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KF #7. Communicates Effectively

413: How to Exude Credibility with Rob Jolles

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Rob Jolles provides practical wisdom on how to come across as more believable.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The number one reason why people don’t believe you
  2. How method acting can lead you into peak presenting performance
  3. Why you should embrace your own dysfunctions

About Rob

Rob Jolles is a sought-after speaker who teaches, entertains, and inspires audiences worldwide. His live programs around the world have enabled him to amass a client list of Fortune 500 companies including Toyota, Disney, GE, a dozen universities, and over 50 financial institutions. He is the best-selling author of six books, including his latest release, Why People Don’t Believe You…Building Credibility from the Inside Out.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Rob Jolles Lederman Interview Transcript

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

Rob Jolles
Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to dig in. I think you’ve got so much good stuff to share. Maybe you’ll be able to share it, if necessary, in a rapid format because you are a licensed auctioneer! How does one get licensed to be an auctioneer and tell us a tale or two of your auctioneering adventures?

Rob Jolles
Okay. Well, when you have a big mouth and you run it around for 30 years giving seminars, everybody assumes, “Hey, this guy can do anything on a stage.” But I want to tell you, in the State of Virginia, where I initially got licensed, it’s harder than it looks. It was 80 hours of certified instruction.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh wow.

Rob Jolles
To be allowed to take the three-and-a-half-hour exam. I had to study cattle and cars and horses and antiques. But really all I wanted, unfortunately there isn’t a license like this, all I wanted to do was be able to work charities. I felt like it was a good way of giving back, maybe using my skills for something really valuable.

That’s about nine and a half years ago. I took my courses. I got certified. I’ve been probably averaging an auction a month, maybe an auction every other month, but 95% for charities.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s awesome. Then I guess if you’re doing it for charities, then you’re doing it for free. I’m wondering with all that education, what would an auctioneer be paid if he or she were doing a gig for a bankruptcy? Hey, we’ve got an auction. I’m the auctioneer. I’m well-trained and licensed and educated. What would that return in a gig?

Rob Jolles
Actually, it’s usually a percentage of profit there. For charity auctioneers, we’re not quite as fortunate. It’s a fraction of what I normally get paid. Actually, what I typically do with a charity is, I sort of get paid a little and then I never walk out the door with it. I just simply hand it back so that I can deduct from my taxes.
I want to stay true to the intent, which is there are certain things that we do in life that really have to pay the bills and keep the electric running and there are other times in life where we do things that are really just to help others.

When I speak at universities and things like that and they have a little honorarium, what’s the sense of me really taking that? I’m going to do something nice, let’s go all the way. That’s for charity. Now sometimes I’ll do a shopping center or I’ve done some universities. I’ll take a little something, but it’s a fraction of what I normally get.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Have you ever auctioned off anything crazy or strange or just noteworthy?

Rob Jolles
Yeah, I’ll tell you the best thing I ever auctioned off. Believe it or not – and this is for anybody that’s ever thinking of putting an auction together, this is what you’re looking for. It’s not a yard sale.

When Letterman was still doing his show, we got two tickets to Letterman. Well, they’re free, but we got backstage passes and you can’t always do that. Then Marriot threw in a couple nights and we got two train tickets. When we packaged that altogether and particularly with that unique ability to get back stage, something you can’t really get on your own, sort of like Saturday Night Live tickets, that item went for a little over 30,000 dollars. It was fairly simple.

That and we also got one time I auctioned off tickets to the Academy Awards. Again, something you can’t normally get on your own. You’re not going to find it on Craigslist. Other than the limo, I think that was in the 30 – 35,000 dollar range. Those are the kind of things that really actually will excite an audience.

Pete Mockaitis
That is very clever. If there are any fundraisers in the house, there’s the trick. You get something you can’t get under normal circumstances. Then you package it together into a cool experience and there it is, the secret to a successful fundraising auction. Didn’t even know we were going to learn that today. Thank you.

But what I was planning on learning a bit about was some of the wisdom in your book, Why People Don’t Believe You. Great title. Tell us, what’s the big idea? Why don’t people believe you?

Rob Jolles
When you say big idea and I’m ready for you now because I actually thought, “What is the big idea? I better know that. It is my book.” I think the big idea is, there’s two of them. First of all, I’m pleased you like the title. It wasn’t my title, but most of us who write books, we’ll get everything but our title in there. The publisher typically knows more about titles than we do.

But the big idea in my original title was it’s not the words; it’s the tune. A lot of times, and I’m guilty of this spending 30 years of my career, of my life, running around the country teaching people what to say, what to say, what to say. We don’t really stop and say wait a minute. Let’s forget the words. How are we saying it? I’d say in a sense that’s part of the bigger picture of the book.
But to really drill down on your question, I think the biggest reason why people don’t believe us, as strange as this may sound, is we don’t believe us. Things in the book, I know they sound simple, but so are asking questions and listening, but who does that? It’s such a fundamental communication piece. The easiest way to be believed is to actually tell the truth.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Rob Jolles
When you stop and think about that, do you have the best podcast out there? Well, from what I hear, it sure is, but you have to believe that. If it isn’t, you have to do everything you can to make it a great podcast, to put your heart and soul into it. If you go to bed at night and you truly believe that, you don’t have to worry about sounding authentic. Now you believe it and the tune will follow.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. Now, you’re getting me thinking here because we were talking just beforehand when I was stalking you and deciding whether or not to invite you. You passed. Nice job. You made reference to the greatest life insurance salesperson ever; Ben Feldman is his name, if anybody wants to take a look. I’m always intrigued by the greatest in the world.

I sort of listened to an interview with Ben Feldman. He doesn’t sound super engaging in the interview, but boy, does he believe in life insurance being just a powerful force for goodness for humanity. It’s clear that he believes that with a deep abiding passion, which is striking because I hadn’t thought of life insurance in that way before, but there you have that. The best in the world had that at a really high level.

Rob Jolles
Let’s put a cherry on that sundae because yup, he completely dominated the insurance industry for decades and I mean dominated from the sprawling metropolis of East Liverpool, Ohio. But how about this that we add to that story, the fact is he was the greatest that ever lived by the numbers. He spoke with a lisp. He was actually a fairly quiet guy.

He didn’t have any of the attributes that we naturally associate with the greatest salesperson, that Glengarry Glen Ross kind of Alex Baldwin character. He was the complete opposite. I guess when you hear that, whoever’s listening just remember that he was true to his own unique style. You can’t imitate this guy. The best imitation you do is of yourself. Not only did he believe in his product, he was true to his style. He didn’t emulate anyone but himself. That’s what made him really successful.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, you’re telling the truth, you’re believing it deep down. If you’re not yet believing it, you’re doing all you can to get there with believing it in terms of improving the actual kind of facts of the situation. Then when it comes to the tune, how do we sing a tune that’s more appealing?

Rob Jolles
That’s interesting you say sing because as I was working through the manuscript I was actually at one point trying to create a musical score in a sense of the tune, but my musical score had places where we would pause, had places where we would change our pitch, had places where we would change our pace. Actually all found in music if you think about it.

Unfortunately, although I’ll work on pitch and pace and pause with people, the problem is every question you just asked me right now, I can’t go, “Okay, hang on one second. Let me figure out where my pitch goes up and let me figure out where I’m going to slow this down and where I’m going to speed it up.”

We do focus on pitch, pace, and pause, which to me are critical pieces. But the key is to get that authentic voice to do it without having to sort of stop and micromanage where those pieces are. I don’t know if when you’re talking to me, for instance, you’re gesturing with your hands, but imagine if we stopped and I said, “Point here. Put your hand up over there.” We want that to kind of become as natural as we can.

I think one of the secret sauces, if you will, of the book is actually thinking more like a method actor. What if we took ourselves and actually placed ourselves in the moment. I don’t mean just in the moment. I mean even the point we were just talking about, truly believing.

Well, maybe we’re getting beat up a little bit out there right now. Maybe our product is – it’s just been tough for us but weren’t there times in our life where everything we touched sort of worked out well, where we knew the next time we picked up the phone or knocked on a door, it was going to go well. The other six did.

Why can’t we as a method actor take ourselves to that moment? Are you telling me that when we knock on the door this time, we’re going to be less effective with that in our mind? That’s where that pitch, pace, and pause sometimes can come more naturally.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, got you. You’re saying let’s not put our focus on “Okay, at this point in my second sentence, I’m going to drop my pitch low,” and sort of plan that out in great detail, but rather to get in the zone associated with when you were rocking, rolling, and believing and nailing it and high performing, so just sort of method acting into that spot and these things will sort of naturally follow well.

Could you maybe bring this all together in an example or a case study of someone whose credibility wasn’t so hot and then they did some things and they saw it really get hot again?

Rob Jolles
Sure. Actually, this whole book really began with me in a bad mood in a bad evening being asked to speak to a group called the Career Network Ministry, a group that just helps people in career transition. I don’t necessarily like to speak free a whole lot, but I bumbled my way in and figured I’ll talk to a dozen people and get this over with. There 250 to 300 people in the room. I’ve been volunteering for six years ever since. It was such a moving experience.

But one of the things I noticed in that room – and that was my petri dish, that’s where this started – was I noticed words. We were working on resumes – words. We were working on elevator pitches – words. We were working on LinkedIn sites – words. We were working on the words and nobody was focusing on the tune.

To answer your question, I actually stated about five and a half years ago I put together my first group of a dozen people. To get in this program, two days, you had to be unemployed a minimum of two years. Half my room was unemployed for over five years. That’s chronic unemployment.

We put on a two-day program. I bumbled and fumbled my way through it, but we were hitting on something because 10 of the 12 people were hired within three months. That’s when I realized, okay, we’ve got something.

But I’m telling you, going back on some of the questions you asked, I wasn’t working on the words in there. I took that elevator pitch – there’s some value in those – but I put it in the corner and we worked on their character. We worked on who they were, what they were, taking them through those moments of success and man, the hands and the words, and the pitch, and the pace, it followed.

But there’s an answer to your question. It was 10 for 12 coming out of the gate. That’s when I knew, I think we maybe even have a book here, but I’ve got to keep digging into this.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s fascinating. Do tell, what are some of the most impactful transformational exercises or practices that make that come alive?

Rob Jolles
Wow, that’s a good question. One of them we were talking about is whenever I ask them anything, I really try and trim people down to what I call a communication shot clock. Look, there’s a shot clock in basketball. It keeps the game moving. There’s a shot clock in football, actually. It keeps the game moving. There may very well be a shot clock in baseball, they’re going to try it in preseason, to keep the game moving.

We are in a society now where books are getting smaller and people just don’t have that bandwidth to stay with us. Even our videos are four to six minutes in length. One of the things as an example was, stop talking to them, getting them up to speak, getting them into character, and working on their shot clock, meaning, trimming those questions down and saying, “Rather than giving me your three best points. Give me your best point. If I want more, I’ll ask for it.”

It was an example of really trying to get them a little bit quicker, a little bit lighter on their feet. As an example, that was one technique that we used.

Pete Mockaitis
Then you said with the shot clock, is there an optimal do you recommend time that you would put on the shot clock in terms of number of seconds that you would speak before being quiet?

Rob Jolles
Yeah, I actually have a number and I’m going to give it to you, but please understand I’m answering your question, so it’s sort of like when I teach people to sell and I’m saying you’ve got to ask second and third level questions. The hand will go up and say, “Exactly how many?” It’s like, “Well, that’s going to really depend on the personality of the client, etcetera.”

But I really actually like 45 seconds. I think it’s a great number. If I go a minute and ten, that’s okay. If we go shorter, that’s okay too. A lot of the times if I’m dealing with a more social environment, more social client, I’ve kind of got the green light to go a little bit longer. If I’m dealing with a more dominant client, I’m probably going to trim back. There’s other variables.

But I love the conversation we’re having because I get frustrated when people are bobbing and weaving, saying, “But …” I think 45 seconds is a good target, but read your audience.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yes. That is a helpful benchmark because I think it’s possible that you can under speak as well. I’m just thinking about this. I said, “Hey, tell us about you becoming a licensed auctioneer.” It’s like, “I had 80 hours of instruction and then passed a three-hour exam.” It’s like, “Okay, well, Rob, this is really interesting.”

Rob Jolles
… on the show. You’re really talented.

Pete Mockaitis
I think that makes good sense in terms of it’s a very rough ballpark zone, but if you’re five seconds, it’s like, “Okay, do you hate me? What’s going on here?” It’s hard to form a connection. If you’re too long, it’s like, “Okay, I already sort of got the message I was after way earlier and ready to move on to something else.” I appreciate that. That’s one principle is the communication shot clock. What are some of the other practices or exercises that are really transformational here?

Rob Jolles
Well, I’m going to give you a couple more, but I want to give you a big picture here because if you study my career, I’m actually going at a different angle right now. I got my hardcore training with Xerox. You didn’t tie your shoe without a process of some sort at Xerox. But when you have a process, you have a way of measuring what you’re doing. When you can measure it, you can fix it. Boy, am I a repeatable, predictable process person.

Yet, the topic that we’re in, I’ve sort of had to look at the mirror and go it’s not all process-oriented. I sort of reframed it in my mind and I said it’s more about percentages, meaning. It’s sort of like when we eat, okay? “I’m a healthy person.” “Good. Well, what do you do?” “Well, I no longer put sugar in my coffee, just Stevia.” “That’s it?” “Yeah, that’s it.”

Well, okay. If you really do that all the time and you’re a big coffee drinker, I guess that’s about a one percent – two percent play. I don’t know if you’re healthier yet, but I guess it beats the alternative. But you look at healthy people’s example and they’re doing 15 – 20 things, exercise, this, that. Together, they create a formidable percentage.

What we’re talking about right now is really percentage plays. A communication shot clock gives us a couple of percentage plays. Truly believing in yourselves gives us percentage points. Taking ourselves mentally to a place where we’re successful gives up percentage points. I’m going to give you percentage points as opposed to process. Like I said, I’m almost arguing with me right now because I’m so bred into process, but we’re into a topic that is more percentage than process.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say percentage, you’re sort of using this as a label of a different means of thinking about approaches such that a process seems to apply if you do A, B, C, D, E, F, you’ll arrive at this end result, whereas percentage says, “Of the result you’re after, one thing can account for 5% of getting to the result and another thing can account for 10% of the thing.” Thusly, you’re kind of suggesting that an A, B, C, D, E process ain’t going to get you 100% of the way to where you want to be.

Rob Jolles
Exactly. Let me give you a percentage move as an example. Thank you because that’s exactly what I’m saying, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh cool.

Rob Jolles
A percentage move for me, a lot of people, for instance, when they’re struggling to be believed and they’re, “Okay, I’m going to believe in myself, this and that, but this company, they’re looking at four other people. One of them, I don’t know, they may have a better relationship.” Well, they might. They might not.

I love really actually focusing the brain on playing the course and not the opponent. I’m going to get percentage pieces out of this because by that I mean if you watch actually a good golfer it’s shocking. They never look at the scoreboard. For three days, they don’t look at the scoreboard. They don’t care.

They’ll look in the final two holes, three holes because they may have to change their strategy, but how in the world do you play a competitive event without looking around at your opponent? The answer is well, what value does looking at the opponent really have? If you sink a 40-foot putt, good for you. Me focusing on that not only doesn’t change a thing, it removes the focus from my putt. It removes the focus from what I’m doing.

I think, as an example, we spend too much time worrying about things we can’t control. Honestly, if I thought worrying about it would move the dial one percentage point, I would be the most competitive worrier you ever met, but it actually takes away. It doesn’t add. Things like playing, the course, not the opponent, things like accepting your limp.

You started the conversation about Ben Feldman. Again, look him up folks. Like I said, appearance-wise, he wasn’t necessarily that natural salesperson look or sound, but in a sense he had his own limp. We all walk with a limp. Do you know how many people are held back from their own ability to convince others because of their limp?

I lost my hair, I wasn’t thrilled about it, but I had to accept it. It’s one of my limps. But what I found is, the moment it stopped being important to me, it was never really important to anybody else. It was me that was focused and obsessed. If we take that example and look at people that just have certain issues, maybe they don’t have that natural punch in their voice, it’s okay. Don’t be somebody you’re not. Just move it from a two to a four, that’s all I’m asking.

But if we accept our limp, if we play that course.
We don’t have to misuse our imagination. That lovely quote I actually have by my coffee bar, “Worry is the misuse of your imagination.” It’s a wonderful quote. If we start removing those pieces, each thing I’m talking about is getting us a percent here and three percent here and two percent there. I can give you five more, but I think you’re getting the drift of it.

Pete Mockaitis
I am, I think, getting the drift of it. I imagine you’ve given me the biggest percentages already upfront. Is that fair to say?

Rob Jolles
It depends on the mood that I’m in. It actually depends on the person because when you’re communicating, for instance, if you just pay attention to your transitions – so many people will micromanage the body of whatever they’re communicating about, particularly presenters. If they actually micromanage the transitions and stuck their landing in the end and spent 90% of their time on the opening, they would increase their credibility.

Again, because it’s percentage plays, each percentage move will fit a different customer a different way, but yeah, I’m not wasting your time. I’m giving you ones that I think really resonate and I see get a big bang for the buck for most of the people that I’m working with.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh great. Now, I just want to make sure I got the transitions point clear. You’re just saying if you’re doing a presentation or a speech, you want to give some extra attention to how you’re transitioning from one section to another instead of fumbling or being awkward during those moments?

Rob Jolles
Yeah, I did chuck that one in from left field, didn’t I? Absolutely. I train a lot of speakers. The irony is usually that the core of most presentations have oftentimes, particularly for corporate America, but oftentimes they’ve gone through a legal read. We can’t really change them all that much.

What makes a great communicator and an average communicator? It’s not the body of the message. It’s them coming out of the gate with an interesting story and idea, really addressing what’s in it for the client. Thinking out the beginning.

But to get right at what you just asked, the transitions, yeah, we probably have three or four major points. If I really think those out – I’m not a guy who believes in scripts – but if I actually write them out, maybe back them down to a Word outline, if I spend my time working on how I’m going from Point A to Point B and sewing that body together, as I said, coming out of the gate strong and sticking my landing, closing strongly, yeah, I’ll probably give one of the best presentations I’ve ever given. But it has very little to do with memorizing the body. That’s not where success lies.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting because the big chunks one, they may be unmovable because of legal review, two, you probably remember them just because one thing leads to another. “This is the story about how I formed an accountability group in college.” Hey, that’s one chunk and I know it. We’ll go and make it happen. But what I don’t know so much is how I’m going to move from maybe that piece to how friendship is important.

Rob Jolles
By the way, that’s the way most people do it. They’ll go … “Friendship is important,” but when they transition with, “We all have these different pieces I just mentioned, but there’s one piece that we don’t pay attention to and that’s friendship. You see, friendship is important,” something along that line so that it’s effortless. When people walk away they go, “Boy, that was really good.”

Now look, we could spend our time talking about presentations. I’m going to involve that audience. The more they talk, the more they typically like and trust that presenter. I’m going to do other things, but it’s the transitions even when we communicate and are not giving presentations.

What if we’re just in front of somebody giving a proposal, what if we’re having a conversation and we want to get the three major points, it’s that smooth transition as opposed to that bumpity, bump, bump, bump. It sounds like Pete wanted to talk about this one. That’s the one I want to avoid. That doesn’t sound authentic. We circle back to our topic, which is why people don’t believe you because it’s not sounding authentic.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh certainly. I get a real kick out of when the transition is too, “So, can I have your money?” and it’s done poorly. It’s like, “Oh, you poor guy. Well, I’m already on board with your vision, so it’s fine, but-“ Okay, awesome. Let’s dig into a little bit of this now. Believing in yourself, that sounds classic and helpful and essential, but in practice, if your belief in self is moderate, like “Yeah, I can do a decent job most of the time I guess,” how does one elevate that?

Rob Jolles
Yeah. Did you ever see there was a commercial done years ago by FedEx? It’s actually on YouTube. You can find it online. It was called The Stolen Idea.

It deals with a boss who’s asking for ideas. One guys says, “Well, we could probably save money by putting all our shipping in one area and using FedEx.” You could hear a pin drop. Five seconds later the boss says, “I’ve got it. We can put everything in one area. We can use FedEx to do it all. That’ll save us on shipping.” Everybody goes, “That’s brilliant.”

The guy says, “You just said the same thing I said only you did this,” and he’s moving his hands horizontally. The boss says, “Nope, I did this,” and he moves his hand vertically because that was his gesture. I actually look at that commercial and I think that’s our jumping off point. Yes, I know what FedEx was after and shame on that boss for stealing that idea. But we need to teach people how to do this. This matters. That moving of the hands, that really matters.

To me, it’s a matter of kind of oftentimes finding your real voice. Not finding some voice you saw on television or who you heard on a podcast, but finding your real voice.

I don’t know last time you’ve been on a plane, but when you’re on a plane and the flight attendant starts speaking, you think “It’s funny, he or she was just here. We had a nice conversation. But now I’m hearing this really weird singsong ….” That’s not a real voice.

Why is it that a lot of times when we’re presenting or when we’re under pressure, we start going after this I guess the voice we thought we were supposed to have? Nobody wants that. People just want to believe. They want that to be authentic.

I always look at people and I think, if we were two people having a beer or having a cup of coffee, would you still talk and walk and behave this way or would you just drop all that and have a conversation? It’s really about finding that real voice. Honestly, you don’t have to look that far.

I’ll whisper this to presenters right before they go on stage when they’re a little bit tight. The last words I’ll typically tell somebody is, “If you were walking into your living room, what would you feel and how would you take that stage? That’s your living room. Now go enjoy yourself.” Forget all that other nonsense. In the living room, it’s pretty easy. Well, that’s all the audience wants. Whether it’s 50 people, 500 people or 1 person, they’re in your living room. Go have a conversation. We don’t need anything but authenticity.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s funny when you say the living room, my first thought is, “Well, I’m taking off these dress shoes and putting on my slippers.”

Rob Jolles
Well, I knew a presenter who was actually very successful. Now this was in the ‘90s. But he was a finance person and a finance specialist, which already you think, “Well, okay. Here’s comes that big old suit.” But he would take his shoes off when he went on that stage.

It was kind of his shtick. It was like George Burns smoking a cigar or something. This was his shtick. He was the guy who would take his shoes off. But it worked for him. It wasn’t shtick. I got a chance to speak to him a couple times and he just wanted to get to a place where he was as comfortable as he could be because then he could take that communication and make them as comfortable as they can be.

Last thing about that, but it’s really important to understand that an audience really they want to enjoy themselves. They want you to be successful. The best way to make an audience uncomfortable is for you to be uncomfortable.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s very true.

Rob Jolles
Then they feel badly for you and then they have a problem. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. It hurts to watch somebody who’s bombing. They know they’re bombing. They’re nervous about bombing. It’s like, “Oh man.” It’s just fun to watch someone having fun. It’s like, “I’m not super into the content of what you’re saying, but it’s kind of enjoyable to watch you be into it. Yeah, take it away.”

Rob Jolles
Yeah, that’s the funny thing. If you think about some of the great – Johnny Carson or Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon, what are some of the most enjoyable parts of the monologue or the conversation? When something bombs. They don’t put their head in their hand and they go, “Oh no. What happened here?” What they do is they just work with it.

The audience loves it because you didn’t make the audience feel sorry for you. You said to them in a sense, “I’m glad this happened. Let’s just work with it.” When you can take that with you and realize that what’s the worst happen, really just making them feel badly, so don’t. Away we go. It’s a lot easier up there than you think.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. I think I made some references to maybe college audiences and they’re just like, “We have no idea what this.” I was like, “Oh, I guess I’m getting old.” They all just sort of – you can just sort of laugh about that. It’s like, “Yup, okay.” Then away we go. As opposed to “Oh, that’s so stupid. I shouldn’t have made that allusion. Look up the dates next time, Pete. Oh! Bad, bad, bad.”

Rob Jolles
You know something, Pete? You hit on something else that I think is actually really important.  When we’re not in front of people, and remember we’re talking about building credibility, believing in yourself, and then taking that to others.

Do you know – and my wife helped me with this one – do you know how innocently that inner voice starts chirping at you of “If you had half a brain, you would have remembered to bring this with you on the road.” “Hey stupid, don’t forget that.” Do you know that that’s a lot more dangerous than we give it credit? It doesn’t have to be in front of anyone. It can just be with ourselves. But you keep beating yourself up like that, you’re going to start believing it.

I really some years ago decided it’s not okay to make fun of me and to start moaning and whining and complaining about certain things. People forget things. I’m two and a half million miles in the air, believe me I’ve forgot things in my bag. But I’ve decided – and it really works and I think it works for others – to be a lot kinder yourself.

Stop chirping and beating yourself up about things. Just like we would talk about in front of an audience, be nice to yourself when there isn’t an audience in front of you too.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to hit that point real quick. If you are in that mental habit, how does one kick it?

Rob Jolles
Yeah. Well, the first thing we have to do is we have to go from unconsciously incompetent, which is “Hey, that’s okay,” or “I don’t even notice it,” to really starting to become aware of it. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the four levels of conscious behavior, but we start with unconscious incompetency, which is sometimes we don’t know that we don’t know. That’s a dangerous place to be.

Well, that’s why you and I are having this conversation because now maybe we’ll be on the lookout for it. As a matter of fact, just talking about it, I can assure you, there are many people who are listening right now will go, “I do that, but I don’t mean anything by it.” I’m telling you it’s a cancer. It grows. You don’t realize it. Let’s move you to conscious incompetency, which means I want you to be aware when you do it.

Then let’s move to conscious competency. I want you to be a little robotic and every time it accidently happens, I want you to stop and correct it. I know that’s a little bit stiff and weird. Until we become unconsciously competent, when we do it and we don’t have to think about it anymore. But it’s natural to be on that scale. The first thing is we have to remind ourselves it’s not okay. It is not okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. Well, so now-

Rob Jolles
I said it’s not okay. Sorry.

Pete Mockaitis
That is not okay. I am now acknowledging what you said and moving to something new.

Rob Jolles
Okay. I’ve got to climb in through the window there. I was out there yelling at people. Okay, I’m back in. Let’s keep going.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s talk about that process by which you take yourself back to a place in which you were successful and thusly you method act your way into having a high performance moment. In practice, what are the steps to make that happen?

Rob Jolles
Well, the first thing – I’m going to leave the corporation out. There’s a Fortune 500 company I’ve been working with on this. One of the things we did was, again, think method acting. What we did was we began to on a piece of paper create a character.

One of my favorite actors is Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m not sure he’s ever going to be in another movie again, but when he was – I don’t know if you saw Lincoln, but if you did, it was probably a little slower than you imagined. I knew it was going to be slow because I actually read a bunch of books on Lincoln and Lincoln wasn’t the most exciting person in the world. But on set, you had to call Daniel Day-Lewis either Mr. President or Mr. Lincoln. He doesn’t mess around.

When we’re talking, to answer your question, we’re talking about getting into character, sometimes we have to sit and actually think about that character. I did some acting earlier in my life. I remember the first play I was in I was Bennie Van Buren in Damn Yankees. I was supposed to play a 70-year-old. But I had a great director, who, by the way, I spoke to when I wrote this book and we talked about this.

I remember him saying, “What kind of car does Bennie drive? What kind of cereal does he eat? Tell me about his house. What’s his office look like?” What he was doing – at first I thought he was a lunatic. I don’t know. It’s just a character I’m playing. But he didn’t want me to learn the script. At some point I knew that character so well, I walked around, I was 70 years old in my mind.

What I do sometimes is actually get people on a piece of paper to begin to actually write out their character a little bit, not necessarily what kind of cereal do they eat, but tell me about your character. Perform some tasks in front of me like your character. Forget everything else. We clear the mind. We work on establishing a character.

Actually, for some people it will be three characters. It’s a more dominant character, it’s a more social character, and it’s a more analytical character. If you’re wondering why in the world I do that, it’s because I work with a lot of salespeople. We have to kind of mirror the character we see in front of us.

Maybe I’m very social, what if I’m talking to somebody who’s really dominant? Well, I’ll just play the role of a dominant person. Not so fast. You better understand – before you put that white glove on, you better understand that character, so we actually write it out and think about it. I actually give them simple questions, like a questionnaire. They begin to role play and really get in touch with that character. Then they can tap into it when they need it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, interesting. You’re mapping out upfront. You’re doing some role play there. We also had Todd Herman talk about his book, The Alter-Ego Effect. He recommended sometime putting on a blazer or glasses or something that sort of en-clothed cognition, sort of stepping into that all the more. That’s handy.

Then I’m also wondering is there some visualization or some key memories that you’re bringing up and how do you go about doing that part?

Rob Jolles
Yeah, that’s where we go into that piece about, for me at least, and remember, I frequently work with people who are selling. Look, what I’m trying to have them visualize are moments of dominance, moments of success.

It’s weird. I’m 26 years in business as a professional speaker and yet, just like everyone else, sometimes you’re as good as your last presentation, you’re as good as your last quarter and all of the sudden a speaker’s bureau threw three clients at me. I spoke to them on the phone. None of them wanted to hire me. What do you think I sound like on the fourth call?

What I’m trying to do is get to moments where when we do get three in a row, when we do knock it out of the park and somebody says, “Okay, now I have another client I want you to talk to.” That’s what I mean in terms of that visualization of “Okay, maybe I’m not there right now, but I can think back on when I was. What was I feeling like?” I sort of take myself to that moment.

Pete, it kind of comes back to that percentage play. I’m not guaranteeing you that we’re going to be successful right now, but I guarantee you this, having that mindset and being able to pull that memory down is going to pick up some percentage plays and that’s what I’m looking for. Again, it’s mental, but it’s there.

No one’s had a life of complete loss. It’s everybody. We win some; we lose some. We win some; we lose some. It’s when we lose some, a bunch in a row that all of the sudden the shoulders start to droop and we kind of start picking up the phone going in my mind, “I know this guy isn’t going to buy from me, but here we go.” That’s not going to work for anybody.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Thinking right back to the hot streak, the winning moments. That’s good. That’s good.

Rob Jolles
Well, it’s the winning moments. I keep pushing everything into sales, but in presentations a lot of times, particularly when somebody is new or somebody – I’ll also whisper in their ear, track record because maybe people who are listening right now have got 10 or 20 years under their belt, but maybe this quarter hasn’t been so good. Or maybe they haven’t given a presentation in a while or they’re being put in an awkward position.

What’s your track record like? Most people go, “Usually I’m pretty good at that.” Okay, again I’m looking for a couple percentage moves. To get the experience, how about we focus on what usually happens. Pete, when you have a podcast, what usually happens? When I’m a guest on a podcast, it usually goes real well. Not all the time, but usually goes real well.

I’m better off kind of focusing on my track record. That’s to me another kind of really great visualization. It’s simple and it’s easy.

Pete Mockaitis
Excellent. Thank you. Well, tell me, is there anything that you recommend that we really don’t do? We’ve talked about the negative self-talk, not doing that. We talked about not stepping into who you think that you are supposed to be, but rather just using your own natural authentic voice. Any other top don’ts you want to make sure we highlight?

Rob Jolles
That’s a great question. I’m actually thinking of how I would address that. Yeah, I would say that I think we should stop being so fearful of dysfunction. We brought it up a little bit when maybe things don’t go well in front of an audience, but I think, again, whether it’s while we’re alone or whether we’re in groups, I like to tell people that I’m coaching or working with, let’s embrace that dysfunction a little bit.

Kind of going back to that limp a little bit, let’s remember that there’s only two types of people that don’t walk with a limp, that don’t have some level of dysfunction. They’re either not telling you the truth or they would have no ability to have compassion for another individual. Most of them really aren’t necessarily people I’d want to have as a client. I can tell you that much.

It’s funny, I wrote a piece one time where I said “knowledge is overrated.” Believe me, all the analytical practically followed me to the parking lot going, “Now what did you mean by that?” They were not happy.

I didn’t say it’s not important. I just said it’s overrated meaning as simple as it sounds, but I’m a guy that takes and has people record themselves, if we just work harder at asking questions and listening, if we just go a little easier on ourselves, if we embrace that dysfunction rather than run from it and understand, “That’s okay. That’s my limp. I’m not going to have trouble with it.” All those little pieces get us plays.

Just last real quick point, but I’m in a neighborhood where we’ve got a lot of dog walkers, including our Lilly, who we take for a walk. There’s not one but two dogs that are missing legs, a leg each. I got to tell you, it touches my heart because I look at them and I think I wish we were more like that because I promise, Pete, that dog doesn’t give a hootenanny that he’s missing a leg.

And neither does any other dog that’s walking by it. They’re sniffing. They’re curious where they might have been on that tree over there, but they don’t care. It’s not an issue. I wish we could learn lessons like that and remember that whatever it is and everybody’s got one, if it’s not a worry for you, it’s not a worry for the other dogs in the park. I promise you.

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

Rob Jolles
Yeah, I would say as strange as this conversation may have sound because we’re talking about some kind of wacky – once I said role and character, what is all that. I want to remind people they probably do this more often than they think.

An example I’ll give you is if you have children that you parent, don’t tell me that you don’t actually drop into role, meaning particularly for the younger ones, when they brought back a homework assignment that wasn’t quite right or something, we kind of look at our spouse and go, “Okay, I’ll go in there.” We play the role of disappointed. I’m actually not as disappointed. I love you so much. But for tonight Rob Jolles will be playing the role of disappointed.

I think we do that more naturally than we think. Where we explore this finding a character and getting into role, please remember there are times where we all play roles; you’re just not thinking about it as much. I want you to think about it. Then I want you to stop thinking about it again. But that would be the last thought I give you on that one.

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

Rob Jolles
I gave you one, which is “Worry is the misuse of your imagination.” Okay, now I’ll give you another one “We weren’t put on this earth to make a living. We were put on this earth to make a difference.”

It’s always meant something to me, particularly for a guy who – when I tell you I’ve got two and a half million miles in the air, Pete, part of you should smile and part of you should look concerned, meaning “Well, does this guy have a family? Does this guy have children? Does he get to a birthday party?”

I’m really blessed. I have a wonderful wife, Ronnie, who helped me realize that I was a little out of balance earlier in my career, and I’d never heard of that quote, nor did I take it to heart. But I really believe in balance. I’m no longer a 1K and that’s just fine by me. I think that we focus on that, things will go a lot better for us.

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

Rob Jolles
I’ll tell you a bit or research or a study. It kind of falls into an author I happen to like. He’s with my publisher, Berrett-Koehler. Name is Noah Blumenthal. But he studied – he wrote a book called Be the Hero, but he studied how easy it is for us to have negative opinions of others, particularly of others that have done us wrong, maybe a previous boss or a neighbor or somebody just that – the person at CVS, I don’t know, where it really rubbed us the wrong way.

He really got me thinking, and it’s really helped, that we really don’t know many of the people that we form opinions about. We really don’t know them that well. We create a scenario that’s usually very negative. Now that scenario might be right, but we actually don’t know whether it’s right or not.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Rob Jolles
I keep a journal. I’ve kept it for 22 years.
But what I found was by methodically being observant, which is a journal will do, because I will only write twice in my journal, on the way out and on the way back of a trip. I am almost OCDish. When we get to 10,000 feet, I’m putting a date and a location on that journal entry.

But it’s a tool that actually, particularly for the way back, that allows me to kind of figure out to stop, pause and in process say, “Okay, what do you think was working there and what do you think wasn’t working there?”

Like I said, I’ve been doing this 31 years, putting a mic around my neck and talking to audiences and yet, I want you to know Pete that I still want to get better and that means I still want to figure out “Okay, what did we do well? What can we improve?”

Very importantly, I always balance that feedback because I’ve said it too many times already, but this isn’t a beat-up session. A lot of times we undervalue taking time to figure out what we’re doing well, so we don’t do it by accident. But that’s been a tool. I probably have well over 3,000 pages of journal entries.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Thank you. Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks and they quote it back to you at times?

Rob Jolles
If you want to get at the most fundamental way to communicate, we have to ask questions and listen. That doesn’t just mean what you and I are doing right now or if we’re going one-on-one with a client or a prospect, even in front of an audience.

If you want to know what the amateurs and even the pros do wrong, if I put down the 20 biggest mistakes they make, 19 of them don’t equal number one, which is too much information and that means constricting the ability for that audience to communicate with you, even if it’s rhetorical questions.

But those little touches, those little “Turn to your left, look at that partner, and say three things here. Try two things there,” that ability to build a conversation as opposed to a lecture are very valuable. I would like to think that I’ve said it enough, that who knows, maybe people would associate that with me. I’d be proud if they did.

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

Rob Jolles
That’s an easy one. I would just take them to J-O-L-L-E-S.com that’s where you’ll find – I write something called a BLArticle. I am in my tenth year of BLArticles. That’s a blog-article. I just try – and by legal definition it’s 500 to 700 words. I just try and practice what we’re preaching, you and I, which is let’s not over communicate, but let’s provide value and drip out information. But anyway that’s where all sorts of information on me is.

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

Rob Jolles
Okay. Pete, you’re really coming at me. I like this. My final challenge would be I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what you think is out there holding you back; get out of your own way. Pete, you and I have hit it over and over and over again. Just be kinder to yourself, accept whatever limp you have, and I can assure you, you’ve got one. That’s okay. Don’t let it be a big issue. It won’t be with anybody else.

Go in there, again, the easiest way to find that authentic you is just get up there, wherever it is, tell the truth. If the truth is a struggle right now, double back and figure out – I’ve got to rebrand, I’ve got to do something, but I’ve got to find a way of telling the truth. If you solve that, then you’ve got it made. The rest is easy.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Rob, this has been a blast. Thanks so much for bringing it. I wish you lots of luck with your speaking and all you’re up to.

Rob Jolles
Oh, I appreciate it. Thank you so much. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.

407: The Key Behaviors of Inspiring Leaders with Ash Seddeek

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Ash Seddeek outlines the key leadership behaviors that inspire teams.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Ten key leadership behaviors that inspire followers
  2. One mistake that quickly kills a team’s creativity
  3. How to manage your bias like a pro

About Ash

Ash develops leadership, executive communications and strategic sales programs. He currently works with Cisco’s innovation startup teams to help them craft compelling value proposition narratives. Ash is also a mentor to entrepreneurs and a communications expert at the American Management Association.

He’s the bestselling author of the books Meaning, Start with a Vision, and The Road to Success.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Ash Seddeek Interview Transcript

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

Ash Seddeek
Thank you very much for having me, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I was intrigued to learn that you were a Fulbright scholar not once but twice. Didn’t know that was actually possible. Could you tell us the tale?

Ash Seddeek
Absolutely. I actually come all the way from Alexandria, Egypt, where in my earlier life I was basically getting trained to become a linguist at the University of Alexandria. By virtue of my work there as a teaching assistant, I applied for a Fulbright scholarship. The first time I came to the US as a participant in a summer program.

Then the second time I actually applied to be an assistant group leader that essentially then sort of leveraging the first-time experience, sort of leading the group that went the second time around. That’s really how it happened as part of my working at the University of Alexandria.

Lo and behold, days go by and here I am actually leveraging a lot of that linguistics training in a lot of the executive coaching that I do with leaders today around leadership communications.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Excellent. Well, you’ve packaged some of these insights about leadership communications into your book, Meaning. Can you say what’s sort of the main message within this?

Ash Seddeek
The main message behind Meaning was really driven by the experience working at Cisco Corporation, especially at the highlight of the financial crisis in 2008. My job at Cisco at that time was to help understand the messaging that was happening outside Cisco about Cisco and also what the leadership team at Cisco needs to message, especially in Cisco’s largest conference, which is the sales kickoff conference that happens on an annual basis.

I saw John Chambers at that time, he was the CEO at that time, really grappling with how Cisco tried to re-sustain its position as well as also survive that financial crisis that were affecting basically the pockets and the budgets of its own customers.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Then within that you’ve sort of looked at individual leaders and what they were doing and found some interesting patterns.

Ash Seddeek
Exactly. The one thing that I saw and John and the rest of the executive team at Cisco were doing really well, and of course the technology at Cisco, just amazing how Cisco was making use of its own technology to speak across the 60,000 plus employees at that time.

Essentially helping them understand what was going on and re-clarifying the meaning of why do we continue to do what we’re doing, what sort of sustains our differentiation, and how leaders of all aspects and levels of the company can really help articulate that message all the way to the very last mile, every single employee, whether they are all the way in Cairo, Egypt; Dubai in the Arabian Gulf, or China, or India, or even in the US.

The ability to continue to message to the employees why we’re doing what we’re doing and how do we move from where we are today into the future was very critical task and responsibility that leaders need to have all the time.

I think in my mind, based on the research we’ve done for the book, this whole concept of communicating where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going is the fundamental task and responsibility in my mind, that the CxOs need to be communicating with their employees in organizations.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious, how does that shift if it’s at sort of the manager level?

Ash Seddeek
At the manager level, it becomes really a pivotal moment for the manager to understand that, again, a big part of their role is to help their team understand how the message that we’re hearing from the CEO and the executive team translates into what we do on a daily basis. How do we connect the dots between the piece of a product that we’re working on with the bigger product, with the bigger company, with the aspirations that the customers have?

That’s really where, as you’re saying, the manager’s role is very critical because a lot of the time the employees look up to that manager to explain what did John Chambers say and what does it mean to us.

Again, managers have that communication responsibility so that when I work with leaders and we basically talk about coaching and understanding what is a key pivotal responsibility for them, I mention the fact that they need to develop a signature talk that is really there to serve the purpose of translating that corporate vision and strategy and how it connects to what we do on a daily basis so that these employees have a very clear purpose and an understanding of how their little piece is actually part of that bigger puzzle and bigger vision.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, in your book, Meaning, you identify ten particular leadership behaviors that inspire followers. What are those ten?

Ash Seddeek
These ten behaviors and the way that we’ve collected them is we basically worked with – we interviewed a number of leaders across a number of industries. When we looked at the themes we found that there are five behaviors that are really more about that leader and how that leader interfaces and interacts with his or her environment.

Then the next five, and as I’m going to share with you the full list, the next five are really more about how they interface with everybody around them.

When you look at the top ten behaviors for leaders who really are very good at communicating meaning, we see that the very first behavior is about how they accept the reality that business cycles will inevitably ebb and flow. That’s really what we’ve seen at Cisco, the changes that were happening in the marketplace.

The second one is they definitely need to cultivate the habits of listening and learning. Again, there were some leaders that we spoke with that really demonstrated this really well.

The third one is to cultivate authentic humility in the sense that you really need to come across not as someone that knows it all, but someone who is really willing to listen and understand that this other person that I’m talking to may have a much better idea.

Then number four, being able to clarify and focus on the organization’s mission and values. People want to something that is bigger than themselves to hold into. It is that leader’s ability to focus that way, be able to understand what those values are and communicate them.

Then number five is very interesting because it’s really more about what happens to us when we achieve success. Sometimes we think that’s really where it emanates from. It has to start with us. But number five basically says, get of the way so others can succeed in the sense that you need to give people room. You need to give them space.

Sometimes when a question is asked and that leader likes to give ideas, he or she will jump in and give an answer. In my coaching I basically tell them pause, wait, let people in the room answer that question because that’s when you actually get them to see that they, themselves, can bring a lot of the ideas to the table.

Then the second set of behaviors, as I mentioned, are really more about managing relationships. Number six is about building a solid network of relationships knowing that it is incredibly powerful to be able to pick up the phone and connect the dots among five – six players and then all of the sudden you’re able to staff up an innovation initiative very quickly.

Number seven is about building strategic partnerships. Here we’re really talking more about not just internally but also across the industry. Of course, we see very good examples of that at Cisco and other companies.

Number eight is really more about caring for and rewarding people because if you don’t do the recognition and celebration of what people achieve in the company, again, human need, we understand it from people like Daniel Pink and others, they are looking for that recognition a whole lot more than any dollars you give them.

Then number nine is about over communicating with all stakeholders, especially in times of crisis or change. That’s really where we see companies that stay ahead of the necessary work that needs to happen around communication, especially around the times of change. That’s when you see people really doing well when they communicate and communicate repeatedly.

Then others fail when they assume that the change is not that big and it’s not big of a deal and everybody should just line up. Then they realize for human beings, change is real. You have to talk to them and you have to talk to them repeatedly about the why of the change and how they fit into that picture.

Then the very last behavior we see leader’s ability to build trust and buy in is very critical. When we look at all of these behaviors, that’s how leaders then have what they need in terms of internal skills as well as external networks to communicate meaning as we were saying at the very top of our conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. Well, thank you for that run down here. I’d like your take on which of these behaviors do you think is the most critical or liberates the most inspiration from folks and why.

Ash Seddeek
I think the one that would really drive a lot of inspiration is having anchors in a value system and a philosophy that this leader or a team of leaders believe in because without having these anchor points in a value system, then we won’t have anything that essentially sort of grounds us.

If we’re facing difficulty and if somebody listening to us is in a very difficult situation, unless they have a value that’s similar to ‘I will rise, no matter what the difficulty is. I have achieved success in the past and I can achieve this success.’ Really holding on to a body of values makes a big, big difference.

That’s why we see HP and a lot of other companies publishing what they call the HP way. It’s the set of values. Apple did the same thing. A lot of leading companies make sure that they have a set of values that they communicate. Sometimes you may need to change them slightly, but you still do it in a way that really shows why we’re doing what we’re doing and how it’s going to help us achieve what we need to achieve.

I think when people see that you believe in something, that you honor it despite the challenges and the difficulties, then highly likely they will trust you more. They will buy more into your message. But if they see you shifting more because of profits and what the market demands all the time, then they will feel like maybe they could do the same thing and they could look for profits and other opportunities somewhere else.

Whereas if you give them something bigger than just the financial aspect, maybe the vision for what the company stands for, the mission. All of those things really give that leader the chance to inspire people, retain them for the long term because they are here not just because of what you give them, but rather what they are able actually to create with you and help accomplish.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love it if you could maybe make it all the more real when we talk about anchor points in a value system. Could you give us some examples of hey, this company has this value and this is how they see it lived out in practical reality for real?

Because I think what’s interesting about values is that sometimes – well sometimes they’re not lived at all and it’s just sort of lip service. Integrity, like many companies have integrity as a value and then many companies show just how little they have when the scandals hit the headlines.

But I guess, on the flipside, I guess I’m thinking about – when I was working at Bain I thought they did awesome with regard to living their values. For example, one of them they’d call it the openness to the one percent possibility. That one percent possibility is that you’re wrong, that you’re mistaken. Then it was cool how it was okay as someone fresh out of college to correct a manager or partner with a different fact that would be contradictory to what they’re saying in a team meeting.

Or while discussing professional development with a manager like, “Hey, these are my goals.” The manager would say, “Okay, cool. And these are my goals and what I’m working on.” That kind of humility was really cool like “Hey, none of us are perfect. We’re all working on something.”

I’m with you. That liberates some inspiration for me in terms of this place is cool and they mean what they say on this little chart of operating principles and I like that. Could you give us some more examples of particular company has a particular value that shows up in a real way that unlocks inspiration?

Ash Seddeek
I think probably one of the best examples I can remember whenever you’re on one of those Southwest flights and you hear the airhostess making the comments just about when you’re landing. She makes you laugh. When you look at Southwest’s values, you’ll see that one of them is live the Southwest way. Under that banner, they basically say you have to have a servant’s heart and a fun-loving attitude.

You take this value and you make sure every employee in the whole Southwest system applies it. Then you see it showing up when you hear the pilot talking and being very personable and giving you the comfort and the trust that everything is going to be fine or when you hear the air hosts making a funny comment and again making you laugh on the airplane.

I think when the value then influences everyone’s behaviors all the way to the point that it becomes part of what you do on a daily basis, that’s really where it becomes an anchor point that everybody understands that’s our culture here because, of course, those values is what eventually constitutes that whole concept of culture the company has.

If people then start to embody it into actions and words, then you’re actually seeing a living example and not just a set of words that are written on a piece of paper. That’s the example that just comes to mind right away.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s a good one. I’d love to hear some more.

Ash Seddeek
When we look at innovation, for example, which is a big value at Cisco and also the idea that you should never really get religious about technology.

I think Cisco and a lot of other companies, they have figured out that if you get stuck in your ways, it will basically lead to extinction, whereas if you adopt more of an innovative mindset that basically says I need to be able to at times maybe walk away from something that I invested billions of dollars in.

When I was at Cisco, if you remember the flip camera, that was an acquisition that Cisco spent a lot of money on. At some point it was clear it was not the right direction where things were going and they were able to then say, “Stop. Let’s shift.”

I think seeing this in real life despite, again, the cost, then it shows you that it’s better to make that decision now, acknowledging the costs and be able to shift direction and focus on something that the market is looking for, also shows you that value.

And of course, at Cisco, when we were walking around with the employee badge, we actually had that written down on the badge, where make sure you never get religious about technology. What you really should be focusing on is what are the customers looking for and how can you be innovative and self-destructive so you can bring these technologies to market.

That’s another example where you need to look back at that value and make sure that that value is helping enlighten and educate the decision you’re making. Again, when we talk to leaders, one of the best things we could do is to really be comfortable really focusing on the values as something that has long-term application and value for the organization.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Thank you. I’d also be curious, having studied all these things and synthesized and come up with the themes associated with these behaviors, does it now shine a clearer, brighter light on some behaviors that you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is just terribly wrong,” in terms of are there maybe little things that leaders or professionals at large do frequently that are really just inspiration killers that you’d recommend we stop doing right away?

Ash Seddeek
I would say it’s been interesting for me over the past three years to realize, to your point, that a lot of the time the words you say on a daily basis, the actions you take on a daily basis are also driven by philosophies and points of view that you have, which in some respect, is essentially a set of values that you believe in.

If you think that the only smart one in the room is you because you’ve spent 18 years learning about networking or about fashion or about this or that, then that’s going to block you out from realizing that there are a lot more ideas in the room.

This really emanates from a value where you think, “Well, you know what? I am the source of intelligence.” Sometimes you only make this mistake of thinking that there are many solutions and I’m the only source for them. Understanding that we may have a bias to favor our own thoughts and then make sure that we manage that and be self-aware of it. Then basically say, “You know what? I would love to hear your ideas.”

Then all of the sudden everybody in the room is very much encouraged and inspired by the fact that you’re actually looking up and you’re basically telling them, “I know you guys are smart. I know you have ideas and I want to hear them.” Before you share anything, you want to sort of almost use that question and query process to uncover innovative ideas.

Again, one of the things I do with a lot of leaders is I basically tell them, “Right now your biggest value is not to share ideas, but actually ask good questions.”

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot, so you’re asking the questions first before you share your ideas.

Ash Seddeek
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
You mentioned managing your bias. I imagine at times that can be easier said than done. What are some of your favorite pro tips and best practices for pulling that off?

Ash Seddeek
I think one of the tips I would give people is being very transparent and vulnerable at the same time in the sense that you may tell people, “Hey, I have a tendency to overpower my own thought process and think the only way is probably some of the ideas that I’m bringing to the table, so if you see me jumping in say, ‘You know what, Ash? I’m not coming to you for solutions. I really want to show you a number of options that we’ve come up with and then and only then I’d love to get some of your input.’”

Because otherwise they may actually then think their ideas are not worth sharing with him or her and as a result maybe some innovative ideas never really see the light of day.

As much as these leaders share where their blind spots might be in a way that’s not necessarily showing it as a weakness, but rather as a blind spot that they want to be watching out for and they need to have the trust of their team to help them sometimes make sure that that’s not where we’re spending most our time, but rather we’re spending a lot of our time in uncovering as many ideas from across the team.

That’s really where diversity comes in in terms of the diversity thought and idea and innovation and making sure that collectively we’re finding what’s the best for the organization rather than, “Oh it came from this person or that person.”

I think looking at the outcomes that we’re trying to achieve then helps us really tone down where the source of idea is, not to the point that you completely not go back and celebrate where it came from, but once you are driven more by the outcome, it really helps you reduce the reliance on “Oh, he’s the only one that has these ideas,” or “She’s the only one,” but rather, “Let’s take a look at what the whole team can bring to the table.”

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that notion associated with the others bringing in the winning ideas. I just think about how often it’s not fun to be wrong.

Ash Seddeek
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
I feel like it can be wrong in any number of ways like the exact opposite approach that you thought of is the optimal one. Or for me, I find it’s often about I want to go fast, but we should slow down or I want to go slow, but we should speed up. I find it helpful to reflect upon the times that I’ve been dead wrong and it was so helpful that someone slowed me down or sped me up.

I remember one time I was in PayPal. I was making a payment to someone in the Philippines in pesos or PHP. It’s about 50 to 1 is the conversion rate. I accidently did it in dollars. I’m often frustrated when software goes slows. … said, “Oh, did you want to give 4,000 dollars.” It was like, “Oh no. No, I didn’t.”

Then sure enough, I appreciated all of the ways that software, the security, the two-factor authentication, the texting you this or that can really save the day at times for you.

When I want to go fast and I’m frustrated that it’s slowing me down, I find that it is helpful to remember. It’s like hey, it might not feel so great in the moment to have a force speed you up or slow you down or point you in the opposite direction that you wanted to go, but it sure feels better when you get the desired outcome than the outcome you would have got had you had it your way.

Ash Seddeek
Exactly, exactly. Absolutely, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s handy for me in the humility, just coming up with those reminders. I’d also like to get your take on if there are any other kind of best practices in terms of tips and tricks, phrases or scripts that just really come in handy when folks are trying to live out and implement these ten leadership behaviors.

Ash Seddeek
I think an interesting idea that actually evolved over the past few months is what I’m now calling emotion one and emotion two. Emotion one, essentially most of us, leaders, whatever walk of life we’re in, a lot of the time when something happens, when someone comes to talk to you, you have that emotional reaction in your body.

A lot of the time leaders who are not emotionally intelligent, they will give in to that first emotion. Maybe it’s an emotion of frustration. Maybe it’s an emotion of “Oh my God, I cannot believe they screwed this up again.” Then the response is going to be one that they will not really like eventually.

What I’m basically starting to tell some leaders I work with is I want you to recognize that first emotion because once you recognize it, then you’re going to know it’s a pause moment, where you realize it is not going to be the best basis for what you want to say or do. What I advise them of doing is I advise them to let that first emotion wear off.

Then we come to the second emotion. The second emotion is really more driven by what outcome do we want to achieve eventually because as you said, maybe sometimes I need to realize that a particular activity I need to slow down in order for me to go very quickly in the future. Once you recognize the very first emotion, if you go with that flow of that emotion, you say something that you’re going to regret or do something that, again, you’re going to regret.

I tell leaders to be emotionally present, understand that the first thing that needs to happen is to realize that there’s no way for you to stop that emotion. Just let it go through the system and let it wear off.

Then ask yourself the question, “What is the action, the word that I need to say and do that would actually help us move our cause to the next step? What is it that I could say that would help that person I’m talking to understand that I emphasize with them, that I understand what they have to go through and that I’m willing to talk to them about what conditions for success do we need to create in order to take the next step.”

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot.
I think a lot of times for me the emotion one is like I’m hearing something that I think is outrageously wrong, ridiculous, absurd, offensive. I don’t know. I’m reacting strongly to something that I think is outrageous. My go-to phrase is just, “Tell me more.”

Ash Seddeek
I love that. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Which doesn’t mean, listeners, if I say that to any of you, that means I’m furious. I sometimes just want to know more and I don’t know the perfect follow up question and I just say, “Keep talking about that,” is what I mean. That doesn’t mean I’m enraged.

But I find that it’s helpful for one, it buys you time because they will tell you more and you can breathe a little it as they’re doing so. And two as you learn more about where they’re coming from and their rationale for the idea, like nine times out of ten it’s like, oh, that’s really not so absurd after all.

Ash Seddeek
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I still disagree, but it’s a plausible alternative to the view I had and now let’s sort of see what’s optimal together from here.

Ash Seddeek
Exactly, exactly. Right on. I love that too because, again, it helps you uncover. Maybe there are details that will change what I’m thinking right now. That’s the interesting part is when you actually uncover further details, then you realize something wrong happened with these guys and that’s why they were acting the way they were acting or they’re under some pressure that I did not understand or they were missing a piece of information.

Having that pause in the system, to your point, looking for more information is a very wise thing to do because, again, as leaders, you’re usually working with very high stakes situations. If you go with emotion one, it may actually mess things up.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ash, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention about inspiration or being awesome at your job before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Ash Seddeek
Absolutely. I think one of the key nugget I share with people and it’s based on my experience having worked at Deloitte … in San Francisco. But when you develop an outcome-based thought process, it not only inspires you to do really well every single day, but also once you act that way, you also start inspiring other people.

Because a lot of the time if you don’t have that mindset of ‘I am here almost as a management consultant. I am here really to achieve success for my client’ and you start really looking at everyone that works with you as your own client, it helps you detach from the struggles and the challenges and the dynamics of the moment to be someone that is self-composed and is much more result- and success-focused that it just creates an interesting air around you that people want to work with you, people want to be part of any project you work on because you see you have that focus on ‘I am here to help achieve success, not just for me, but for people around me.’ It’s very inspiring.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s funny, Ash. I guess in some ways I’m naïve or idealistic and also a former strategy consultant for Bain, but for me it’s almost like that’s the only way that I just naturally think and operate and breathe and work. Sometimes there’s a bit of a disconnect in terms of realizing where other people are coming from and their priorities.

But I’d love it if you could maybe give us a bit of a flavor for okay, an outcome-based mindset is one way to go and to think, live, operate in the course of doing work. What are some of the main contenders or alternative mindset worldviews that are driving people if not the outcome-based mindset?

Ash Seddeek
I think what happens on the other side of that is you actually get – I call it sucked in – you get sucked into the dynamics of the situation.

Let’s say the other person makes a comment. You don’t like the comment, as we were talking about emotion one. You get sucked in to the dynamics of the conversation. All of the sudden you’ve created an unhappy other person who thinks maybe you are not open to new ideas or you don’t understand what they want or you’re not listening.

They walk away with that impression about you and perception about you and then starts to build up because she’s going to go or he’s going to go walk out to somebody else and say, “Oh, I was just sitting with Ash and I just got a vibe that he just doesn’t want to listen to what we want to do and I don’t think he’s going to really be able to help us.”

All of the sudden, when we don’t focus on that outcome-based thinking and we get into the flow of that conversation, we give into that first emotion, then we create a dynamic that’s not going to be helpful for us. It sort of militates against wanting to be awesome.

If you want to be awesome, then we have to state with that outcome-based where some of the language I use, and again, to your point, Pete, working in management consulting you know that one of the key things you want to say is, as you said, “Tell me more,” “What does the solution look like,” “How can we help you get it done,” “When we’re done what would it look like?”

You can help people articulate what they’re looking or, whereas if you get into the flow and the dynamics of the personalities, then it’s not a good situation. We see a lot of just toxic environments really coming out of a lot of people giving in to those feelings that happen in the spur of the moment without focusing on what the outcome that they’re trying to build is for that person that they’re sitting in front of.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ash, I’d love it if you could for a moment enter the dark place and articulate what sorts of angry or reactive or what sorts of thoughts and responses internally or verbalized are popping up when folks are in this less optimal mindset when they’re working with folks.

Ash Seddeek
Yeah. I think from my own personal experience, I remember in my early days working at Deloitte, where I went into a client where my mind was thinking, “This company should be a whole lot more advanced than this. They should know a lot of things already. They should have this. They should have that.” I was just getting frustrated with the fact that my own expectations and assumptions about a large organization were not present.

People walked away from the conversation with me saying to my boss, “Well, Ash, was really coming across as very arrogant. We feel he’s really talking down to us.”

As you uncover your perceptions about the situation and what you’re saying, I think the lesson there is figure out first what the other person knows, what their expectations are, validate some of your assumptions before moving to the next step.

That’s what we start to realize then that the most important thing is to really come across as someone who’s there to, as Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand than to be understood.” With that in mind, it really sets you up for success. Whereas when you walk in thinking you’re the smartest man/lady coming to the conversation, you’re really blocking out a lot more opportunity than otherwise.

I love what Stephen Covey says. I think that was the biggest lesson there was rather than going in thinking they should have all this stuff in place already, you basically ask the question, “What are the things that we have already so we can build upon and see what else is missing.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Now I’d love to hear some of your favorite things. Could you start by sharing a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Ash Seddeek
The favorite quote that I heard a few weeks ago was, “I did it because I did not know it was impossible.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you.

Ash Seddeek
I don’t know what the attribution is, but actually it was a CEO of a startup company. He heard it somewhere. I said that’s just amazing because it allows us to have the freedom to pursue goals and aspirations without getting in mind whether somebody did it before us or not. We just keep going.

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

Ash Seddeek
I think the work that we’ve done for the Meaning book really gave us the chance to speak with leaders in a number of companies. It showed us how even in situations where the business is much smaller, the leadership communication challenges are pretty much the same. Of course, it gets much more compounded in a larger organization.

But the leaders ability to remember that they need to reiterate the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing and where we’re going is very, very important. That was very interesting. Now, I find out that a lot of CEOs, they get so entrenched in the daily grind that they forget that their biggest responsibility is the communication piece. That’s really where the coaching sometimes is very critical.

Also, the board of directors helps them to realize that you need to step out of the business and work on the business. The best part that you could do on the business is to really check on the vision and see if everybody’s heading in the right direction. Then come back and tell them where they need to steer the course so that they can correct any misalignments.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite book?

Ash Seddeek
I would say probably my favorite author is Tom Peters. I love all of his books, especially the Brand You books. I think, again, going back to management consulting, he really gives you a lot of ideas based on having been a consultant before. It gives you that insightful view on things, especially on yourself as the brand.

I love when he says the idea of each one of us looking at ourselves as a professional services organization of one, which, again, means everyone around you is a client. It helps free up your thought process. It helps you to really anchor what you do in your own value system of delivering value to the customer and clients and the team that you are a part of. That is being outcome-focused mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Ash Seddeek
A favorite tool for me is definitely LinkedIn I think is an amazing tool in the sense that it gives me a much better level of access and knowledge about people I work with, industries I try to reach out to.

I think there’s a lot more to these social media tools that we have yet to discover in terms of how do we actually put it to use to create value for us and other people. I would say definitely LinkedIn is one of my top tools right now given the fact that I’m running an executive coaching practice and connecting with other coaches, connecting with clients, so really trying to find out what are the top leadership challenges that we need to help our clients with.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Ash Seddeek
Okay. Okay. I think a favorite habit is to realize that sustaining your energy is going to stem from the fact that you also take care of yourself and exercise, and make sure that you have time for yourself because with an opportunity for reflection, I have seen comes a lot of dividends. Your brain needs time to rest in order to connect the dots.

Sometimes you get an inspiration based on the fact that you essentially sat down and allowed yourself not to do anything. Maybe you’re enjoying your favorite drink or you’re reading a book, but you’re able to relax and be able to receive some of these ideas.

Because otherwise if you’re just, again, just going through the grind and you don’t give yourself a break, you may actually losing out on amazing opportunities for coming up with breakthroughs that your team may need, yourself might need. I think coupling energy-building activities plus also having downtime is very critical.

In terms of apps, probably I think the calendar app on our phones now makes a big difference in keeping us organized. I also use Evernote. I’m still trying to see if Twitter really is very valuable, but I do use it sometimes.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your clients or audiences?

Ash Seddeek
I think the best nugget is the idea of being what Tom Peters said around the professional service organization of one. It really helps you to have self-independent thoughts to really take care of what you have to take care of. You never really are giving into being a victim to any situation. You are always feeling like you are in command.

If something has to happen, it has to happen because you started it and it has to start with you. That’s very critical. I think a lot of the time we lose a lot of energy because we’re waiting for somebody else to do something or we think they’re not going to like it or this or this or that. I basically come back and say, “If there’s one action you could do now, what would it be and let’s do it.”

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Well, if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Ash Seddeek
I would encourage them to visit ExecutiveGreatness.com. I will actually prepare for them a few downloads at ExecutiveGreatness.com/Pete/ and they find a downloadable on strategic leadership and also a free chapter of the Meaning book as well.

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

Ash Seddeek
I think to really make sure that they have that independent thought and don’t be affected by the environment as much as sort of coming back to their own desire to succeed and say, “If I were to do something today, what is it and let me make it happen.” That’s going to inspire themselves to do more and also inspire others by what they’ve done.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ash, this has been a whole lot of fun. I wish you all the best with your clients and coaching and leadership inspiration stuff. Keep at it.

Ash Seddeek
Thank you so much, Pete. It’s been a pleasure.

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Brenda

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

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

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Brenda Bailey Hughes Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Within ten minutes it should be initiated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Tell us about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Verbal encouragers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
You did. You did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
What the accountant said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brenda Bailey-Hughes
Okay.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right, thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Do it. All right.

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

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

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

403: Hollywood Secrets for Effective Business Storytelling with Matthew Luhn

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Movie story consultant Matthew Luhn shares the key principles and approaches for making compelling, emotionally-resonant stories–even if you’ve got a “boring” work topic.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Two story elements that keep an audience hooked
  2. The three key flavors of emotion
  3. The universal six story themes

About Matthew

Matthew Luhn is a writer, story branding consultant, and keynote speaker with over 25 years’ experience at Pixar Animation Studios, with story credits including the Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. franchises, Finding Nemo, UP, Cars, and Ratatouille. Alongside his work in Hollywood, Luhn trains CEOs, marketing teams, directors, and professionals on how to craft stories for Fortune 500 companies, Academy Award-winning movies, and corporate brands grossing billions of dollars worldwide, advice he’s packed into his new book, The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond. To learn more, visit matthewluhnstory.com.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Matthew Luhn Interview Transcript

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

Matthew Luhn
My pleasure. I’m always happy to help people be awesome.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we were having an awesome preamble conversation about you were an animator on Toy Story and I mentioned I had saw it all the way through for the first time just recently. That was fun. But toys are a part of your life, not just that you played with them as a youngster, but that you were in toy catalogues and your family had a toy business. Can you orient us to the early part of the Matthew story?

Matthew Luhn
Yes. Everybody I guess when you start off when you’re a kid you think my life is pretty normal. My parents are teachers or dentists or whatever. But my family, yeah, everybody in my family from my grandparents to my great-grandparents to uncles and aunts and mom and dad, they all owned toy stores. We had the largest family-owned chain of toy stores, Jeffrey’s Toys in San Francisco.

Actually, the only guy who didn’t get sucked into the toy stores was the guy that the toy stores were named after, Jeffrey, my uncle. He ended up becoming a photographer, but even though he was a photographer, he didn’t get far away from toys because he ended up being one of those guys responsible during the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s of taking the photos for all those toy catalogues.

Whenever he needed some cheap child labor, he’d say, “Matthew, come on in with your friend. We’ll give you the toy and we just want you to play with these A-Team toys or this Inspector Gadget toy.” Lo and behold, by the time I’m in high school, I go, “Wait a minute, what were those photos ever used for?” And yeah. You can always find them online. But my life has really had a lot to do with toys.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well this is a rich backdrop because I think we are going to have a lot of fun in a toy play kind of a way. That’s a forced segue. That’s a signature part of the show.

Matthew Luhn
Sounds good.

Pete Mockaitis
I want to hear, you worked as a story supervisor and you have described that job as your responsibility is to make people cry, which I think is pretty succinct way to point to it in terms of having people feel things. I’d love to get your take on when you are supervising stories, what kinds of adjustments do you find yourself making again and again that most of our stories could use improvements in these kind of key ways that show up repeatedly?

Matthew Luhn
Sure. First off, yes, my job is to make people cry, but I also want to put it out there that also to keep them sitting on the edge of their seats during action scenes and then make them laugh and at the end make them really think and be inspired.

It’s funny that no matter how many movies I’ve worked on, and you think to yourself, “Oh, we’ve got it figured out this time. No problem. This one’s going to be easy. It’s Toy Story 3. We’ve done the first and the second.” It’s never easy. There’s always a new set of problems. It’s funny how it always goes back to two things over and over again. It makes no difference if it’s a film, a TV show, a play, a book, whatever.

It always goes back to who is the hero and what do they want. I know it sounds so simple. It sounds like duh, but so many times people put together a story and you really can’t tell who is the main character or what their vision is, their goal in the story. It constantly goes back to that.

Sometimes people when they’re crafting a story, they’ll have a hero, main character, but the main character will have multiple goals. Then we as the audience just get distracted. We don’t know what to root for them for. Or they have no goals and we lose interest. Or the story just lacks a central character. It’s so silly, but it happens to the best of us. That’s the thing that keeps showing up again and again.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fascinating. I’m trying to think, I guess maybe we don’t want to name names in terms of here’s a story that sucked.

Matthew Luhn
Oh yeah, yeah. I know.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t want to put you on the spot there.

Matthew Luhn
Sure, sure.

Pete Mockaitis
But I think sometimes I guess I find that maybe we’ve got a clear leading hero and maybe it’s clear what they want, but I just don’t care about them and what they want. I guess I think that that goal’s kind of dumb or not worthwhile.

Matthew Luhn
Yeah. I think one of the things – it’s a tricky thing because when you are creating a story, there’s really three things that motivate you as a creative person, as a writer, a storyteller. One is deadlines. The other one is usually desperation. Then the other one that really inspires you to come up with some ideas is daydreaming.

When we daydream we think about moments from our own lives that would make good stories or something we heard or saw or experienced. The tricky thing is sometimes those ideas may be too abstract. They may only connect with a few people.

But really, if you want to be able to create a story that connects with as many people as possible, you need to come up with universal themes that have been showing up in everybody’s life, no matter what age or gender or culture, like the desire to be in love. It’s universal. The desire for safety and security for yourself and people you love. Or not to be abandoned, to feel belonged. These are all universal themes.

Whenever you’re watching a story and you’re like, “Eh, I can’t really get behind this character,” that’s probably the first reason is that their goal is not universal. The next thing is that even if you have a character that is so dastardly, like Walter White from Breaking Bad

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, my favorite.

Matthew Luhn
Or Anakin. Even if the character is really not a nice person, you still need to make sure that the audience either has empathy for them or there’s something likeable about them. You’ll see time and again that even with the most dastardly characters, they’ll always have somebody they care about, like Walter White, he still cares about his kids and his wife. Then there’s empathy because you know the situation he’s in.

There are steps to be able to make your character likeable and to make sure that the goal that they have is universal. That’s what you need to do to make sure that the audience isn’t like, “Eh, I could care less. I’m going to switch the channel.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. We’re talking about some of the components that make a story great and your book is called The Best Story Wins: How to Leverage Hollywood Storytelling in Business and Beyond. Let’s talk about leveraging it in a business or professional context.

Most of us will not be in the position of writing a TV or movie or a novel. Some have, which is awesome. Thanks listeners for sending me your novels. But if we want to do some storytelling in business, how do we do that? It might seem like tales of product innovation or profit and loss are not maybe as compelling as, Walter White could die.

Matthew Luhn
Yeah, you’re putting me to sleep right now talking about that stuff. Well, really when we go back to really one of the first people, first person who talked about the story, it was Aristotle in his Poetics books. One of the things he pointed out was that the person who is able to really master the metaphor is a very powerful person.

A metaphor is basically when you can take something that’s dry and analytical like profit and loss, but you can share a story that maybe is not business related. Maybe it’s something that happened to you when you were ten years old, but the takeaway message at the end communicates the feeling of the message of teamwork or the power of innovation.

There’s a couple of different ways you can use storytelling in business. Really, yes, telling the story around your company, the founder, that’s kind of like a no-brainer. Telling the story around your products through the eyes of the consumer, the customer, the guest through endorsements and testimonials, that’s a good one.

But the next one is how you use those metaphors to be able to enlighten people, to be able to help kind of complicated or dry information be more memorable and impactful internally or externally at your company or beyond.

Then also the most important way you can use storytelling is to be able to paint a picture for the listener, for that potential client of what their story could be like, what their company could be like, what their life could be like if they engaged with you or used your product or service. Really, we’ve seen from Steve Jobs to Walt Disney that the people who have mastered story telling in business are the ones who lead their industries. It happens over and over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. So telling the story of what your life would be like if you used the product. I think you had a really nice example in your TEDx talk. There was a Mercedes commercial about a teenage boy, maybe 13, 14, 15, on his first. I guess the story was just that, hey, this Mercedes is reliable in snow, but we had a whole lot of drama behind it because he’s going to the movies. We’ll link to that in the show notes.

Matthew Luhn
Yeah, he’s going on his first date and is she going to show up because it’s completely snowed out. Instead of watching another boring car commercial where the narrator is talking about the performance in bad weather, we actually see the car weather the storm, get him to the movie theatre and I won’t blow it because you should watch it because there’s elements of tension in there, but it goes back to that universal theme of wanting to be in love.

Everybody can connect with that. Everybody has been at some point – when you’re born, you want to be loved. They were able to use that universal theme to be able to show – and showing is always better than telling – how effective their product, their service is. We have a main character with a goal. There’s a tool that helps them reach their goal. That’s what it’s all about in business.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Then I’d love to hear then, it sounds like you’ve already gotten a lot of components here, but maybe just to make sure we’re being thorough, are there any other key components that make the best story, which wins, in fact the best?

Matthew Luhn
Sure. I think the next thing that I try to encourage people about is that when you watch a movie, the movies that truly impact you and you love, the top movies that are out there, books, plays, everything, they’re not ones where everything is happy from beginning to end or everything is sad from beginning to end. We love stories that go back and forth between happy and sad.

When we end up using storytelling for business, there’s this tendency where we want everybody to think our company is perfect, we are perfect, our products are perfect. We have never made any mistakes at our company. We are the number one dot, dot, dot in our industry. First off, it’s not real. Second off, it’s really boring. What people love in a story is obstacles.

We love a hero that has a goal. You could be your company that has a goal. Your consumer or customer that has a goal. But the obstacles is what – I guess you would say in the business world is like the research and development. What went into making that product? Share with us when it blew up, share with us when the company almost went bankrupt because it keeps you sitting on the edge of your seat because you want to know what happened.

We love a hero with a goal, with a set of obstacles. Then the most important thing is a transformation, how this product/service has transformed people’s lives, how a pair of shoes or a computer or a car can make people healthier or happier or wealthier, have more time with their family and friends. This transformation is really it’s the climax. It’s the grand finale of what you want to succeed at.

You can tell a great story in business, but if it doesn’t drive anyone to action, it was pointless. That’s the transformation part.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Boy, this is awesome because as you’re speaking it’s just really catching all sorts of things. My favorite movie is Life Is Beautiful with Roberto Benigni.

Matthew Luhn
Oh right, right.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, we’ve got some happiness and some sadness in there.

Matthew Luhn
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m tearing it up just thinking about it. Then that connects for me – it’s about me for a moment, Matthew. If you’ll-

Matthew Luhn
Sure, sure. It’s always about us.

Pete Mockaitis
If you’ll indulge me.

Matthew Luhn
The funny thing is, I’ll tell you right now, the reason why we love heroes in stories and that we always have a hero in a story is because we all see our human psyche as that we are heroes on a journey.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Matthew Luhn
That’s why we do that. Also, I just want to point out that the reason why you do cry in a movie or you have tears of joy is because when you juxtapose a happy moment and a sad moment successfully in a film or in anything, the release from dopamine to oxytocin – dopamine is kind of the happy chemical, oxytocin is more of the somber chemical – when you put those right next to each other, the chemicals change so quickly, so you could be laughing one moment and then you discover something sad and it will tear you apart.

There’s kind of a science to storytelling that these chemicals get released from dopamine, oxytocin and then endorphins to make you laugh.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s kind of what you’re going for in a great story is that you’re going to share some things that trigger the happy, trigger the sad, and trigger the laugh.

Matthew Luhn
Absolutely. The way I always see it is, it’s kind of like these three choices that you can get of different ice cream. It’s like the funny moments, the emotional moments, or kind of this anticipation/action moments. Really when you think about it, that breaks down all the movies. It’s either funny, emotional – kind of like heartfelt – or action. When you can make a film that kind of blends all of those, like Toy Story did, you really put together a compelling piece of storytelling.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, yeah. I’m also thinking about even just a gum commercial. They played a song that we played at our wedding, which was the Haley Reinhart version of I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You with this gum. It showed this guy drew doodles on the gum wrappers. We’ll link to it in the show notes.

Matthew Luhn
Okay, cool. I was hoping you weren’t going to say you played the Double Mint song …, but this is better.

Pete Mockaitis
It was so touching at our wedding.

Matthew Luhn
Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
There we have it. It’s like the product that he’s doodling on these gum wrappers is sort of having a transformation in their life because we kind of see the relationship unfolding.

Similarly to, I’m thinking about the Google – I’m linking to all of these – the Google commercials that’s really emotionally powerful where it starts with how to impress a French or Italian girl, how to speak Italian or French. Then it goes all the way – geez, I’m a crybaby today – it goes all the way to – I don’t want to spoil it, but their relationship also develops in a touching way.

Linking to the show notes all of these things. You’re really connecting the dots for me in terms of why is this effective. It’s like, I don’t know. I guess I’m a softy.

Matthew Luhn
This is the thing. This is what people listening to this should think about. Just like you’re recalling all of these commercials or movies, you’re recalling them because you remembered them. Storytelling does make things more memorable.

The truth is that when you just share information, people only retain a very small amount. They say ten minutes later, you only retain five percent of the information. But if you can wrap a story around it, even a piece of gum or a car, people are going to retain so much more. They’re going to remember it and it’s going to make them feel something. It’s going to impact them. Then the last thing, it’s going to be personal. All of the sudden, you’re playing a gum commercial at your wedding.

This is what great marketers, great salespeople, great branding teams do. They’re the ones who see that storytelling is not just for entertainment.

I always knew I wanted to write a book on storytelling, but there’s so many books on storytelling out there that I almost felt like I just don’t want to waste my time or the audience’s time writing a book that they can already get.

One of the things that I saw that the world needed was a book that shared actually the Pixar storytelling techniques that could be used for business. A lot of those business books out there on storytelling are not written by people who are necessarily film writers. The actual techniques and tools that I have in the book are ones that we would use at work. But instead of you inserting a car or a bug or a rat, you can insert your product or your founder or you can better yet, that customer.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Well, you had a couple teaser fascination bullets in your book that I can’t resist. Let’s touch on a couple of them.

Matthew Luhn
Okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s see. You shared with us a few universal story themes, but you mentioned six. Did we tick off all six?

Matthew Luhn
Oh gosh, I’m not sure if I did. Let’s see. There’s love. There’s safety and security. There is wanting to be free and be spontaneous. Just think about in the movie Brave, she’s been set up to get married and become the queen. She just wants to be like an adventurer.

Then the next three are ones that are kind of based on fear. Those first are like desires. The next ones are fears, like the fear of not belonging, the fear of abandonment. You guys are going to have to read the book. I’m getting stumped on the sixth one right now. It’ll come to me in a second. But these are – they really, they just keep showing up again and again.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well, I’d love to get your take in terms of at the very beginning, how do we hook attention well?

Matthew Luhn
Well, this is not anything new. It just seems like it’s even harder today, which is how to be able to hook someone’s attention. I think we know that when you – say you want to do a pitch for a product or a movie or you’re just trying to start up a conversation with somebody, people have very limited attention spans. They’re about eight seconds I think is the human attention span.

How do you engage people to want to continue listening about your company or what your product or service does? When I am putting together a hook on a movie poster or a trailer or I’m going to do the pitch for a film, I’ve got to make sure that first off, it’s not too long. It needs to be clear and concise. I really try to make sure that my pitch is not longer than eight seconds.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Matthew Luhn
Really.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re going to have to give me a few examples. Wow, eight seconds. Is that even a sentence?

Matthew Luhn
Here. You’ll count it out in your head. What about, “What if superheroes were banned from saving people?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Matthew Luhn
You’re kind of intrigued because you’re like, “I know superheroes save people, so why would they be banned from saving people?” That’s The Incredibles. Or could you have one that is “What if a rat wanted to be a French chef?”

Now those are films, so you could say to yourself, “Well, Matthew, those are films, so you’re cheating.” “What if you could put a thousand songs in your pocket?” That was the pitch Steve made for the iPod. “What if you could put a thousand songs in your pocket?”

What’s going on here is that when you have a hook, you have really four options. You can either come up with something unusual that takes the ordinary world and shares how it could be different, that superheroes that are not allowed to save people. You’re not going to have to use a Walkman with 14 songs on a cassette tape. You can actually put a thousand songs in your pocket.

Or the second one is something unexpected, the shock value. “What if a rat was a French chef?” Then the other two is landing people in an action or conflict, like when you’re clicking through channels on TV and you see the good guys chasing the bad guys. You want to know if they’re going to get the bad guys, so you keep watching. Or landing people into a conflict, like seeing two people in a kind of very intense conversation. You can’t stop watching.

These types of things are great ways to create hooks. I always suggest keep it within eight seconds. It’s always helpful to start with a ‘what if’. Don’t make it too abstract that people don’t know what it’s about, but the same time don’t get too wordy and start repeating yourself too much because people are going to get bored. That’s what I do for a hook.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, with those ‘what if’s,’ do all of your pitches start with ‘what if’s’ or are there any other formats that they occur?

Matthew Luhn
When I’m creating and I start with a ‘what if,’ but then, I start to use whatever words feel most natural. But there’s something about starting with a question that pulls people in. It entices people to want to know what’s the answer. That’s probably why.

Maybe you don’t have to start with a ‘what.’ You can start with a ‘why.’ Why is that if you want to get from Point A to Point B, you have to get in a stinky taxi that charges too much and they’re rude to you? What if there was another option? That could be Uber or Lyft.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, got you.

Matthew Luhn
That’s what I think about when I’m creating a hook.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Could you maybe give us an example of bringing some of this to life with regard to a client? It’s like, all right, they’ve got a proposal for a product or a business or a service or a process or a story to share with the investors, the customers, their employees about something that might seem boring in the realm of business, but suddenly just came to life with a thrilling story?

Matthew Luhn
You think about – I would say data and analytics. That’s sounds pretty wordy, a little dry. I think a lot of companies, they know that collecting data and having good information on people, it’s beneficial because you’re going to be able to help people be able to get what they need more effectively.

When I come into companies to be able to help them tell stories that are connected to data and analytics, I have them go back to what is the takeaway for your service or product. The whole takeaway is the more you know about people, the better you’re going to be able to help them.

Then you can think about moments in your life where somebody got you a birthday gift or it’s your birthday at work and they get you the cake. You’re allergic to dairy. You can’t eat gluten. They got you a big chocolate cake. Obviously, if they would have really taken the time to know you as a person, they wouldn’t have been giving you something that you didn’t want or couldn’t even eat.

That’s really I think the way it’s like in our world of advertising. We get bombarded with so many ads that have nothing to do with us. It’s like recently, I have no idea why, I’m getting all these dental implant ads that are being sent my way. I have perfect teeth. It’s kind of making me mad.

If somebody actually did their data and really knew what was important to me, they wouldn’t be wasting my time and getting me angry at them. They would be sending me products and services that actually would make my life better. I always think about what is the end takeaway for that product or service. Then I try to think about stories that will fit and have a similar takeaway. It’s like a metaphor.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you.

Matthew Luhn
Sure.

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

Matthew Luhn
I’m okay. I’m ready to shift gears.

Pete Mockaitis
All right then. Could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Matthew Luhn
Oh my gosh. Okay. Do I have to quote it correctly?

Pete Mockaitis
Roughly correctly. There’s some leeway.

Matthew Luhn
All right. I always loved this quote that Alfred Hitchcock has. I think he was asked “What makes a great story?” He said, “Great stories are based on life, but with the boring parts removed.” That always sticks in my head because so many times we think that I’m going to create this story about this thing that happened to me in my life. You know what? People probably don’t want to hear all the details, just get to the good stuff. Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Thank you.

Matthew Luhn
My pleasure.

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

Matthew Luhn
Oh my. Well, you know what I would say is that one of the bonuses of working on a movie, especially a Pixar movie, is that they will actually pay for you to research on the movie. You’re working on Finding Nemo, so you go to Great Barrier Reef in Australia or you go on Route 66 on Cars.

Actually, that was probably the most memorable one for me because I didn’t want to go on Route 66. It was for two weeks. It was going to be the middle of the summer. This is before having a smartphone. It turned out to be the best experience. The people we actually met on Route 66 were the characters that we put in the movie, like Mater and Sally and Doc. Those were based off of people we actually met through just getting to know the people on Route 66.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you.

Matthew Luhn
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Matthew Luhn
Oh gosh, that’s a hard question, man. I think I would have to go and ask myself which book have I read over the most again and again. I don’t know man. I’ve read Watership Down a lot. I do love that book. Then also I would have to say I am a John Steinbeck fan, so I have read Great Expectations a couple times.

I’m just also a really big Roald Dahl fan. I think if I could come back as a writer, it would be Roald Dahl. I would say that I have probably read his books to my kids so many times from The Twits to James and the Giant Peach to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, all those. I know that’s a lot of answers there.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh no, I appreciate it.

Matthew Luhn
The audience can pick and choose which ones they like.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Matthew Luhn
Oh, a favorite tool. I would say that the tool is not necessarily a pencil or a computer. I think the tool is actually improv, if that counts.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure.

Matthew Luhn
Because when I get stuck coming up with a story, the thing that helps me get out of that rut is kind of chilling out, try not to think too much and kind of letting your subconscious take over for a little bit. Improv is the best way of doing it because you’re kind of given a location, a subject, who you are, go with it and you just start making it up as you go along.

It’s a great way for me to just kind of get out of that analyzing things too much. I think that’s probably one of the enemies of art is thinking too much. I know it sounds so silly, but whenever you’re able to just kind of go into the basement of your mind or our soul and really start finding the truth and the things that scare you to use in your stories. They’re honest. A lot of times we don’t want to go down in the basement to find those things, but improv helps me to be able to do that.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, thank you. How about a favorite habit?

Matthew Luhn
A favorite habit? I would say that one of my favorite habits is probably riding my bike. I was also going to say dancing, but once you start to have a certain number of kids, it’s hard to go out dancing with your wife anymore. But those were nice habits. We used to do those, go out at least once a month. We’ve got to start doing that again sometime, but yeah. Those habits always have something to do with kind of getting the heart beating, moving around, having fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Matthew Luhn
Get the endorphins up.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite nugget, something you share that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and clients?

Matthew Luhn
I think one thing I share with people especially when I’m working with a group of people or business who are thinking to themselves, “Okay, great. This guy has shared a lot of great stuff about storytelling. He’s worked in the movies, sure. But I’m not a storyteller. I’m not a screenwriter.” They just kind of already shut down.

The thing I always share with them is that when you have a chicken who’s only lived in a cage their entire life, they know nothing but living in that cage. Actually, if you open up that cage door and you let them run out for the first time, they’ll run around, they’ll peck at things, and eventually they’re just going to go back into the cage. Even though the door is open, they’re just going to stay in there.

The only way that you can actually inspire that chicken to stay out permanently is you put out little morsels of food, a couple inches apart, leading them out of the cage to be able to get them used to not being in that cage anymore. It’s baby steps. Really it takes practicing telling those short stories around your life that could be personal or professional and reminding yourself that we were all storytellers once. It just takes a little bit of practice to get you back into that place again.

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

Matthew Luhn
Well, I’d love to share some fun story tidbits on Twitter. You can always find me there.

I would say that one of the guys that I love to go back to time and time again is Joseph Campbell. He wrote a book called The Hero with A Thousand Faces. He also did this interview called The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth interviews are actually on Netflix. You could always pick up one of his books.

He was one of the original guys who really started thinking about how storytelling connects all of us on this planet no matter what culture, gender, age. It’s a very inspiring guy. I would say that would be some good things to go check out.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Matthew, this has been a ton of fun. I wish you lots of luck and inspiration as you do your thing.

Matthew Luhn
Hey, my pleasure. I want to also to encourage you now that you’ve watched Toy Story, there’s two more, just in case.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Matthew Luhn
There’s Toy Story 2 and 3 because you’ve got to get them watched before Toy Story 4 is coming out, man.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t think I was aware that was happening.

Matthew Luhn
It is. You have until June. Okay?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Straight from the horse’s mouth.

Matthew Luhn
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Did you work on Toy Story 4?

Matthew Luhn
I did work on that in the very beginning.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Matthew Luhn
I would say also for Toy Story 2 and 3, definitely bring some tissues. Okay?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Matthew Luhn
You’re going to need it.

Pete Mockaitis
Appreciate it.

Matthew Luhn
Okay.

398: The Hidden Root of Much Workplace Conflict…And What to Do About It with Dr. Donna Hicks

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Conflict resolution expert Dr. Donna Hicks outlines the ten elements of dignity to provide a master framework for human treatment and mistreatment. She also reveals how such treatment impacts performance.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How violating another’s dignity is at the root of many conflicts
  2. Four everyday indignities people suffer at work
  3. Business reasons to honor dignity in a work environment

About Donna

Dr. Donna Hicks is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.  She facilitated dialogues in numerous unofficial diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Colombia, Cuba, Libya and Syria. She was a consultant to the BBC in Northern Ireland where she co-facilitated a television series, Facing the Truth, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.   She has taught courses in conflict resolution at Harvard, Clark, and Columbia Universities and conducts training seminars in the US and abroad on dignity leadership training and on the role dignity plays in resolving conflict.  She consults to corporations, schools, churches, and non-governmental organizations. Her book, Dignity:  It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, was published by Yale University Press in 2011.  Her second book, Leading with Dignity:  How to Create a Culture That Brings Out the Best in People, was published by Yale University Press in August 2018.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Donna Hicks Interview Transcript

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

Donna Hicks
Oh, you’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. I understand that much of it comes from really the frontlines in terms of conflict resolution in work, where things can be kind of spooky. Can you maybe open us up by sharing a story of maybe when you were close to danger?

Donna Hicks
Well, there’s so many, but there’s a kind of funny one I’d like to share with you. That is that during the height of the conflict in Columbia in South America between the government and the rebel groups, I was asked to facilitate a workshop between – with members of the Columbian Army and different groups within the government.  I – “Yeah, sure. I’ll do this. This sounds really interesting.”

I’d been working in that conflict for quite a few years, but this was kind of special in the sense that it was in Cartagena. We were meeting at the Presidential Palace in Cartagena. I arrived a couple of days early just to kind of adjust and so on. I stayed in this lovely hotel right on the water right in the old city. Actually, it’s a beautiful old 15th century city, so it’s charming.

I’m a runner, so I decided gee, I’m going to get up really early the next day after I run. I’m going to go running along the wall of the old city. I did. I got up. I was really early – 6 o’clock. Out there right as the sun was rising.

All of the sudden, I turned around – I felt like somebody was following me. It sort of felt creepy. I turned around and there were two military guys with machine guns running with me because they didn’t think it was safe for me to be out there running on my own at 6 o’clock in the morning. But it never even occurred to me.

This is how naïve in some ways I was because I thought, “Oh, let’s just go out for a run.” Here I was in this conflict zone. Even though it was a very in some ways very safe city, but I didn’t even know they had assigned me bodyguards. That was the one of the funniest.

Another one I just have to share with you was when we were working – my partner and I were working in Sri Lanka during the time the war was really active there. We decided that we’re trying to bring the parties together for dialogues. We recognized that there was no way that we’re going to have a meaningful dialogue if we couldn’t get to the rebels and get the rebels.

These are people who are considered terrorists. They were on the terrorist list by the US government. My partner and I said, “We’ve just got to do this. We have to in order to do anything that’s going to contribute because if we don’t have the major parties at the table, who are you going to get to make decisions?”

Anyway, very long story short, we got this Catholic priest to take us up to where the rebels were staying in the rebel territory, which nobody could get into. But this Catholic priest got us in there. It was just one of those moments where I was – we were in a boat, in this tiny little boat, going across this lagoon at about 2 o’clock in the morning, so we wouldn’t be discovered.

I’m thinking, “Oh my God, my husband is going to kill me. What am I doing?” Here we had these machine guns surrounding us. But it all worked out in the end, Pete, because we really did – it did help our efforts to try to bring people because they gave their blessings to have certain people sitting at the table with us.

But, again, I don’t know – I guess when my number is up, my number is going to be up because I have been in so many perilous situations without even thinking about it. We were so determined to do the right thing and get the job done. We could spend the whole time talking about this, but I’m sure you want to talk about dignity.

Pete Mockaitis
Indeed. Well, that is exciting. Well, I think it just sort of lends credibility to everything you say in terms of “I’ve seen this work in situations where folks wanted to kill one another,” so I think that’s handy. Maybe you could I guess make the bridge for us in terms of how does your research on dignity in those kind of conflict environments really port over into the just normal workplace interactions?

Donna Hicks
Well, what happened was that I was working for all those years in different parts of the world on these intractable conflicts. It was really clear to me that there was a psychological dimension to these conflicts because these were people who we would bring together to try to come up with an agreement to have discussions about how to end the violence and end the conflict.

They were smart people. They weren’t people who didn’t understand how to actually sign an agreement. They knew exactly what they had to do, but for some reason something was stopping them. They couldn’t get to an agreement. I always said, “Look, there’s something else going on here. There’s some deep emotional aspects to this resistance to finding a way out of this.”

Again, to make a very long story short, what I finally realized was these people from both sides of the divide were feeling so angry and resentful for being treated the way they were being treated by the other side. If they could put words to it, they’d say something like, “How dare you treat us this way? Don’t you see we’re human beings?”

I thought this is what’s preventing them. They need to have a conversation about this, about how being treated as if they weren’t even human beings. Then I realized that at the end of the day, this was about their dignity. That was a big light bulb went off for me. It was a major insight that led to me thinking about how to have dignity discussions with these parties before we try to sign onto an agreement.

That’s basically what I did. Then I wrote about it. It was online. Somebody from the corporate world read this description of what I felt was really missing in our understanding of how to resolve conflicts and that is how to address these issues of dignity and these deep emotional resentments that they felt before they can go and resolve the conflict.

This one guy, consultant, called me up. He said, “I’ve been reading your stuff online and I think-“ he said, “I’ve been working for a major corporation for many years and we can’t figure out why we can’t come to an agreement with management and the employees.” He said, “Would you mind coming and talking to some of the senior VPs about your dignity approach to conflict resolution?”

Lo and behold, I did that. We discovered that of course some of the underlying root causes of the differences between management and employees that they couldn’t get past were dignity-related.

That’s when the floodgates opened, Pete, because once I stated in that organization – I worked with this organization for about five years – I got calls from health care, from education, from all these different arenas who said “We think you’ve nailed our problem. We think that our people are feeling really upset about the way they’re being treated in the workplace. We think we need you.”

They say, “We think we need you to come and help us try to create a culture where people feel that their dignity is being honored.”

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love it if you could just maybe paint a little bit of a picture in terms of – in the workplace what are some ways that dignity is dishonored. I guess I’m thinking – I have all these ISIS videos playing in my head right now. We’re not doing-

Donna Hicks
You have all the what?

Pete Mockaitis
-dramatic torture or killing-

Donna Hicks
Right, right, right.

Pete Mockaitis
-in the workplace. What are the ways in which folks are feeling dishonored?

Donna Hicks
These are everyday indignities we’re talking about. We’re not talking about things where people break the law or we’re not talking about people out there fist fighting or anything like that.

We’re talking about ways in which people, especially employees in management-employee relationships where the people in positions of power – just first of all, let me just say we’re not talking about bad people here committing these acts of indignities towards their workers. That’s not the case whatsoever.

It’s just that people who don’t understand the sensitivity and the volatility around the way people are being treated – if you don’t get that, if you don’t understand the effect that you have on people – and most people don’t, by the way – you’re going to end up violating people’s dignity.

What would that look like in the workplace? Well, what that looks like – for example, oftentimes people will sort of unconsciously discriminate against one group or the other. For example, some leaders may have favorites in their direct reports. They may not even realize how often they’re choosing these favorites over some other, let’s say minority groups or women.

It’s so easy to have your identity violated and feel like you’re treated as less than simply because you’re a member of some group. This is the first element of dignity around people wanting their identity accepted.

Or you can be left out of a meeting that you feel – let’s say you worked on a project for three months and you aren’t asked to be a part of that meeting. People want a sense of belonging and inclusion especially on projects that they’ve worked on.

Or simply feel like they’re being treated unfairly, where one person gets more time and attention or one person gets paid a little bit more or less. Fairness is a really common violation of dignity.

But the one that’s the most astonishing that you might be surprised to learn, Pete, is that people – when I did my interviews with people – it doesn’t matter which organization it was because it was all the same – I would ask people to tell me ways in which they felt their dignity is being violated the most. The one element of dignity that people reported 80% of the time was the element of safety.

Now you might think, “Safety. What?” Well, it’s not physical safety. I would ask them to explain it to me, “What do you mean by safety?” They said, “Well, we don’t feel safe to speak up when something bad happens to us, especially when something bad happens when our employer/our boss treats us badly because we’re terrified we won’t get a good performance review if we speak up and say something that he or she doesn’t want to hear or feels this is a violation of their dignity.”

This idea of safety, needing to feel that you can’t speak up to your boss when she or he harms you in some way – I don’t know about you, but that one surprised me that that was the most violated element of dignity in every organization that I went into.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing. This has really come up again and again on the show. I think about Google’s work with psychological safety as well. It’s a big one. I’d love to spend some more time on it. Let’s hear it. They think it’s not safe to speak up because there may be a retaliation. One format of that retaliation is a bad performance review. Can you share-

Donna Hicks
That’s one.

Pete Mockaitis
What are some of the others? Because I think there may be many managers who have got their hands in the air like, “What? What’s not safe about speaking up? I need your ideas. What’s going on?”

Donna Hicks
Sure. Sure. Well, but you know speaking up requires an openness on the part of the person that you’re speaking up to.

One of the things that I’ve discovered also in my research is that people don’t like getting feedback. People interpret it as criticism. Look, we all know this. None of us likes to get feedback saying what we’ve done wrong. It’s just an unpleasant experience.

But because many of the managers and people in positions of authority and leadership with whom I’ve worked, they’ve never had any experience with asking for feedback in a way that isn’t criticism, but feedback that is helpful because the person has a blind spot.

All of us have blind spots. Everybody has blind spots. The people work the closest to us and who are in our environment most of the time, they know what our blind spots are. We might not know, but you ask any of them and they’ll tell you what your blind spots are.

Being able to speak up and to say “Gee,” to your boss, “In that staff meeting the other day when you were making jokes about me and I was the only one who wasn’t laughing, that was a really embarrassing experience for me. You probably didn’t mean it. You probably didn’t understand the impact that it had on me, but the fact is it was really hurtful.” Can you imagine giving your boss that kind of feedback? It would be wonderful to be able to do that.

The safety, and the resistance to feedback, and the lack of openness to understanding what our blind spots are, all these things are psychological skills that really do have to be developed. Because, again, we don’t want to use feedback as a weapon; we want to use it as a helpful way to show someone the unintended consequences of his or her behavior. That’s a growth experience.

But I’m telling you, every time I went into an organization, very few managers and leaders were open to having this face-to-face feedback with their direct reports.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. This Harvard Business Review study has come up a few times that the majority of managers are just uncomfortable interacting with their workers on anything, which is striking. I’d love to hear a little bit more detail in terms of painting a picture for how does one exhibit openness versus closeness.

Donna Hicks
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Resistance to feedback versus a welcoming-ness to feedback. Because in a way you said, indeed, people don’t like getting feedback in which they’re learning what they’ve done wrong, but nonetheless we need it and we want to convey an openness and a non-resistance to it. How do you play that game?

Donna Hicks
I say, “Look, here’s the research. It’s clear that dignity is something really important to people.” Then I have some neuroscience research to show that when people’s dignity is violated, it actually shows up in the brain in the same area as a physical wound.

This isn’t just some touchy feely of how we’ve got to be nice to people. No, this is something where the harm that’s done with the dignity violation is, in the brain anyway, equivalent to the harm that people experience when they have a physical wound. This is really serious stuff.

Once people get that, once people recognize, “Oh my gosh, this is serious stuff. You’re right, Donna, I have not been thinking about the effect that I have on other people.”

It’s not, as I said, because they’re bad people. It’s because they just simply have not been exposed to this kind of education. My first job is to educate, just give people what I know about dignity. Then once they have that awareness and they have that knowledge – then people say to me, “Oh Donna, this is common sense. Of course this is all true.” I say to them, “Yes, it’s common sense, but it’s not common knowledge.” We do have to learn this.

Once they develop that sensitivity about how people actually flourish when they’re treated well and they suffer when they’re treated badly. This is a real simple truth we’re talking about here. This isn’t something you have to get a PhD from Harvard in order to understand. Little kids understand this.

Once we get that and they understand, “Gee, maybe it is important for me to get feedback from my people.” It’s not important because I want to treat my people well. That is important. But the other personal – for personal development, it’s important because you don’t want to walk around the world violating people’s dignity unknowingly, because the fact is, you’re probably violating the dignity of people in your family and people who are close to you.

This just doesn’t begin and end in the workplace. This is a life skill that we’re trying to help people with. Just being open to some feedback to say, “Gee,” Again, it’s the way it’s delivered. We want people to also learn how to deliver that feedback in addition to how to accept it.

On the other hand, on the other side of this, I work with the employees and help them figure out how to give this feedback in a way where people don’t feel threatened, don’t feel criticized, and don’t feel that this is something that they want to avoid.

Pete Mockaitis
A few things there. When it comes to the particular behaviors associated with conveying the openness and nonresistance, what does that look like?

Donna Hicks
First of all, the hope is when you want to create a culture of dignity, the hope is that your people know. You announce to them when you hire  them and when you work with them that you really want to know if there are times when he – let’s say it’s a he in this case – that when your boss says something that’s hurtful, you have to tell them, “I want to know this. This is for my own growth and development. I certainly don’t want to be treating you badly.”

There are ways of saying this to your people. You have to be explicit about it. You have to say, “I want this feedback. I certainly don’t want you to be afraid of me or not feel safe in my environment.” It goes something like that.

Then you also have to be willing to actually carry through and do it. It’s all about making yourself vulnerable, Pete, as a leader. It’s about making yourself vulnerable so that you’re not trying to cover up your mistakes or you’re not trying to push people away when they are approaching you with some feedback. It looks like what vulnerability feels like. Let’s put it that way.

You have to create that sense of safety for them to say, “Yeah, I know this is going to be hard for you,” because you’re fighting resistance. Because one of the other things that we have that’s sort of a biological reality inside us is we resist confrontation. We don’t like going to somebody with feedback.

We’ve got a double resistance, a sort of double blind problem here because there’s blindness and there’s resistance on both sides. It’s hard.

It’s hard, but I’ll tell you what, with practice I have seen people do this in such a way that by the end of a session where, let’s just say there’s one employee and a manager having a problem, what I have seen many times once they become skilled in asking for feedback and they become skilled in giving feedback, that the people end up feeling really closer to each other than they did before, even before there was a problem.

When you make that vulnerable, the intimacy that gets created in that space is just lovely.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m curious then, when folks share the things and they’re not fun to hear and you think the other person is mistaken, shall we say, in what they’re sharing, kind of emotionally internally how do you kind of deal with your own resistance to vulnerability or tendency toward defensiveness? How do you manage yourself?

Donna Hicks
Well, this is where a good coach comes into the picture or what I call a dignity buddy. One of the things that I ask people to do is to get someone with them – to invite someone to become your dignity partner as it were. Let’s just say it’s somebody at work whom you really trust – say you and I are both managers and we have made a commitment to try to be more open and be more vulnerable with our people and ask for feedback.

If I feel that resistance coming up – because we all know what it feels like – and if I’m not being as open as I’m sort of aspiring to be with this dignity training, then I turn to my dignity partner and I say, “Help me with this. I’m fighting this. Is there any truth?” Because you can always check out what the feedback is with your trusted partner.

It takes some brave people to corroborate that evidence, but this is what we need. This is what we need to be doing for each other. It is hard to do this on our own and to walk away from that and feeling so embarrassed and feeling like, “Oh my gosh, did I really make that person feel that way? Did she really – was I that insulting?” All of that is really hard until you get used to it. It’s like developing a muscle really. You try to normalize this process.

These resistances, we have so many of these resistances. Resistance to feedback is just one. We have to fight these things if we want to lead with dignity. That’s just the way it is. This isn’t easy.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to zoom out a little bit. When you talk about the education in terms of there’s a lot of ignorance and we’ve got a lot of sensitivity to the ways that we are having our dignity violated, could you share a couple of those gems in terms of the research that is particularly striking and shocking for folks?

We heard that the neuroscience shows that when folks have their dignity violated, it’s experienced in the brain like a physical wound. That’s kind of wild. Do you have any other little gems like that as well as the proof points that point to, “Hey, folks really do flourish when treated well and suffer when treated badly?”

Donna Hicks
Yeah. There’s lot of research out there in terms of how people respond. One of the pretty amazing pieces of research that I came across was, you probably already know it, but when – this is largely done by business ethicists, this research. I’m connected with several different groups of business ethicists around these issues of dignity in the workplace.

What they discovered is that when people feel that their dignity is honored in the work environment, several things happen. Number one people are much more willing to give discretionary energy. Their loyalty increases, their productivity increases, employee engagement increases, all of these factors that are always so volatile within the workplace.

Lo and behold, at the end of the day – and I don’t even like to use this as the first bit of evidence, but profits actually increase when people feel treated well. To me this is the most cost-effective way of doing business.

Yes, you have to learn it. You have to make a commitment to how to lead with dignity, but if you’re in a work environment and that work environment is toxic and your people are breathing that toxic energy, they’re not going to give discretionary energy. They’re not going to be loyal. They’re going to be dreading coming into the workplace. It seems to me a no-brainer, just let’s figure this out as leaders of our organizations.

If we can figure out how to create these cultures where people are feeling like they’re being seen, they’re being heard, they’re being recognized, they’re being responded to, they’re feeling valued, why not? There’s just so much evidence that this works. I don’t know. I don’t know what the argument would be against it.

Pete Mockaitis
I think most of the arguments against it as I hear them, they seem not so rigorous like, “Oh come on, it’s called work for a reason. Toughen up.”

Donna Hicks
Right, right. Get a thick skin ….

Pete Mockaitis
“Life isn’t going to hand it to you on a silver platter, so get tougher.” I’m intrigued. You mentioned that there are many ways that we can unknowingly violate others’ dignity. I’d love it if you can give us kind of a checklist of what not to do.

Donna Hicks
Well, let me just share with you about what my research has uncovered about how people want to be treated. I’ve got something called the Ten Elements of Dignity because the flip side of them is what you don’t want to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Donna Hicks
Let me just run through this really quickly, the central elements of dignity. This research I did with people all over the world. I asked them questions about times when their dignity was violated, when their dignity was honored.

The interesting thing that happened in this research was that no matter where I was in the world, even though the context of the stories that they told were different, but at the end of the day, the emotional impact of what happened was exactly the same. I created these ten patterns that came out of this, these ten elements rather, that came out of these patterns of responses from all over, all over the world.

First of all, people want to have their identity accepted no matter who they are. No matter their race, their religion, their ethnicity, sexual orientation, people just want to be accepted.

The other thing is they want recognition. When they’ve done a really good job, when they’ve done something well, people want to be, I guess praised for that, is a good word to use, but they want recognition for what they’ve contributed.

Acknowledgement is another fundamental element of dignity. That simply is that people want to be acknowledged for the suffering that they’ve endured. People want to have somebody say to them, “Oh gosh, Pete, you went through that. That’s terrible. It’s just no human being should have had to go through that.” We all want that. We want acknowledgement of the suffering that we’ve endured.

We want a sense of belonging and inclusion. I mean there are programs all over the world around diversity and inclusion. Is it any wonder? Everybody wants to be included.

Safety, we talked about that element. Again, I’m not so much talking about physical safety, but it’s certainly a part of it, but more like psychological safety.

Fairness, we talked about that one.

Independence. What I found is that people don’t like to be micromanaged. They want to feel empowered to act on their own behalf. Especially in the workplace, they just don’t want somebody breathing down their necks. They want to be in control of their jobs and in a large sense in control of their lives.

People want to be understood. This element of understanding is really important because if you think about how quickly we rush to judgment about people with so little data. We do this automatically. People want to have an opportunity to talk about what’s going on with them from their perspective instead of being judged and stereotyped.

Benefit of the doubt, people want to be treated as if they were trustworthy. Finally, the last element of dignity is accountability. When something bad happens to somebody, they want an apology. They want the person who did the wrong to come to them and say, “Look, I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry.”

These ten things, those are the positive ways of doing it, but if you want to turn them over to the other side, well, if you want to violate somebody’s dignity, don’t apologize, don’t treat them as if they are – don’t treat them fairly or don’t include them in something or don’t give them recognition. You see how these you flip them over and this is what you want to avoid. You want to avoid all these things.

But I like to say them more in the positive because that really – it’s the way that we can actually put these into practice. Accept people’s identity. Don’t judge them because of their race, their religion. Treat them fairly, safely. Give them a sense of safety, all these things. Again, once you hear them, Pete, you say, “Oh, these are common sense,” but they are not common knowledge. We just have to put them to work for us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to dig into just a couple of them. When it comes to accept identity, you mentioned judging for race or gender. It’s not like, “I do not accept that you are a woman,” or, “I do not accept that you’re Black,” but it’s rather I impute some characteristic upon you based upon your identity markers. Is that what you mean by not accepting an identity?

Donna Hicks
Well, I’m talking more about being discriminated against because of something to do with our identity. We never really talked yet about what dignity is. My very simple definition of dignity is that it’s our inherent value and our inherent worth and that we were born with this dignity. This is something that each and every one of us as we come into this world, we are born equal in dignity.

Now, I don’t think we’re born equal in status. That’s for sure. In the workplace, we’re certainly – there’s a hierarchical structure in the workplace. We may not have equal status in some – we have to look up to the people. They’re our bosses and we have to do what they say. But the fact is that we’re all equal in dignity.

When people feel like they’re not treated as if they’re equal in dignity because they’re this, that or the other thing or because of their religion, that’s when they feel violated, that they’re being singled out simply because they’re a man or a woman or Black or they’re from an ethnic group that is different from yours. It’s more that, Pete, that people just don’t want to be treated as less than because of something about their identity.

Pete Mockaitis
Got you.

Donna Hicks
That they can do nothing about.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said, well said, not treated less than. I’m with you. When it comes to being understood, could you share a little bit more about some of the best practices for doing that well with regard to listening or whatever is there?

Donna Hicks
Yeah, well, being understood, it seems like it’s a simple thing, but the fact is especially when we get into a little tiff with somebody, a little conflict – because all these things I’ve discovered in that context – larger conflict context – and what happens is that the minute you start getting into an argument with someone or you don’t agree with them, whatever, what goes first is your curiosity about why that person feels the way she does.

Being understood means that if you want to practice this element of dignity, you want to seek deeper understanding, especially under those circumstances where you’re feeling riled up by this person. But, you see, it’s all going against our biology. It’s going against our instincts because our instincts want us to fight.

But when we feel those impulses coming up inside us, the most important thing is to try to push the pause button and try to figure out what’s going on with this person, develop some curiosity about why she’s so upset, and say, “Look, I don’t really understand what’s happening here. I have a feeling something more is going on with you. Can you explain to me what you’re experiencing right now,” or something like that.

But it’s not our first impulse to do that. Our first impulse is to just not listen and not care about what’s going on and to seek deeper understanding.

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

Donna Hicks
Well, I think what I really want to impart and I do this every time I give a talk is for people to just be open to learning about this because it’s something that each and every human being wants. We all want to be treated with dignity. In fact, I think it’s our highest common denominator as human beings.

If we can make a commitment to trying to understand what the dignity narrative is of this person I’m interacting with, find out a little bit more about how this person has been treated in the past. Especially if you’re in a leadership position, you want to know what some of their sensitivities are. This stuff is all so helpful.

Just learning about our own sensitivities, probably more important, Pete, because if we’re going to be in leadership positions and we’re going to get triggered every second by someone of our employees, that’s not good either. We want to understand our own dignity past and how we got where we are.

Like you said, there’s so many people that just say, “Oh, the heck with this. Just toughen up. You can – anybody can do this. You just have to get tough.” You know this mentality. But the fact is you get so much farther with people, you bring about the best in people when you treat them well. Learning how to do that, it doesn’t take that much. It really doesn’t. But it does take a commitment.

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

Donna Hicks
This one quote I found – I can’t even remember, it was so long ago – but I use it every single time I give a talk about dignity, every single time. It’s my opening slide. It says “The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.” This is John Naisbitt, by the way.

The reason why this struck me so is because dignity is at the core of what it means to be human. As I told you earlier, the ignorance around it is encyclopedic. The gap in our understanding of this part of our humanity is so enormous that I think he nailed this whole idea.

I connected it with dignity because if we don’t understand this basic fundamental aspect of our shared humanity, you’re going to continue to see all the conflicts that are raging around the world, not to mention in our own country and in our families, in our communities, in our workplace. This is a core component of what it means to be human.

I just think John Naisbitt just said it beautifully. Technology is not going to get us there, but a deeper understanding of what our own humanity is and the humanity that we share with others. Love that one.

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

Donna Hicks
Well, honestly, the best research that I came across was this neuroscience research, the social neuroscience by the people out in UCLA, Matt Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger. They’re doing astonishing research on the emotions that we all share just by virtue of being human and how to be in connecting, loving connections with other people.

I think their neuroscience research is so important because it’s giving us some hard data to show – things in the past used to be just kind of psychological. People would call them, as I said earlier, touchy feely. But now we have this evidence that it really does matter how we connect with other people and it does matter how we treat people. This launched much of my whole development of my methodology was that research.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Donna Hicks
Well, actually I’m thinking of a novel. I’m thinking of Doctor Zhivago. I just loved that book.
Yeah, yeah. I just loved that story.
Most recently there’s a book by George Vaillant. It’s a book about spirituality and human development and how at the end of the day, we are deeply spiritual beings and we really need connections with other people.

Because he did this lifelong research. He’s a doctor here at the Harvard Medical School. He did this lifelong research to show what people need in order to feel fulfilled. He has a combination of a very deep spiritual sense and he has the science to back it up. Triumph of Experience I think was what that book was called, the recent one. He’s written several, but I think it’s called The Triumph of Experience.

My other favorite author of course is E O. Wilson. He’s written several books. The latest one that he wrote that I really love is called The Meaning of Life. He is an evolutionary biologist. Any book of his that you all can get your hands on, that stuff is great. It’s a great read, if you want to understand what it means to be human, by the way. That’s the core concern.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Donna Hicks
All right, I’ll tell you what my favorite tool is. Story telling because I realized that when I started writing about dignity, I realized I had to put my Harvard academic hat away and talk to people about how I discovered this issue and why I felt it was so important.

Just like you opened with a story asking me a question about my conflict resolution work, I always use examples, stories to illustrate the most important points that I want to impart to people because people respond to stories much more than boring research, the data and the graphs and the this and that. If I tell them a compelling story, that really gets my point across.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Donna Hicks
Habit. Well, I love to exercise. I’m a sort of fitness – well, I just love everything related to health and wellbeing. I’m really trying. I was sick for a while. I had a very serious illness of cancer. I got through that I think by just continuing all my exercise regime and eating well. I think it’s just my favorite habit is trying to live a good, fulfilled life.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, and we’re glad you’re still here, so congrats.

Donna Hicks
Thank you. Me too.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a particular nugget, something you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your audience or listeners or readers?

Donna Hicks
Yeah. I mentioned this in a different context earlier, but I always share what I call the most simple truth that I’ve discovered with my dignity research. The simple truth is that when we’re treated badly, we suffer and when we’re treated well, we flourish. That simple truth – that was Tweeted out the other day. You can’t imagine how many retweets and likes I got. I didn’t even do it. Someone was quoting me.

That just simply touches a nerve with people. Treat people well and they’ll flourish; treat people badly and they’ll suffer. What do you want to do? How do you want to live your life? You want to live your life treating people well or badly, making them suffer or making them flourish? I just think that’s pretty basic.

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

Donna Hicks
Yeah, my website is lowercase dr – D – R – DrDonnaHicks.com. I am on Twitter. What else? I think that’s about it.

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

Donna Hicks
Oh, just I think, again, it’s really try to understand how powerful this concept of dignity is. Try to make it work for you, try to make it work for your relationships because I have to say, it’s one of those things that once you get it into your head and you understand it and you use it as a lens to look through things that are complicated in your life and problems in your life, if you look at it through a dignity lens, I think you’re going to see the solution really quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Donna, thank you. This has been a whole lot of fun. I wish you all the best as you spread the good word about dignity and all that you’re up to.

Donna Hicks
Thank you. And you too, thank you for this opportunity.