Achim Nowak

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Achim Nowak Posts

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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Agile. Nimble. Flexible.

The opposite of rigid and fixed.

I just spent a few days with the Agile Humans community in Belgrade, submerged in the world of Agile project management and Scrum. Yes – iterative project practices, smart technology, but my very own association with the word agile is physical agility. It’s a swimmer’s view. The way I slice through water when I swim. The ease with which my body moves. The way I flow with the current. Note it, seize it, use it to advantage.

Work with the elements, don’t fight them. Get out of the way of what wants to happen.

I ruminate on this as I sit at Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting to fly home to the US after a European week. From the moment my friend Suzanne Daigle and I arrive at the airport, chaos. An overbooked flight. Mechanical failure. Delayed departure. Evasive public announcements. And the eventual cancellation of the flight.

I won’t bore you with a war story – but I find myself considering its essential ingredients as they envelop me. Moment-by-moment changes. Increasing uncertainty. Bubbles of emotion. Eventual complete change of plans. More uncertainty. More emotion. So it goes.

A near-classic narrative arc.

I’m in the midst of an agile situation.

This is relatively simple as far as agility goes. The bulk of the decisions here are made for me. I can change my response to a sudden change in circumstances but I cannot change the circumstance itself. The circumstance is blatant and right in my face. Detailed observation or keen insight are not required.

I am responsible for my attitude about what unfolds – that’s the mental part – and my emotions. These two are intertwined.

I think of situations where the need to adapt quickly isn’t so clear-cut. When things kinda sorta work but never excel, never become great. When mediocre is the standard we have become used to, when complaining about the way we do things is the norm but nothing is bad enough to scream change now. When the everyday is a steady drip drip drip drip of more frustration morphed into uninspired routine.

What does personal agility look like in the face of that? How do I stay agile when nobody demands that I be more agile? Here are a few personal guide-posts to help you sharpen your own everyday agility:

  1. I notice when something isn’t working. I stay present. I stay aware of the emotions that kick in. Instead of stuffing my emotions, I consider what may be causing them. Considering my emotions will lead me to indicators about my own thinking (internal clues) or relationships with collaborators (external clues) that may require adjustment.

  2. I notice when pressure is mounting. I choose to stay calm under pressure. More importantly, I do not ignore pressure. I have a healthy pressure-meter that can distinguish between necessary pressure and debilitating pressure. I do not succumb to prolonged debilitating pressure. I know the difference between pushing through and changing a course of action because what I’m doing is not working.
  1. I seek help. I do so quickly. I do not hide when the going gets tough. I approach professional challenges with a sense of healthy curiosity. Most importantly, I view seeking help as a sign of strength. I seek help freely and am mindful of whose insights may be most pertinent when an adjustment in process or strategy seems necessary.

  2. I invite multiple viewpoints. I understand that multiple inputs will produce a better new course of action. I am not afraid of the complexity that may be invoked by multiple viewpoints. I know that embracing complexity will lead to more fully considered next steps. More fully considered steps accelerate the likeliness of success.

  3. I act quickly. I understand that changing course and adapting quickly to changing circumstances is the only way to release forward-moving energy and create momentum. This may be the most crucial of these 5 points. I don’t get locked into the jail of this is what I had planned or this is how it should be. Taking swift action is my friend. I welcome this friendship.

There are many ways to define illuminated leadership. Mental and emotional agility hang at its very core. Great thing is, we can practice this agility every day. Each encounter at work, at the supermarket, at the airport, in our personal relationships is an opportunity to practice agility.

Yes, I have a swimmer’s mind. I love the sense of forward motion that I experience in water. It feels so very very good. An agile mind helps me to experience this sensation in every aspect of my life.

So, stay agile. Practice diligently and practice with an open mind. Notice how wrong effort will start to disappear.

How liberating that is.

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I’m in Paris about to fly to Belgrade, and I have love on my mind. Mind you, this is a business trip.

Jack Ma, the fearless founder of the Chinese internet empire Alibaba, spoke about the leaders of the future at this year’s Davos Economic Forum. I believe if a person wants to be successful, Ma said, they should have a high EQ. If you don’t want to lose quickly, you should have a high IQ. But if you want to be respected, you should have a high LQ. That is the Q of Love.

And then he added: Lots of men have high IQ, they have much, much smaller EQ, and a very, very tiny LQ.

Yes, L stands for Love.

I googled LQ the moment I heard Ma speak about it. I found nothing. Ma invented the term. Love it. The man knows.

At the Agile Humans Conference in Belgrade we will be talking about the notion of LQ. Here’s a little preview of the conversation.

We’re talking about the ability to feel love for others. Not think it, feel it. The ability to express this love and to receive love in return. The ability to create spaces where the love for a cause and the love for one another is tangibly experienced. An environment that implicitly and explicitly acknowledges love as the ultimate animating force.

Sound a little woo-woo to you? Here’s how a neuroscientist explains it.

Yuri Hassan is a professor at Princeton University. He conducts research about how two brains get into synch. He calls this process neural coupling. In his research, the key area of the brain that shows coupling is the insula, an area linked with conscious feeling states. In other words, neural coupling is much more likely to occur when you and I feel a shared emotion. Not a shared thought – a shared emotion. When my joy meets your joy, joy magnifies. When my love of others meets your love of others, a micro-moment of love is born. Micro-moments of love are not just a lucky accident – they’re intentionally created. And future business leaders know how to create them.

I just sold an international training and coaching firm that I owned for 14 years. Here’s something I always said to my INFLUENS team: We’re really good at what we do. There are other companies who do similar work to what we do, and they’re also really good at what they do. And then I would elaborate. Our clients hire us for a specific service, but what they really get is the gift of love. That’s why they bring us back.

Love wasn’t mentioned anywhere on our business website. It was our subtext. The secret sauce.

I learned about subtext in my first career. Many years ago, I was a professional acting coach in New York and trained actors at some of the big acting schools in the city. Any actor can learn the words of a script. Part of an actor’s homework is to fill in the reality of what goes on behind the words. Actors call this the subtext. The greater actors sometimes have more talent. They always have greater subtext.

Love is a sublime subtext. The clients at my firm loved us. Not just liked us, loved us.

There are two specific behaviors that I looked for in my team. These are behaviors that I try to embody myself.

We’re fun.

And we drill down.

We’re fun means we know how to be light and playful with another person. We take our work seriously but we do not take ourselves too seriously. We approach important things with a light touch. In a world where many people I know experience too much stress, too much pressure, and are victims of perfectionism, our willingness to have fun is a bold and generous gift. I consider my ability to be playful with another person a profound act of love.

We drill down – that means I have the courage to explore everything I do as deeply as possible. I don’t stay on the surface. I am willing to ask the difficult questions. I care enough to dig deep. This caring allows us to have the richest possible conversations. This caring also means I know when to let go. This caring is an act of love.

Be fun. Drill down. Combine the two, and you have mega-love in action.

I was talking with my friend Charlotte the other day. Charlotte lives in Geneva/Switzerland. I was really upset with a client of mine, she says to me. He didn’t show up for an appointment we had. And it’s the second time he’s done that. I told him how upset I was about his behavior. And then I said to him ‘It’s a good thing that I love you.’

I love this story. I love that Charlotte used the word “love.”

There’s a power in saying it.

These days I host virtual Mastermind Groups for successful business executives. In a Mastermind 7 leaders meet to challenge and uplift each other and bring out the very best in every person. We share tactics and resources and wisdom. We energize each other. We dare each other to play a bolder game. But at the very deepest level, a Mastermind is an extraordinary act of love.

Jack Ma is right. We need EQ, we need IQ, and we need a lot more LQ.

You may have taken some psychological assessments. They may have told you that you’re not that kind of a person. You may come from a country or where professional behavior is crisp and cool. Know what? Think of yourself as a global citizen. Dump the story of who you think you are.

Work is Love Made Visible. That’s a quote from the great Turkish poet Rumi.

Our world needs a little more love. It starts with how you and I engage with each other. Every single moment. Let’s choose a powerful subtext. Let’s create micro-moments of love, every single day.

Let’s do this already.

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You are receiving my weekly Energy Boost message on a Wednesday. Unusual, yes. So was my past week-end. I had the pleasure of facilitating a FLOW FORWARD retreat – it involved intimate conversations, collective masterminding, meditating on the beach, playing with horses, dancing and lots and lots of great food. 

Exuberant. Fun. And there was not a second to spare for writing my weekly message. Instead, I am happy to share with you a message I first posted in May 2014. Have a brilliant Wednesday. We’ll be back to our regular rhythm next week.

Warmly … Achim

Gwyneth Paltrow made a comment when she spoke of her divorce from Coldplay front-man David Martin.

She called it “conscious un-coupling.”

Nice idea. A little precious.

Paltrow was rightfully derided for her use of this phrase.

I think of a phone-chat I had last week with my friend Louise Mahler, a supremely charismatic leadership coach in Australia.

Louise and I are birds of a feather – we both help C-level business leaders to show up with more presence.

I talk a lot about handshakes these days, Louise says to me.

I hear the word handshake, and I think of greetings, of course. All sorts of greetings. Most specifically “conscious greetings.”

When it comes to greetings, conscious is good.

I was born in Germany, a culture that loves a handshake. Louise is married to a German fellow and understands the impact of a handshake, as well.

We abhor timid handshakes. Limp handshakes. Tentative ones. Rushed ones. A handshake, in one swift action, has the power to charge every moment that is about to unfold.

In a handshake I “feel” the other person. A vigorous handshake. A warm handshake. They say I am thrilled to receive your energy. Delighted to send you mine.

I long to connect.

That’s the handshake-message. Consider the handshake a metaphor for all that may transpire in any moment of greeting, actual handshake or not. Why not make every greeting a vigorous one? A warm one? Why not turn an obligatory social ritual into a conscious greeting?

I think of a comment made by the radiant Judith Jameson, the artistic director of the illustrious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. When invited to share her insights about leadership, Jameson spoke, instead, about the greeting-moment.

One thing I cannot stand is when people say “Hi, how are you?” and they don’t wait to hear how I am. They’re just going through the motions. I say to people: “Keep it human. Keep it alive. Be real. Don’t turn into a robot.”(NY Times, 11/28/2009)

Jameson’s comments are a plea for conscious greetings. Not a literal handshake, but the delicious exchange of energy that occurs in a conscious one.

How differently every conversation will unfold. How unexpectedly our relationships will blossom. And it starts with a simple conscious greeting.

A conscious greeting is like a conscious handshake.

This week, as you stroll down the office corridors, walk into the cafeteria, head for the lavatories, dash into a meeting, you will engage in many, many greetings.

What if more of these fleeting greetings had the feel of a vigorous handshake? A warm handshake?

Explore. And be surprised.

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A well-worn cliché. Worn for a reason.

Everything old becomes new again.

If you took a class on time management 20 years ago, chances are they taught you about prioritization, and they taught you about batching.

Then the internet arrived. Social media. Information glut. Just when we needed batching the most, our collective attention to batching flew out the window. The seductions were simply too great. Many of us fell into increasingly distracted lives.

More fractured, less productive.

Batching is the simple habit of performing like-minded tasks together instead of bouncing from one task to the next.

We live in a bouncing time. Mental bouncing, task bouncing. Enter Adam Grant, award-winning rock star author and the highest-rated professor at The Wharton School. In his terrific book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” Grand Central Publishing/2016), Cal Newport describes how the prolific Adam Grant batches his time.

Though Grant’s productivity depends on many factors, there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches. Grant performs this batching at multiple levels. Within the year, he stacks his teaching into the fall semester, during which he can turn all of his attention to teaching his students. By batching his teaching in the fall, Grant can then turn his attention fully to research in the spring and summer … Grant also batches his work on a smaller time scale. Within a semester dedicated to research, he alternates between periods when his door is open to students and colleagues, and periods when he isolates himself to focus completely and without distraction on a single research task. (Deep Work, page 39)

Common-sense, isn’t it? And yet we forget. Here’s the very simple law of productivity:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Batching helps us get there. Let’s take a look at how you and I can better batch the basic tasks we perform every single day at work.

  1. Batch Your Writing Time

    When you have to create documents, write reports, craft power point presentations – any tasks involving the sustained written and/or visual creation of a product that requires a significant level of detail, nuance, and which may be subject to substantial scrutiny, batch these tasks. You will create momentum, get these tasks done faster, and enhance the quality of your output.

  1. Batch Your Talking Time

    When you have to attend multiple meetings or conduct a series of phone calls, whenever possible batch these tasks. Even though context and conversation partners will change, you will drop into a “conversational groove” where you engage with greater ease and more fluidity in every one of your conversations. The quality and outcomes of your conversations will notably improve.

  1. Batch Your Correspondence Time

    When you have to participate in lots of email correspondence, both sending and receiving – avoid the constant interruption of one task for the sake of checking emails or crafting instant responses to emails. Chances are, very few of your emails are true emergencies. Instead, batch your email reading and writing into a sensible cadence that suits you and your work duties. For some this may mean handling emails once every hour; for others it may mean handling emails only 3 times a day. Whatever your cadence – your choice to batch will add a higher degree of focus to both your email activities and all the other activities you don’t abandon for the sake of an email.

  1. Batch Social Media Time

    Checking social media can be a fun distraction, a quick way to switch out of an unenjoyable task, an instant way to chat with a friend, a short-cut to entering alternate realities. Most of the time, it is simply a willful distraction from a task at hand. Avoid the constant and impulsive checking of your social media streams. If you play in social media, batch your social media time. Every time we visit a social media site, we fill our minds with random and unfiltered information. We disrupt the focus on whatever task we happen to be engaged with. We tire our brain with the constant switching between task and distraction, task and distraction. Batching our social media time is a no-brainer. Batch it consistently, and you will instantly notice a heightened focus for everything else you’re doing.

Bonus suggestion: When you transition from one batch of activities to the next batch, give yourself a bit of rejuvenation time. 5 minutes will often do the trick. 5 minutes to help you shift gears. Not 5 minutes of distraction time – no, 5 minutes that calm, center, and help you to re-energize. 5 minutes of going for a walk. 5 minutes of having a healthy snack. 5 minutes of listening to music that energizes you. 5 minutes of doing nothing.

Sound easy? It’s not. In the midst of writing this simple article, the temptation to check my social media feeds and email messages, even on a Sunday afternoon, is relentless. The price of a distraction culture. You pay it, I pay it. Brutal.

Remember: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Batching works. It’s straightforward. More importantly, it frees us the moment we commit to it.

So, commit. And reap the rewards.

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I was aghast.

Watching Brett Kavanaugh conduct himself in front of the Judiciary Committee last Thursday. I’m not talking about Mr. Kavanaugh’s prepared remarks, startling as they were. No, his behavior while engaging with senators who were questioning him. Both in his choice of words and the involuntary body language.

Petulant, impatient, dismissive, petty, indignant.

Sorry, Mr. Kavanaugh. That’s not how a leader behaves when the stakes are high. When your messy emotions kick in. Not any time, ever.

It’s the behavior of an entitled brat who fears that all his entitlements will be taken away, says my friend David, like Mr. Kavanaugh a Yale Law School alum, as we watch the proceedings together on tv.

So nakedly un-leaderlike. So brazenly out of control.

I think of Serena Williams’ well-publicized outburst during her loss in the Final of this year’s US Open. I am in awe of Ms. Williams accomplishments and her athletic prowess. I applaud her for challenging the umpire when she felt that his calls were unfair. For suggesting there might be sexism at play. And then Ms. Williams’ rage got the best of her. She went on and on. And on. She couldn’t stop.

Emotion ran her. She paid a price for her high-stakes behavior.

I watched part of the wonderful HBO documentary “Being Serena” just days before the US Open Final. Filmed during Ms. Williams’ pregnancy, I was struck by the disarming clarity and honesty with which she articulated her anxiety: I had the fear that I can’t be the best mother and best tennis player in the world, Williams says.

Fear.

It gets a bad rap in current pop psychology. Folks like to label it a “bad” emotion. An unenlightened one. Dwell on fear and you will magnify it, so they say.

Hooey. Our anger is more often than not a mask for fear. Stuff it and ignore it, and it will boil up big time in a high-stakes situation. Be emotionally intelligent, please. Notice it. Own it. Dance with it.

Consider Christine Blasey Ford.

Afraid? She was terrified, by her own account. A professor and psychologist with an impressive professional pedigree, she teared up in her testimony – her voice cracking – but she did not openly cry or break down. She smiled. She pleaded for caffeine and joked about Google interns renting out her home.

Ford was emotional. And she managed her emotions. She cracked the high-stakes behavior code.

Women are walking a very fine line, says Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford who studies gender inequality. Too much or too little of something can lead people to discredit them. That so many people found Dr. Blasey Ford credible suggests that she was able to get across that tightrope and not fall off. (NY Times, 9/29/2018, page A17)

Mr. Kavanaugh displayed the wounded-little-boy code. Pouting, bullying, juvenile temper tantrums. Sorry, Mr. Kavanaugh. No. Not ever. Not leadership behavior under any circumstance, other current leadership examples notwithstanding.

If he were a woman we’d be questioning if she were unhinged, said Alicia Melendez, a correspondent for PBS, when describing Judge Kavanaugh’s behavior during his hearing,

Fear. Face it. Serena Williams got it right, even if her own behavior at the US Open showed how hard is to do just that.

Face it. Own it. Dance with it.

Retire the little boy code. Its time has come and gone. Want to act like a leader? Play a high-stakes game in the big leagues? Own your emotions, all of them. Know what you feel. Face it. Dance with it.

And stop lashing out.

That’s the high-stakes leadership code. Time for the little boys to grow up.

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Yes, I’m biased. I’m a former theatre guy. 

I think of this as I stumble on an old article about improvisation in, of all places, a copy of the Wall Street Journal (7/8/2016). From a young age on we’re taught to master impulse control. It’s what grown-ups do, right? We manage our emotions. Avoid distraction. Aim for a zen-like focus, a sense of control. Squelch the impulse, avoid distraction.

Enter improvisation. The art of conscious impulse surrender.

At Second City in Chicago, the improv comedy troupe that has launched the careers of celebrities like Jim Belushi and Tina Fey, scientists and engineers and nurses and psychologists now practice the art of impulse surrender. It’s been a total change from left-brain attorney to right-brain class-taker, says Second City student and retired attorney Irv Levinson. In a recent episode of “The Simpsons,” Homer recovers from giving a disastrous speech by taking an improv class. Yes, improvisation has left the theatre vault.

There is a place for impulse control, of course. It behooves me to know my blind spots. Left unchecked, I can swing toward sarcasm. I am a better person when I stay mindful of this impulse and let it pass.

But here are just a few of the brilliant gifts of conscious impulse surrender. They are subtle and delicious, and they have the potential to elevate any business conversation we have.

  • Celebrate the wealth of words.

We habitually consume language as if were fast food. Taste-less, quickly discarded, instantly forgotten. We babble without paying attention to linguistic nuance. Improv reminds us that at our best, we are consciously creating a conversation, moment by moment, word choice by word choice. It begins by truly hearing the words that come our way. By explicitly picking up on those cues in our response. Choosing words that are distinct, unexpected perhaps, surprising. When done well we actually call it word play. Nice, right?

  • Seize the energy of the moment.

Every moment has pace, velocity, stasis or momentum. Improv sharpens our ability to sense these dimensions. We tune into the energy of a person, a group of people, a moment. We feel it, and we consciously merge with that energy, subvert it or expand it. We begin to revel in the unspoken dynamics of a conversation, and we have the courage to playfully mold them. So liberating, right?

  • Embrace the gift of the detour.

In our linearly prejudiced world, we are programmed to avoid tangents like the plague. Detours are considered sacrilegious. Improv gives us shameless permission to investigate any cue, linear or not. It knows that a detour is often more illuminating and insightful than the predetermined path. A detour is the expression of an impulse that, for whatever reason, shows itself. It implores us to not simply give the answer(s) we think others wish to hear but to follow, instead, the thought that yearns to be expressed. Way cool, right?

  • Excavate meaning.

Great improvisers don’t simply spout funny stuff and or do silly things. They seize an impulse and create meaning in split-seconds. They have trained their meaning-antennas in improv class. They note implicit or emerging meaning, seize it, blow it up, shape it into a story. A key leadership skill for any corporate leader is the ability to articulate meaning. It’s easy to offer pre-packaged meaning. We carefully plan our meaning messages in advance. Advance planning is encouraged, of course! But how much more resonant it is when we notice the meaning that actually emerges in a moment! Notice it, name it and claim it. Stirring, right?

Wanna transcend basic transactional competence in your daily endeavors? Well, you may not be able to take a course at Second City, but you can sure as heck practice a little bit of impulse surrender every day.

It doesn’t mean simply “going with the flow.” It means consciously shaping the impulses you notice in a moment. Words. Energy. Thoughts. Meaning.

Conscious impulse surrender helps you to stay more fully present. It’s also great fun. And as you practice it more often, more experiences of flow will show up.

And that is really way way cool.

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Wanna stir me?

Wanna stir your colleagues, your clients, your team?

It’s the old logic-versus-emotion conversation.

Logic is a powerful form of energy. Emotion is the deeper one.

Here’s the little lie we tell ourselves. Logical folks like to be moved by logic. Emotional folks like to be moved by emotion.

Don’t believe that any more. Madison Avenue doesn’t. Madison Avenue caters to longing and desire.

They know what to stir.

Desire is the spark that ignites your beliefs and fuels your actions, Tom Asacker writes in his stirring book “The Business of Belief.” Desire is what moves you from thinking to doing.

I had the pleasure of attending TEDxKoenigsallee in Duesseldorf last Friday. First-ever TEDx event in that great city. Held at Nachtresidenz. Amazing venue, fired-up audience, 10 speakers. I had a terrific time. And yet – some of the talks stirred me, some didn’t. 

Logic will stir logic. I’m a brainy guy. But when your logic really TRULY stirs my logic, I get the goosebumps. I get that irresistible itch to begin, at once.

It drops down.

Go ahead, stimulate my brain. But here’s how you get to the deep stir:

  • Speak Longing

What are your deepest aspirations for yourself? For me? Our project? The team? Translate metrics language into longing language. It’s the language of our innermost desires. When you go there, you give me permission to go there, as well. Stirred.

  • Speak Vision

Beyond hitting targets and surpassing production goals, how will our shared future be a better place? Translate tactical performance language into the language of desire. My desire to belong. My desire to do good. My desire to help. My desire to create a better world. Take me there. That’s vision. Stirred.

  • Speak Emotion

When you speak about a project, speak with joy. With excitement. With anxiety. With exuberance. Speak the language of feeling. The sort of language that doesn’t show up in transactional emails anymore. Don’t fake this language. Don’t fake the feeling. Get the feeling first. Brim with it. Your language of feeling activates my desire to be moved. Stirred.

Here’s what you get when you stir me:

My devotion. My fervent desire to work with you.

We will start to soul-travel together.

Yes, it will go that deep.

The stir will show up in our Return-on-Investment. And we cannot think our way to it. The language of aspiration and desire will get us there.

Stirred.

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Chances are, you know about “managing UP.” The art of managing a mercurial, distracted, at times unavailable and often unpredictable boss. If you have worked in the corporate world long enough, you have likely taken a class on this essential leadership skill.

Hint: Know their priorities. Speak their language. Anticipate their needs. Be truthful and don’t BS them. Contract properly at the end of a meeting. Just a few of the essentials.

Chances are, as well, that no one in your class spoke about “appreciating UP.”

You appreciate the folks on your team. You do your best to express this appreciation. You may forget and you may not do it perfectly, but you know that it’s a good idea.

Chances are, you do little to explicitly appreciate your boss. It’s a potent influencing behavior, and yet, the senior executives I coach consistently don’t do it. Bosses rarely receive a word of praise or appreciation. From anyone. Yes, it’s lonely at the top, in more ways than one.

The reason for our lack of explicit boss-appreciation? Chances are, we cling rather tightly to a bunch of subliminal anti-appreciating-UP stories. These stories tend to run something like this:

1. I don’t want to waste their time.

My boss’ time is precious. I want to be prepared, get to the point, and show that I respect how busy s/he is.

Fact: Your boss is a human being with feelings, no matter how efficient her or his outer demeanor may be. The longing for appreciation is universal. Expressing appreciation is never a waste of time. Do not conflate being efficient with not expressing an important thought or feeling – which includes appreciation.

 2. I don’t want to sound like I’m sucking UP.

I’ve watched other people suck up to Senior Leaders and it just looks and sounds so totally obvious. I don’t ever want to become one of THOSE people!

Fact: Even when it looks like sucking up to you, chances are your boss appreciates hearing it. Dump the phrase “sucking up” and supplement it with the phrase “expressing genuine appreciation.” That’s what we’re talking about, after all. If your appreciation is heartfelt, your expression of this appreciation is an act of honest communication. Withholding the comment is an act over unnecessary filtering. You are choosing to be less authentic by not communicating an appreciative thought.

3. My boss is uncomfortable with overly personal chit-chat.

I don’t want to cross any personal boundaries with my boss or get into a conversation that becomes too private and which I will later regret.

Fact: Praising someone’s idea, expertise, or accomplishment is as safe as a professional conversation gets. It’s entirely about work. Your story about not getting too personal is likely about your discomfort in offering a personal remark to someone with high Position Power, not about that person’s discomfort in receiving such a remark from you.

Krista Tippett, the host of NPR’s consistently inspiring “On Being” radio program, chats with renowned British poet and organizational advisor David Whyte about leadership wisdom (Tippett, On Being, 4/7/2016). “Being a leader,” Whyte affirms, “means being visible, all the time. It means truly showing up and not simply going through the motions of showing up.”

Being visible, fully showing up, includes noticing our appreciative thoughts AND having the courage to express them. To anyone. It also suggests we appreciate UP, discomfort and all.

If someone who reports to you offers a compliment or thanks you for something well done, you appreciate it, don’t you? You remember the comment, right?

Act in kind. Express your appreciation, in every direction. That includes UP.

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