, basically state for the record I was amazing at connecting people.

And then, a few years later when I was introduced to come on and speak on a stage, and they introduced me, and said, “We welcome Susan McPherson, serial connector, seasoned communicator,” again, I almost peed my pants. But now I wrote a book about it. So, the point being is that was deep thinking and deep reflection on my part but I also pulled from the crowd. I actually helped gather data from the people closest to me.

Pete Mockaitis
This is maybe the funniest follow-up I’ve ever asked, when you say pee your pants, do you mean you were terrified or thrilled?

Susan McPherson
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Susan McPherson
I was embarrassed. Like it sounded ridiculous. It sounded just, “No one’s going to believe that.”

Pete Mockaitis
“That’s it. I nailed it.” And that’s not what you meant. You meant, “Oh, geez, that seems corny or outrageous.”

Susan McPherson
Yes, it seemed preposterous is probably the word.

Pete Mockaitis
And that could be an insight right there in terms of if you’re feeling some internal resistance or skepticism when you are connected with people that you’re bouncing these things off of, you could get the courage to say, “No, that’s for real,” and own it and work it.

Susan McPherson
Exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. Well, let’s talk about the asking. How do we ask? Or are there some particular key questions or tips to be better listeners and get to the heart of things?

Susan McPherson
Well, sure, and they’re both two separate chapters in the book. Actually, there’s one chapter that has, literally, 11 questions that you can carry in your back pocket that will help you ask more meaningful questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please share several of these immediately. We have to know.

Susan McPherson
Well, they are certainly not the questions that are going to lead you to yes or no answers, and they’re also not questions about the weather or what people ate for lunch today, but they’re things like, “Pete, it’s been a tough year. It’s been a really challenging year. How are you doing? And is there anything you could be using my help?” Or, “Pete, if you could go anywhere at the end of this pandemic, anywhere on the planet, where would you go and why?” Or, “Pete, if there was a problem you could solve in the next month, and money wasn’t an issue, what would that problem be?”

Pete Mockaitis
Like, a society or social problem?

Susan McPherson
These questions elicit more meaningful responses and help you get a better data set, a more rich answer that is going to help you then lead to, “Oh, how can I be helpful to this person?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I think those are excellent questions and I guess I’m thinking about the context in terms of “I have many people I know that I’d be totally fine, just go in there right away.” I’m thinking if you have just met someone three minutes ago, you may not want to go there right away.

Susan McPherson
What about those questions seem…?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I suppose, and it could vary by personality, if, let’s say, I just met, we’re talking, it’s like, “Oh, how do you know Jane?” or, “What brings you to the podcast movement conference, Susan?” whatever. So, we’re like just met and then you said, “Hey, it’s been a tough year with the pandemic. How are you doing?” Like, “Well, Susan, I guess I’m okay. I just met you,” you know.

Susan McPherson
I don’t know. Again, in many, many talks, and I run a communications firm, so I will say that this past year has been the great equalizer. Most people have been challenged by it.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Susan McPherson
I mean, that’s quite a generalization. I don’t want to say all people. But, to me, it’s almost like the elephant in the room that if we don’t address it, we’re not being human. And I find that it isn’t such a personal question because obviously, if the person is uncomfortable, they’ll say, “I’m fine.”

Pete Mockaitis
Fair enough. You just lead with that.

Susan McPherson
But most people, yeah, most people…

Pete Mockaitis
We just met, “You know, how are you really doing, Susan?” Like, “Hey, take a hint. You’re not my friend, my spouse, my boss, I just met you and I’m giving you a bit of a buff-off so take that cue.” Well, I think that’s powerful right there in terms of, well, one, maybe we can afford to be a little bit more courageous and vulnerable, just go ahead. And, two, it’s not the biggest deal in the world if someone chooses not to disclose and you could just take that hint and respond accordingly.

Susan McPherson
Yeah. I mean, look, again, every human is different and that’s a good thing. It makes life interesting. But, generally speaking, I have found that this is the time that we don’t have to be superhuman or superwomen or supermen. And when you open yourself up to a little bit more vulnerability, others generally reciprocate in kind. And, therefore, you can have a little bit more meaningful discussion than about the weather. Not everyone. Some people will want to stick with the weather, and you know what, that’s good too.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Sure thing. One of my bits, I always just imagine like if you try to small talk someone about the weather and they happen to be like extremely into the weather, they’re like, “How about that dew point, huh? It’s really climbing up there.” Just how that will unfold.

Susan McPherson
You know, it’s funny, I did my junior year abroad in Denmark, and I lived with a Danish family. And my Danish father, this was back in ‘80s, but he would always say that American always have to fill the void so they have to have talking. So, what they will do is talk about the weather. And I have to tell you, over the years, when we started having conference calls, inevitably in every start of every conference call, the de facto conversation would be about the weather, and I would completely start to laugh in the back of my head because it would take me back to Denmark, and I was like, “Oh, my God, he was right.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, “Those silly Americans.” Well, you shared a few great questions. I’d love it if you could give us a few more.

Susan McPherson
Well, I think there’s always this notion, again, because I work in impact, this discussion about “What else can we be doing to be helpful?” I also find anything around travel, anything about where our upbringing, where we came from, can give you a deeper clue as to people and, too,  what their hopes and dreams are. That is kind of the suggestions that I have.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And how do we listen all the better so that we are picking up maybe what’s not said and prudently following up with what is said?

Susan McPherson
Well, we are woefully bad at listening, and this year has proven to be extraordinarily challenging. I think about all of us who had been privileged enough to work from home but have had the obligatory Zoom or Microsoft Team meetings while we have our email open, while we have our Twitter applications open, while we have our WhatsApp and our texting, and probably our children and our dogs all running around. Listening can be extraordinarily challenging.

In the book, I showcase Dr. Julian Treasure who has done a number of TED Talks, and I highlight recommend your listeners go and listen.

Pete Mockaitis
We got Julian on the show a couple of times, yeah.

Susan McPherson
Well, there you go. So, I would follow a lot of his advice. But, for me, personally, two things that I do. One, I literally carry a notepad with me now everywhere in virtual rooms, and I take notes when people are talking. I, also, am not so shy as I won’t…if I find myself daydreaming or thinking about what I’m going to cook for dinner as opposed to listening, is I will circle back and say, “Pete, I missed what you said. Can you repeat it?” And that keeps me grounded. That helps me continue to listen.

But, also, writing, taking notes if someone talks, at least for me, is very, very helpful. And then when I follow-up with people, I generally will pull from something that was said in the conversation so that that not only helps me remember, of course, but also reminds the person that I actually did listen to them, that I saw them.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great. And we had a comedian on the show who sort of talked about callbacks and how, if you had sort of a humorous exchange, referencing that in particular can facilitate that signal of, “Yes, I was listening. And, yes, that was a special happy fun moment we had there, wasn’t it?”

Cool. All right. Well, so then let’s hear about the do. So, we’ve gathered, we’ve asked, and now when it comes to doing, how do we do well?

Susan McPherson
And if we listened after we asked, then we have the follow-up to do. And, typically, the do begins with your follow-up, and I mentioned how when I do follow-up, I do try to mention what I heard or what I saw. And I, typically, will follow-up right away. It’s the type of thing where I know I’m going to get it done. But, again, that notepad that I carry around with me, I will make a note if I can’t do it right away. And I, generally, will respond back something I heard the person say or I will make…potentially, I will suggest that I will make an introduction for that person.

But I want to make sure your listeners know, I’m not sitting here saying, “You have to help every single person in the entire world.” But if your goal is to make a deeper more meaningful connection, this is a way to start the process, and it’s not a one-and-done thing. You’re not going to like follow-up and then, “Ah, done. I don’t have to reach out to them in 10 years.” This is something that, hopefully, if it builds into a reciprocal relationship, will carry through and continue to grow and blossom.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, when you talked about following up, like if there’s not just like a crystal-clear action item or to-do or promise made, can you give us some examples of actual snippets of follow-up text or dialogue?

Susan McPherson
Sure. It can be as simple as, “Pete, it was great chatting with you last night. I so enjoyed our conversation about X, Y, Z, your favorite hummus, or where you’re going on your next trip, or the project you’re working on. I’d love to keep in touch. What would be the best way to keep in touch with you?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s simple. Thank you.

Susan McPherson
I mean, let’s not overthink this. But the reason I asked about what is the best way is every person has a different means and mode of the way they want to stay in touch or communicate. And, to me, that is a very respectful way to keep the loop going.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then let’s talk about maintenance in terms of sort of ongoing? Like, in some ways, it could be intimidating if, well, I don’t know if you have any numbers in mind, but like the frequency of touches and the depth of touches, like it could multiply real quick in terms of, “I’ve met 3,000 people. And if I want to stay in touch, do I need to give them a message every other month?” So, how do you think about the maintenance stuff?

Susan McPherson
Sure. Well, again, I want to delineate between what I talk about versus networking. For me, it’s not a numbers game. It is very much intentional in keeping in touch based on, if we think back to the gather phase, “What is the community we want to build to help us meet our own goals?” This isn’t just about staying in touch for the sake of staying touch, although that is great, too. I’m not anti that.

So, to me, to sit here and put out numbers would be not what I’m practicing. But I also believe that because this isn’t transactional, a relationship doesn’t start and stop. A relationship ebbs and flows. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Susan McPherson
So, again, it’s not realistic to think you’re going to stay in touch with everybody every day but I fervently believe that you stay in touch with people not when you need something, so that when you do need something, it’s so much easier to ask.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Okay. That’s good. That’s good. And I hear you, in terms of ebbs and flows, I’m thinking about when we moved into this building, like the realtor, we talked to him all the time, and now we talk to him rarely, but occasionally. And he’s awesome and I like being in touch with him, likewise, with the contractor. And so, the ebbs and flows does sound natural, and it may well be like three years of a gap between times, but if I see something that makes me think of them, go for it and that’s cool.

Susan McPherson
Absolutely. And that’s a gift. That’s a gift. And the thing is how often have you been walking down the street and somebody pops in your brain? And, generally speaking, you do, you park it. I, now, whenever that happens, I use my little voice memo on my handheld, which is generally with me, and I make a note so that I will actually then go back, or maybe while I’m walking, and just text using the voice memo and say, “Hey, Carolyn, you popped in my brain. It’s been a while. I just want to say hello and find out how you’re doing.” Simple as that.

And I must do those three to five times a day, and it’s literally when people pop in my brain. Again, no ask, no I’m not expecting anything in return, although, it’s lovely if people respond back, but it is my own way of being, like, “Hey, I’m still here,” but also spreading a little joy in the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, and you’re right, and it does feel good in terms of, yeah, as I imagine myself on the receiving end of that, like even if I have…even if that person doesn’t have a really special place in my heart, they’re just like, “Okay, I randomly met you at a whatever, a conference four years ago, and we had a couple laughs, but whatever.” So, just for example, like I would still feel pretty good to get that text and like, “Oh,” and I might say, you know, I’m probably not going to follow up and say, “Oh, yes, absolutely. So good to hear from you. Let’s find some time where we can really catch up at length.” I probably won’t do that. For some people, I certainly would. But even in the worst case that feels good. So, yeah, do more of that. Absolutely. That’s great.

Susan McPherson
Well, a lot of people say to me, “How do you have time? How do you find time to keep in touch in this and that?” And I have to be honest with you, Pete, the more people in my life, the more efficient I get because it means there’s more people I can tap into when somebody needs an expert in climate change, coral restoration, animal physiology. Like, you will know someone or you will know someone who knows someone.

Pete Mockaitis
You got a toxicologist for me, Susan?

Susan McPherson
I can find you one.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Good to know. Good to know. Well, that’s great. Thank you. Well, tell me, any final pro tips or things that you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Susan McPherson
Sure. Well, I just think leading with how can we be helpful is a tremendous way to pivot as we move through our professional careers whether we are with peers, whether we’re with the people who are hiring us or promoting us, whether we are raising money for our startup. Leading with that will only come back to help you.

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

Susan McPherson
I have to say “We’re only as blind as we want to be,” and I say that quote because I have found leading a life of deep curiosity has been extraordinarily helpful to me and never questioning whether somebody is worth my time. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, great.

Susan McPherson
Because what I have learned from people, and maybe the initial impression was, “Wait, this person can’t ‘help’ me with my career, they can’t help me get this or that,” but I have always surprised myself that when I kind of disabled the blinders, it enabled me to learn something not only about that person but to learn more about myself.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Susan McPherson
It would have to be Caste by Isabel Wilkerson that I just read earlier this year. Powerful, powerful. Highly, highly recommended just in terms of grounding and also what is basically systemic racism in this country. And I know I’m going deep but I have found that to be just extraordinary.

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

Susan McPherson
Email and my notepad. Honestly, my notepad. But I don’t know what I would do without email.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite habit?

Susan McPherson
Texting people I love and asking how they’re doing, and blowing bubbles in my dog’s belly.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, fun. And is there a particular nugget you share that really connects and resonates with folks; they quote it back to you frequently?

Susan McPherson
I know I’m sounding redundant and repetitive, it’s literally, “How can I be of help to you?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Susan McPherson
And folks joke about that all the time.

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

Susan McPherson
Well, my company’s website McPherson Strategies or anywhere online susamcp1, you can find me on the social webs, and you can obviously email me at susan@mcpstrategies.com.

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

Susan McPherson
I would make sure you listen twice as much as you speak, that is why we have two ears. And I would always, always, always leave with how you can be helpful to others and, believe me, the world will come back and help you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Susan, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun in all the ways you’re connecting.

Susan McPherson
Thank you, Pete.

645: How to Make a Bigger Impact by Connecting First with Dr. Melanie Katzman

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Melanie Katzman shares strategies for establishing a great connection to facilitate great work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The trick to a great first impression
  2.  The one question to gain better perspective
  3. The listening hack that makes all the difference 

About Melanie

Dr. Melanie Katzman is a business psychologist and coach to the world’s top public and private companies. Her latest book, Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning, and Joy at Work, is a #1 WSJ bestseller. 

She has delivered workshops and keynotes to organizations worldwide for three decades. During COVID-19, she is an especially sought-after virtual speaker, giving groups the tools for coping with newfound daily stressors, teaching immediately actionable techniques that have meaningful and enduring results. 

Melanie has been featured in the financial and popular media, and has appeared on numerous podcasts and television outlets. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Blinkist: Read or listen to summarized wisdom from thousands of nonfiction books! Free trial available at blinkist.com/awesome

Dr. Melanie Katzman Interview Transcript

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

Melanie Katzman
Thanks so much for having me, Pete. I’m excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to talk about your wisdom and Connect First. Great title. My hats off to you.

Melanie Katzman
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Can we kick it off by hearing about maybe the most surprising and fascinating discovery you’ve made in the process of putting together the book Connect First?

Melanie Katzman
Sure. So, Pete, I’m a clinical psychologist with decades of experience seeing people individually as a therapist. At the same time, I’ve been a corporate consultant to both startups as well as large multinationals. And one of the things that I found is that no matter where I was working, no matter who I was working with, whether it be in America or other parts of the world, people at their core, are all wired the same.

We all want to belong. We want to be recognized. We want information. We crave praise. We want to be appreciated. And so, in creating Connect First, what I was able to do was pull from the experiences I have as both a therapist, as a consultant, and put that all together in a way that I hope communicates to everybody that we need to connect first through our common humanity.

And the surprise, the delight in the book and in the book tour, has been that people really resonate with that message. It just makes sense. It is what people experience. And particularly during a pandemic, it’s what people crave, that human connection. So, it’s a delightful surprise, it wasn’t a full surprise because it’s exactly why I wrote the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we talk about connecting first, maybe what’s the alternative? What do people do first if not connect that’s problematic?

Melanie Katzman
So, many people at work are so focused on being transactional, getting the job done, that they forget that the thing that you have to do first is to establish a relationship with people, you need to slow down to speed up. If you don’t develop trust, then you can’t actually ask people to push, to prod, to innovate, to take chances, to deal with conflict. And, too often, people show up at the office and just feel like, “If someone is being paid, they need to do it,” and, “If I ask, and I’m the boss, it should happen,” versus, “I need to actually demonstrate and establish respect and trust.”

Similarly, people will say, “Oh, we have an inclusion program.” And, somehow, because we have a program or a poster that that will somehow translate into people really feeling as if they have a seat at the table. And as we know, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, boy, the word should there really perked my ears up in terms of it’s sort of like we have these expectations or assumptions about how the world ought to operate, and if yours is that people should do awesome, innovative, stretched, extraordinary work because they’re getting a paycheck, we’re saying that worldview is not accurate to reality.

Melanie Katzman
I just think that what we know, what science shows us and I think many of our experiences demonstrate is that people do better work when they’re internally, intrinsically motivated, that money makes a difference to a point but, actually, to get passion, well, we talk about passion. We want passionate purpose-driven people on our team.

Well, passion is hot. It’s not cognitive. I can think I want to do a good job but I’m going to be really driven and passionate about doing a job because I care. That caring comes from an emotional connection to the work and to the people I’m working with, and that requires the human connection.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think people ask me, “So, Pete, how do you be awesome at your job?” just like at a party or something. I like, “Boy, 600 interviews, how do I distill it?”

Melanie Katzman
How do you distill it? What do you say?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m still figuring out, it’s like, “Okay, can I give you five things? One of them is caring.”

Melanie Katzman
Right. Like, “We could just say be a human.” I mean, that sounds ridiculous but people show up at work and they feel like they should be an automatron, and they should just churn it out versus “I’m really going to be thoughtful about how I approach my requests, how I deliver my work, the words I choose, and who I choose to say them to and with.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Okay. Well, so then you described 52 separate actions in your book, which is a bundle – I love it – and that’s organized into seven main themes. Could maybe give us the rundown, 30 seconds to a minute, on each of the seven themes? What are they?

Melanie Katzman
Sure. And they’re actually built on each other. So, when I first decided to write this book, people are like, “Wait. So, this is like a Ms. Manners for business?” I’m like, “No, no, no, no. We’ll start with the basics.” So, the beginning of the book is all about establishing trust. Just getting the basics right, like saying “Please,” and, “Thank you,” making eye contact. Like, the first chapter in the book is smiling. Like, “I smile at you, you smile back.” That’s not hard work.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s my favorite.

Melanie Katzman
Right? Even behind your big microphone, I can see you’re smiling, and it’s actually one of the problems we have now with masks. You can’t see the smile. But a smile is really, you know, it just gets us going as people. So, the first chapter is smiling. And then I go on to review other basics, all the things we know we should do but we forget to do, right? That’s the thanks-you-s, the please-s.

Then, from there, it’s “Use your senses.” See everybody, not just the people who you think who are important. Not the people who you think have influence or were the buddies, the ones who look like you, you’re comfortable with. See truly everybody. Listen. Don’t just try to hear, to reload, so that you can make your point louder and more definitively, but actually listen. Eat with other people. Breaking bread, old-time ritual of really a way of getting to know someone.

So, I talk about the importance of using your senses – seeing, hearing, eating, really quieting yourself and your internal dialogue to know what’s happening around you. Then be popular. And I use that kind of purposely, provocatively. Be the person people want to be with. So, come bearing conversational gifts, help the people that you’re with. Be smarter because they’ve been with you and because you’re willing to share.

And then we want to clear conflict. And how do you clear conflicts? It’s really having the confidence to say no to certain things, to say yes to others, to give feedback as a gift, to really be unafraid in entering some of those scary conversations. And then it’s really about being inclusive, in casting a wide net. And I even have chapters about how to be a good host, which people say, “That’s funny. This is a job. People are coming into my office.” I’m like, “No, no, no, you need to be responsible for the curation, for the comfort you create.”

And then we want to face the future unafraid. And that’s really if you have established respect, if you are seeing beyond your immediate box, if you are unafraid in tackling difficult conversations, then you can really collaborate with multiple stakeholders, bringing lots of voices into the room, ask questions that don’t have answers and be unafraid of what bubbles up.

And so, I really then talk to people about honoring history at the same time that you’re looking towards the future, embracing aging, embracing difference, and, ultimately, the book ends with a dream. Dream big. So, we start with a smile, we end with a dream. Start with the basics and then end with all of the ways in which you can apply these 52 suggestions so that you can build a different world, build a different culture at your company, and feel better at your job, which is why I dared to have joy in the title, because a lot of people are like, “Joy at work? That’s an oxymoron.” I’m like, “Nope, you get the positive results when you have joyful people pursuing meaningful work. And that creates a success.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you. Okay. So, we have seven themes, and they’re sort of stair-stepping up, starting with establish respect, engage the senses, become popular, grow the loyalty, resolve conflicts, fight fear, have a big impact, we start with a smile, we end with a dream. Awesome.

So, now, within these seven themes, we got 52 actions, which is a lot of actions. So, we love the 80/20 principle here on How to be Awesome at Your Job. So, could you zero in on a couple, I don’t know, two, three, five, that just have just the disproportionate impact on making great connections? Maybe they’re high impact, they’re easy to do, they’re often overlooked. What are sort of the like the bullseye actions that make all the difference?

Melanie Katzman
And, by the way, you raised the fact that it’s 52, and that can seem really daunting, but one of the things I encourage people to do when they get the book is to read it in a way that suits you. It’s written with for the attention-deprived executive or worker so that you can dip in, get the information you need for the moment that you’re in.

So, if you’re in the middle of a conflict, you’re going to be, “What do I need to do? Well, this person seems like someone I can’t relate to. Let me pull these few chapters.” You can kind of go in and get what you need when you need it. But, on the other hand, you could also read the book as a yearlong exercise in personal development so that you can do a chapter a week.

Now, in terms of a couple of my favorites, like one of my absolute favorites is “Got it.” And those are two words that change the whole demeanor of work. So, I’m sure you’ve been in this situation, many of my clients have been, I have been, where you shoot off an email request and you look, you glance, “Where did it go? I asked for some information. I need it to be able to enact whatever transaction I’m doing, the deal I’m trying to close, the work I’m trying to complete, and I don’t know whether someone is working on it, I’ve been spammed, I’m not important.”

And whether you are the boss or you are the underling, when somebody doesn’t respond to your request, you don’t know how to take the next step. And we all want to manage our own time, but if you don’t know when the response is coming, or if it’s coming, then you can’t deal with your own timing, which is an incredible empowerment, and it’s this experience of disrespect.

So, I encourage people to say, “Got it.” And for extra credit, “Got it. Your answer is coming in 10 minutes, or it’s going to take me some time to pull the numbers together. I’ll get back to you tonight,” or, “Got it. I’m working on X. Should I re-prioritize to work on Y because this is an important request?” So, I encourage people to use those two words.

Pete Mockaitis
Or even “Got it. I’m afraid I’m not going to be the person who can help you with this.”

Melanie Katzman
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that still helps them with their timelines and what to do next.

Melanie Katzman
Advance the ball, right? Say, “Got it,” so then you know. The other really super simple, call people by their name. Like, it is a neural hack. People snap to attention when they hear their name, and too often we don’t call people by their name, or working in diverse organizations, people make up a name that’s easy for them to remember or pronounce.

Pete Mockaitis
Champ. Sport.

Melanie Katzman
Right. And it’s like it happens all the time, but it’s so easy. If I address you by your name, you feel like we already have a connection. If I can’t remember your name, but I remember your face, I can say, “Hey, Pete, I remember like a few years ago…” “Hey, guy, I don’t remember your name but we had such a good conversation. Remember we were standing at the coffee area at the conference, looking at X…” And then you go, “Okay. She cares enough, remember your name.” So, there’s all sorts of tricks to that, to like asking people the history of their name. It’s a quick way to understand someone’s background. So, it sounds simple, but like say, “Got it,” call people by their name.

Moving along the line. Another thing I would say is ask a beautiful question. Come prepared to ask a great question. It honors the person. So, when you do interviews for potential candidates, if someone asked a question that could be answered on the website, what have you learned? You’ve learned that they’re lazy, right? If somebody comes and they have already done the research to ask you a question that reflects what they and how they think, they are going to impress you and then you can also answer them in a way that can engage them.

And so, a lot of different suggestions within the book have to do with bringing what I call conversational gifts. Doing your research so that you’re showing up ready to have a good conversation. And preparing a good question doesn’t take a lot of time but does make a huge difference.

Pete Mockaitis
So a beautiful question, so how that gets formulated, one is that you’ve done your homework and your research as opposed to a lazy question that’s readily available in press releases or website.

Melanie Katzman
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
Another is that you’ve done some real good thinking. Any more ingredients or steps or pro-tips for formulating a beautiful question or maybe some examples?

Melanie Katzman
So, I will work with people who are high potentials who are being coached at their company’s request by me, and that’s one set of engagements I have. The other is people will be coming to me when they’re wanting to transition to another role, or they have lost their job and they’re looking to repackage themselves to reenter the workforce.

And so, what I will say to people, I say, “If you’re going for the classic informational interview, so you’ve got a foot in the door, so do the research on who you’re meeting with and what their place is in the market. What are the questions they might be asking themselves and what is information that you have that connects the dots in ways that they may not have thought about before?”

So, for example, I’m going for an interview at a production company, and they make educational films about climate change. So, I’m going to show up and I can either say, “So, tell me who are your founders? Or, are you tackling this topic or that topic?” or I might want to say, “Hey, I’ve noticed that there’s a tremendous increase and demand for school-age programming but there’s an absence of quality product out there.”

“For example, so and so is doing such and such, so and so is doing such and such, but actually your sweet spot seems to be the creation of these kinds of products and you haven’t looked at the school market yet. What would you think about doing that? You could tackle this kind of climate question in this kind of way, educate people, fulfill your mission but also answer an area in the market that’s underserved.”

So, you’re coming in and you’ve done some strategic thinking, you’ve analyzed the marketplace, you’ve looked at what they provide, and you’re offering an opinion. Now, some people will say to me, “I should be paid before I offer up that perspective,” and I would say, “You want to get a job that you’re going to be paid well? Demonstrate that you’re worth it, come and be generous in your thinking and in your willingness to share your thinking.”

Pete Mockaitis
And if you already have the job, I mean, yeah, you’re just there all the time with regard to the meetings and having researched some things and noticed some things that maybe other people haven’t. Well, I just love that so much because I think about being on the receiving end of those questions in terms of, “I’ve actually never heard that organization you’re citing. I wasn’t aware of that trend that you’re pointing out.”

Melanie Katzman
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“You seem brilliant and I want you close by so I don’t overlook something really important.”

Melanie Katzman
But that’s exactly it. You can’t go wrong if you help people be smarter. And the other part of that is when you’re networking, both internally networking or externally, because often times when people are coming up for promotion, or want to be coming up for a promotion, it’s important to do some victory laps around the organization, talk to people, have them get to know you.

I think some of the great questions to ask are you go to someone who you admire in the organization, and say, “How do you get your information? What are the things that you read? On your commute, how are you spending your time getting information?” everyone likes to talk about themselves, and most people like to stop and think about, “Yeah, how do I do that?” And if I want to have the strategic capability of someone who’s very senior in my organization, I want to know what they’re inputting into their internal computer so I’m getting access to some of that good data.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s so good. And what’s so funny is there’s often blogs that you may have never even heard of that really have so much good stuff. I think there’s one about law, like Above the Law, or one about accounting that’s kind of edgy, and it’s sort of like, “I’ve never heard of that.” And I think maybe, I don’t know, a quarter or so of the people in the field may have, or it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard about that. But is that really worth looking at?” It’s like, “Oh, this super smart person is there all the time.” “So, apparently it is. Now, I know.” And that’s available right there, just get that curation step.

Melanie Katzman
Absolutely. What I do, non-pandemic times, one of the things I do was I lead leadership retreats in different parts of the world where I bring people together from very different backgrounds and very different nationalities and sectors to understand particular issues of the moment, and we will invariably end up in traffic because it’s just part of the job. And one of the things that we’ll do is just, I’ll say, “Hey, what’s the top five things that are coming up in each of your Twitter feeds? And where is it coming from?”

And it’s fascinating. You have people there that are Chinese entrepreneurs, and French politicians, and Brazilian businessmen and women, and a tech exec from California, and what they’re listening to or reading is so profoundly different, And at a time that we know that we can end up in our own reverberating echo chambers, understanding what different people are accessing is so informative. So, it’s just a really fun great question.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is beautiful. And I want to hit a particular action you highlight which is to listen to inspire. How do I do that?

Melanie Katzman
Well, one of the first things is, as I was saying earlier on, like, to really listen. So, too often I think we listen to reload, “So, I go with what I want to tell you. So, I’m just busy formulating in my head my response,” versus, “I’m listening to you to understand what you want me to really hear.” And I think a mistaken impression often is that we need to demonstrate empathy, that I’m listening to someone and I’m a good listener, I’m having an empathetic response, so I’m searching my autobiographical library for something I can say to show, Pete, that I can relate.

While I’m doing that, I’m not listening to what Pete is really saying. So, rather than focusing on me and what I’m going to do when you stop talking, I need to quiet down inside and actually listen to what you’re saying, show that I’m paying attention. And any kind of visual contact, I think the challenge is to keep your mouth closed and to show interest without using your words. And it’s an exercise I do with people when I am running programs because it’s super hard to listen without speaking and, yet, it’s very impactful when someone listens to you without speaking. It brings you in by their head nods, by their eye contact, by their smiles, by their hand motions.

And an interesting point from my experience has been that when I do encourage teams to have conversations where someone is speaking and nobody’s interrupting for over five minutes. Imagine, over five minutes, it seems like it’s endless. The first minute, people are talking, it feels really good to be listened to. The second minute, the other person is just listening and shaking their head but not saying anything. It feels awkward. The third minute, someone starts, the person who’s speaking, speaks more and adds more detail. The fourth minute might go a little awkward. By the fifth minute, they have revealed something they were never planning on revealing.

And so, five minutes of uninterrupted attention will generally get a much deeper fuller expression of what’s going on, and it’s a little investment for a huge impact. So, to listen to inspire, shut up. Shut up inside and shut up outside. Just listen and absorb and demonstrate your engagement.

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

Melanie Katzman
Okay. I think one thing I just want to mention is that we are having this interview during a pandemic, and as a psychologist working in business, I am so struck by the difficulties that people are having and that we need to take this seriously. Like, there’s a pandemic right now that’s related to a virus but there is a tsunami of mental health crises that is just going to pound us if we don’t take measures now to help people set clear boundaries between work and home, between the beginning and the end of the day. We need to listen carefully to the distress signals that people are sending up, some are much more subtly than others.

A lot of my work these days has been in delivering webinars for companies in lieu of the in-person talks and keynotes I usually do, helping provide a safe place for people to talk about the ways in which they can communicate better when they’re working from home, and ways that they can establish the human personal connection at work in the absence of physical interactions. So, I think we are physically-distanced and psychologically and socially desperate for connection. And companies need to work hard to answer that need.

And so, my big message is, to whoever is listening, really stop, listen deeply, pay attention, and put some effort into helping these connections unfold because if you don’t, I think you’re really going to end up with a very exhausted and debilitated workforce.

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

Melanie Katzman
I think one of my favorite quotes, maybe it’s part of the reason why I wrote a book has lots of steps, and it’s a Chinese philosophical quote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you.

Melanie Katzman
You got to start moving to make things happen and it’ll just be a little step.

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

Melanie Katzman
So, I love to look at neurobiology as a way of inspiring us in the office and in the workplace. And one of the studies I think is really important is it’s an fMRI study that shows you how your body heats up in reaction to different emotions. And there’s research that shows us that love and anger physiologically look very much the same. We kind of light up red if you look at these fMRIs.

And it’s important because they are emotions of approach. So, I don’t know if I want to hug you or I want to belt you, but either way I’m having a lot of reaction to you. And I think in the workplace, we often forget that when someone is really worked up about something and they seem pissed off and angry and even difficult, it may be because the person cares so deeply.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really true.

Melanie Katzman
So, I love that piece of data because it really affirms what I see. The problem child that I’m called in to coach is often the person who’s just caring so much.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so true. Like, I don’t get upset about things I don’t care about, and it happens in work frequently. And it’s easier if I just don’t care.

Melanie Katzman
Exactly. But sometimes I have to coach people, “Don’t care so much,” right? And so, I just think it’s an important factor for us to consider that the person who cares so much may be sometimes the individual on your team who can seem the most difficult and the most challenging, so we want to value that passion and help that passionate individual channel that energy into the most effective way.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Melanie Katzman
There’s a classic called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, which is actually the new book was written in 1970 something. But I really like it because it’s about, “How do we change the things that we can change, control the things we can control, and learn how to focus on those particularly at times when we’re feeling out of control, depressed, or helpless?”

And what we find is, you know, my favorite psychologist or consultant joke is, how many consultants does it take to change a lightbulb?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I think I know this one. Oh, I know a therapist. I don’t know about consultants.

Melanie Katzman
I’m a therapist and a consultant so I go between the two. So, which is the answer?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m not going to give the punchline. Take it away, Melanie. Take it away.

Melanie Katzman
Oh, you’re not? Okay. The lightbulb has to want to change itself, right? And so, ultimately, the power is with us. We need to be able to change ourselves. And sometimes it’s changing our actions, sometimes it’s changing the way we think. And so, my answer to your question, given the times we’re living in, is that there are some things that we can change and there are some things we can’t, but to be able to survive and thrive during this period, we need to change the way we think or perceive or assess things in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And how about a favorite tool?

Melanie Katzman
My paper and pencil. I have all sorts of electronics that help facilitate my work but I find that having a daily list that I write down helps me track and prioritize what I’m going to do, and it feels great crossing it off versus just hitting delete. So, I like a paper and pencil.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And, tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that you’re known for, people quote it back to you frequently or Kindle book highlighted all the time?

Melanie Katzman
Well, I think, oftentimes, it has to do with a lot of what we’ve been talking about, which is you have to slow down to move fast, that the investments in making a strong connection is really a very small one in terms of time, but if you are intentional with your actions, you’ll have a very big impact. So, small acts of human kindness have huge and rewarding impact.

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

Melanie Katzman
Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn at Melanie Katzman. And all of these different social media platforms, almost every week I put out a minute of advice, so you can grab a minute with Melanie and it’s just very topical, practical advice that helps you just be better in that day and, hopefully, in that week.

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

Melanie Katzman
Yeah. It’s up to you. It doesn’t matter whether you are in a cubicle, whether you are working out of a closet right now, or whether you’re occupying a corner office, that it’s up to you and how you behave. And that will change and impact the culture of everybody around you. And that if you want to have joy and meaning at work, you make it happen by what you do and how you do it, and how you do it with people who you might not even think to include but probably should and could and will benefit by doing it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Melanie, this has been a treat. Thank you and I wish you lots of luck in all of your connecting.

Melanie Katzman
Thank you so much. And it was great to be connected to you, and thanks for a great interview.