November 2018

My friend, the actress/singer/writer Renee’ Flemings, posted this message on Facebook a few weeks ago:

Screw the presents and madness I want see people in the flesh. Coffee, tea, a glass of wine, a walk around the block. In this time of crazy-who-knows-what’s next-ness, it’s good to see friends. Whatcha doing the next few weeks? Let’s meet up.

Renee’ listed names. Her friends responded. Renee’ has started having her 1-1 “Meet-ups.”

Obligation by choice and request. Nice.

That’s not how the bulk of this high-social season tends to go. If you’re American, you just celebrated Thanksgiving. You may have had a spectacular time or you may have had a lousy one. You may have challenged yourself to have a fine time even though you would have rather lounged at home and watched Netflix. Whichever way it went, chances are you played the obligation game. And you did not play it on your terms.

Here are my biases:

Social time is great. Tradition is wonderful. Choice is essential.

And screw obligation.

Not so easy when it comes to the work holiday parties, professional association events, family gatherings. Understood.

Here are some ways that may help you and me navigate our desire to participate or not in the flurry of social opportunity this season:

1.Turn off the switch

That would be the obligation switch. This switch is linked to the narrative in your mind that says I HAVE to attend the company holiday party or I HAVE to spend part of the holidays with my family. We may indeed feel a whole lot of pressure, real or imagined, to attend the holiday party or see family. But HAVE to? No. How about flipping your thoughts to I choose to attend the party. Even though I may not really feel like going, I CHOOSE to go. And if you choose to not go, choose to assume full responsibility for that decision.

2. Have the courage to be truthful

If you choose to not attend the holiday party, be truthful with your boss. I feel a lot of pressure to attend the holiday party but these parties just aren’t my thing. I want you to know that I love the folks I work with – but these parties simply wear me out. I don’t enjoy them. Can we grab lunch 1-1 one of these days instead? I would very much enjoy that!

Mind you, part of being a successful professional means developing a bit of a social muscle. Consistently not showing up for group events can, indeed, be a career derailer. But chances are, an honest explanation of why you choose to not attend a party will be appreciated by your boss. It may allow her to be honest about her own mixed feelings about this professional obligation. A social win.

3. Offer alternatives

A No, thank you can be a powerful choice when combined with an alternative offer, as indicated above. I would much rather spend some quality 1-1 time with you. Shall we grab a meal or catch a game? And if this season is too packed for you, I will be happy to do so first thing in the New Year. Now doesn’t this sound like a much richer opportunity for everyone involved? Perfunctory participation in a “mandatory” party has just been transmuted into a more special occasion. Bring it on.

4. Set yourself up for a good time

Whenever you choose to attend an event, make sure you show up ready to have a good time. This is, of course, crucial for any function, any time; it becomes doubly important when social events pile up in the middle – and on top of – an already heavy work week.

Do NOT show up tired and cranky because you have already been out every night that week. Do NOT schedule a packed-to-the-rafters day for yourself and then run straight to a party. Do NOT manage your stress by imbibing a bit too much of the free booze.

DO the following instead: Plan a 2-hour break between work and any social gathering you attend. Leave work earlier if you need to. Use this break to rejuvenate yourself. A nap, a massage, a swim, meditation. Un-busy yourself. Help your body feel its absolute best. And decide – fully, clearly – that you will enjoy the event. Make this a bold and unequivocal choice. Then walk in the door.

Social pressures, seasonal pressures. They seem to wrest choice from us. Emphasis on seem – they will indeed if we let them.

Don’t. Mind your switches. Turn them off. Choose to choose.

And then, goshdarnit, enjoy being social.

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The final episode of Anthony Bourdain’s compulsively watchable CNN series “Parts Unknown” aired a week ago. A take on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood I know well from my days of living in the East Village. I think back on a moment in Bourdain’s Miami episode, my current home, that is etched in my memory.

Iggy Pop, scraggly-faced musician, former front-man for The Stooges, the grandfather of punk, and Bourdain stand in the sand on Miami Beach, looking at the sky. Two aging men who, by most people’s standards, have been there, done that, seen it all, muse on what’s left.

Iggy: I’m still curious. You seem like a curious person.

Anthony: It’s my only virtue. (said with a chuckle)

Iggy: There you go. All right. Curious is a good thing to be. You know it’s seems to pay some unexpected dividends.

Final words of the Miami episode as birds soar in the sky and Pop’s song “The Passenger” pipes in. Quintessential Florida.

In the end, curiosity.

You and I know that when work starts to feel stale, curiosity can be hard to come by.

Before I opened my first firm I spent 5 years on the road, delivering training programs for an international training company. Within a year the programs I facilitated had become entirely routine for me.

It forced me to think. In the face of routine, what am I still curious about? There were endless nuances to program content, but I knew these nuances would reveal themselves on their own. My curiosity needed to transcend the task I was performing.

My choice: Be curious about the variables, not the routine. Every person who showed up at one of my seminars was the variable. Every latest trend in the training industry was the variable. Every new city I trained in was the variable.

Be curious about everything. That’s the grand thought.

Easy when we stand on the beach with Pop and Bourdain and contemplate the meaning of life.

At work, however, focus your curiosity. If you’re not the one who makes presentations to your firm’s Board of Directors, perhaps let someone else be curious about that. Fire the curiosity that will drive your commitment to the things YOU do every day.

Be curious about the variables in your sphere of influence.

Would it serve you to be more curious about the folks in your sphere?

More curious about what brilliant competitors do?

Curious about solving a recurring problem? Curious about the interplay of what you and other business units do?

Curious about what “simpler” might look like?

Curious about all you that you do not yet know about what you do?

You decide. But be curious, please.

Here’s a conversation I have had with more than one person I have coached.

Coachee: I dread all these endless business dinners I have to attend.

Part of me empathizes and understands. And yet, here’s where we always land.

Achim: Not attending is not an option. What would it take to attend with curiosity?

Dale is a fellow who shows up every day at the Bagel joint where I like to grab my morning bagel. When I ask Dale how he’s doing, his answer is always the same:

Same old, same old.

Curiosity extinguished. Same old, same old is simply not an option.

The unexpected dividends?

Curiosity is a choice. It requires vigilance. It is available to us every moment of every single day. It keeps our inner spark alive. It adds a deeper purpose to every task you and I perform and every conversation we engage in. It connects us to a larger world of wisdom and possibility.

Bourdain took his life earlier this year. A choice, as well. I am curious about the why. We’ll never truly know.

But Iggy Pop, punk survivor, got this one right. It’s a good thing to be.

Routine has the potential to unleash a rich deep curiosity. Be vigilant. Be curious about the variables, not the routine. Be specific. But please, be curious.

And receive your dividends.

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It’s like I’m standing under a waterfall, I said to her. The water just keeps coming and coming. For a moment it’s thrilling. Then I find myself gasping for air. Like I can’t breathe. And then I just want to get away.

We’re not talking about waterfalls, of course. We’re talking about this person’s communication style.

Her words, indeed, keep coming and coming. With passion. With enthusiasm. With ferocious commitment to a vision and a specific plan of action.

Wonderful. And I want to run.

Not because of the vision, because of the waterfall.

Let’s switch for a moment from execution to intent. It’s a very corporate word but I like it. To align. I long to align you with my vision, my ideas, our plan. I want to bring you along and onboard.

The toughest part of having a conversation about a decision that has already been made? You are 3 steps ahead of those you speak with. You have had time to align. They haven’t.

Waterfalling never gets us to alignment. Waterfalling is a narcissistic act of communication. Waterfall me, and I will either shut down to protect myself, or I will run.

Want to align others? Give them room to breathe. To think. To absorb.

Not under a waterfall.

Anytime I find myself with a waterfaller I’m reminded of the wisdom of the basics. How simple they are. How profound. These simple guidelines, honed in a previous career of coaching speakers, will immeasurably enhance the impact you have in any conversation. They will most definitely encourage alignment:

  • Mind Your Pace

    When we’re waterfalling we tend to spew and gush our words. This rapid delivery is usually fueled by a noble instinct. I am passionate about what I’m saying. I believe so very strongly in my cause. I am “fired up.” Fine. What you experience as passion I experience as an assault. Remember, you’re 3 steps ahead of me. Your firehose style quenches my desire to come onboard.

    Bear this in mind, as well: Waterfalling is easily interpreted as nervousness. As not being in command of a message. Waterfalling and rapid delivery are styles of junior leaders. And it makes it harder to align around your junior-ness, great intent notwithstanding. Do not wear your junior-ness on your sleeve. Mind your pace.

  • Pause frequently

    Your pause allows me to hear my own thoughts. Know my own reactions to what you just said. Yes, to absorb. If you want me to align I need time to absorb. Only when I begin to absorb do I have the energy to align. When you waterfall without pause I reach my absorption limit very, very quickly. Help me out, please. Pause a lot.

    Bear this in mind: The pause is not so you can overthink what you’re about to say next. That would be a narcissistic pause. Pause purely so I can breathe. That’s the altruistic pause. I thank you in advance.

  • Check for understanding

    Waterfallers speak from a sense of noble purpose or entitled authority. Anytime you and I speak – yes really, anytime, especially in a business conversation – what matters is that our communication lands. That it is heard. Hopefully understood. Waterfalling without knowing if a message has landed is a waste of time and energy. Ours and theirs.

    Let’s not waste either. Simple questions like Does this make sense? or How does this sit with you? or Is there anything I have missed? or May I clarify anything I have just said? indicate that we are interested in helping our message land. Alignment encouraged.

  • Invite responses

    I’m much more likely to align when I am given space to voice my doubts and concerns. Just speaking my thoughts out loud liberates them and sets them free. Your thoughtful response and the comments and clarifications of others will help me to make sense of what you’re proposing, even when it is non-negotiable.

    Alignment often happens in the act of “talking it through.” Under the spell of a waterfall I am condemned to silence. Voluntary silence sometimes creates the space I need to wrap myself around a new initiative. Forced silence rarely does.

So yes, the basics. Avoid the temptation to spew and gush. Mind your pace. Pause often. Check for understanding. Invite discourse.

Alignment is more likely when I am given room to breathe. So let me breathe. Better yet. Create the space so we can breathe together.

Alignment facilitated.

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I like to talk.

I have been known to over-talk.

It is what happens when I go to the dark side. I have a strong point of view and I will let you know. And darn it, sometimes you don’t respond. My unchecked instinct is to keep talking UNTIL YOU DO RESPOND! The more I talk, the more impassioned I tend to get, the more stone-faced you will become.

Not pretty.

Being habitually silent certainly does not work in a business meeting. We abdicate our ability to influence. We stifle our voice.

Also not pretty.

Choosing to shut up when we really long to talk is at times the most inspired choice. Silent not because we are afraid to talk. Silent because our silence will advance the conversation.

How do we know when it’s time to shut up? Here are 4 simple considerations.

1. Does it need to be said?

Whenever you have a compelling urge to speak, especially when you know that your conversation partners may have a strong reaction to what you will say, do a gut check. Ask yourself these 2 questions:

  • Does it need to be said?
  • Am I the one who needs to say it?

If your answer to both questions is an unequivocal YES, say it. If not – it may be time to shut up.

2. Has it already been said?

If someone else has already said it, I don’t need to say it again. If I have already said it, I don’t need to say it again. Trust that ONCE IS ENOUGH. Repeating the same old point again, no matter how passionate you are about it, is a surefire way of giving up your social influence.

When you speak because you wish to be an ally to the one who has already spoken, keep it brief. Because it may be time to shut up.

3. Can I say it succinctly?

Here are 2 little guidelines to gauge an optimal level of conversation-contribution:

  • If you’re telling a pertinent story, take all the time you want. Your story will live in the scintillating details.
  • If you wish to make a point, make it in 4 sentences or less. Short sentences, not long rambling ones.

Even if the point you wish to make is complex, don’t unload all of the complexity on me at once. Deliver complexity one message at a time. 4 sentences or less.

If you can’t break it down for me, it may be time to shut up

4. Can I generate deeper commitment?

The biggest reason to NOT shut up is when I am certain that my speaking has the potential to invoke a deeper commitment to a course of action. Deeper commitment is rarely stirred by sharing more data or passionately stating my point-of-view. Chances are others have already done so. Commitment is more likely invoked by a powerful image, a metaphor, a surprising gesture that stirs the soul.

Don’t have a metaphor handy? Can’t think of a surprising gesture? Silence may be your golden choice. More blabber rarely is.

When I first worked as a corporate trainer, back in the 90s, I was mentored by two very different colleagues. Margie was a diva. She could spin circles around a message and was frequently entertaining. Margie held her conversational space well. Devon was a master-distiller. He could convey a message in a sentence. The message was always essential. Simple and clear. Deep.

Devon knew when to shut up. And when he spoke, it mattered.

Devon was the brilliant one.

Habitual silence renders us impotent. Strategic silence accelerates our social influence.

Be the brilliant one. Know when to shut up.

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