Business Relationships

I like the old saying Fake it til you make it. Better yet, my colleague Alisa Solomon’s adaptation. Fake it til you feel it.

It works. Until it doesn’t.

I read lots of books on leadership. I love being inspired by new leadership thinking. Yet once in a while, someone utters something that puts all this new book wisdom to shame. Someone delivers a back-to-basics message.

Gustavo, a CEO with a resounding success record of turning troubled companies around, was addressing a group of mid-career professionals. His audience expected to hear insights on strategy, tips on execution, pointers on how to build great teams. Here’s what they got from Gustavo instead:

  • Be genuine
  • Care about people

You may go DUH. Of course. I know that.

Good. It’s the stuff we can’t fake. It feels especially compelling during Valentine’s Day week, a week when I like to celebrate my love of all beings.

Be genuine. Care about people. These tenets are the basics Dale Carnegie so compellingly wrote about in his 1936 classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Back to the future. One of those books, social media and technology and all, that feels as fresh today as it did back then. We can’t fake the basics with technology. We can’t fake them with charm. We can’t. We sniff out the fakers at once. Without these two basics, our personal impact in the world is forever diminished. Lasting impact is impossible.

Let’s dissect these two tenets, shall we!

  • Be genuine

We have created lots of code language around this notion. Be vulnerable, be transparent. Yeah, I like those words. If we’re going to go modern, I like be real best. Genuine has a more old-fashioned ring to it that I like even better. Allow me to translate: Don’t bullshit people. Don’t deliver fake-peppy talk. Don’t unload unexamined clichés on folks. Don’t dress up your conversation with lots of fancy jargon you’ve learned in a communication skills class. Don’t pretend to have answers that you don’t have. Don’t act like you have it all together when you don’t. Don’t hold me or anyone else to an idealized standard that no one can meet. Including you.

Have healthy boundaries, yes. But be real. Be human. Be genuine when you speak with me.

  • Care about people

It doesn’t mean act nice. Doesn’t mean showering folks with gifts or compliments. Doesn’t mean discussing career planning or feigning interest in someone’s personal life. It may, in fact, mean firmly holding someone accountable and offering a bit of tough love. On the most essential level, caring about people springs from an unwavering belief that in the larger scheme of things, you and the other person are one. Regardless of position, of education, or social standing, at the soul-level there is no separation or separateness between you and me. Act from that place. It is the well from which true caring springs.

Have healthy boundaries, yes. And do not hold yourself separate from others.

I believe in fake it til you make it – when it comes to confidence, when it comes to tackling that which you have not yet mastered. You can’t, however, fake the people stuff. It doesn’t work.

Drop fully into being genuine and caring about people. If you already embody these qualities, you know how they help you meet every challenge with grace. If you have a sense that you can drop a little deeper, go ahead, make the drop.

And if you were to hop into a dinghy and head for a desert island where internet distractions are not to be found, take Dale Carnegie with you.

A very happy Valentine’s Day to all.

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Last Friday, Cory Booker, the US Senator from New Jersey, announced that he will seek the Democratic nomination to become the next US president. His instant media blitz that day involved an appearance on the talk show “The View.”

I believe that in this moment, co-host Meghan McCain says to Booker, authenticity is the most important political currency you can have. And after some elaboration McCain asks: How do you convince people that you’re authentic and not a phony?

I cringe. Not at McCain or Booker. This is not about them. No, I cringe at the ease with which we toss about the word authentic. Ever since Bill George popularized the notion of Authentic Leadership in his book “True North,” we have steadily killed the meaning of the word.

I want to be authentic with people.

It has become the most overused leadership cliché of the past decade or so. Mind you, I am in favor of not being inauthentic. Or a phony. But you and I can authentically be many different things. Which authentic Self will you bring?

I think of a conversation I had with Jen Congdon, Head of a Business Unit within a highly profitable publishing empire. Jen and I were talking about how to play well with folks who have social power. She mentioned her relationship with Chuck, the empire’s legal counsel. Chuck, it was clear, pushes Jen’s buttons. She saw him as the quintessential young buck climbing the social ladder, with a lot of bravado in the mix.

In a way Chuck is so transparent, Jen sighed. You just need to stroke his ego a lot to get things done. Another sigh. But I have to be authentic with people.

Are there things you genuinely appreciate about his talents as a lawyer? I inquired.

Yes, there are, Jen sheepishly admitted.

And can you authentically let him know that you appreciate those things? I asked.

I guess so. Vera said it with a pained look on her face.

We say authentic when we mean vulnerable. We say it when we mean genuine, truthful, direct. Transparent. When we mean “act according to our values.” When we long to express a strong emotion we have. When we want someone to “fully own their life story and tell it.” Why not toss the word authentic and say what we actually mean?

Let us not pretend that we all agree on what the heck authentic is. And what it looks like. I urge you to be mindful of the following myths that are frequently attached to the word authentic:

Myth #1: Just Be Yourself

When you go on a job interview and your best friend tells you Just Be Yourself. When you have to give a crucial speech at work and your colleague suggests Just Be Yourself. Let’s be clear – nobody in a job interview wants you to just be yourself. Or when you give a speech. Chances are, we don’t want you to be boring. We want you to be prepared. We want you to make choices about which Self you bring.

You and I can authentically be many different things. My joy can be authentic. My enthusiasm can be authentic. My fear can be authentic. My doubt. In key business situations, we want you to bring your Best Self. And we want you to be intentional about it. That’s grown-up authenticity.

Myth #2: To Be Authentic I Have to Say What I Really Think

No, not really. A thought is merely a thought. It may feel authentic for a moment. A minute later another thought may feel authentic. Thoughts come and go. Repetitive thoughts may indicate a pressing concern. When you and I have a pressing concern, in a business situation or a personal relationship, let us consider context: Is this a good moment to express what I’m thinking? Is it essential that I express my thoughts right now? Will expressing my thought enhance the conversation we’re having?

Expressing a thought is a choice. Not expressing a thought is a choice. Both can be authentic choices. Sometimes not expressing a thought is the more enlightened one. And authentic, as well.

Myth #3: I Like to Keep It Real OR I Like People Who Keep It Real.

When I hear keeping it real this is what comes to mind: Gosh I’m tired of all the platitudes. The bullshit. The polite stuff. All the things we’re avoiding and not talking about. All the fake conversations. Let me cut through the crap.

A noble impulse, one I empathize with. Beware, however. We have all been with folks for whom keeping it real means going on an angry tirade. Attacking and blaming. Unloading pent-up anger. Going on and on. Dumping. Letting it rip.

Authentic expression? Perhaps. I think of this behavior as unfiltered narcissistic authenticity. Yes, I say what is on my mind, with little regard for my audience. It, more often than not, has scant positive impact and much unintended detrimental impact.

Myth #4: Being authentic means I tell you “my story.”

Bill George popularized the notion of telling our “crucible stories.” Stories of moments in our past when we overcame barriers and obstacles. When our lives transformed and we learned major life lessons. Crucible stories can often be inspiring. Old leadership thinking used to be that we hide our struggles and shortcomings from those around us. Current thinking, championed by the likes of George and Brene Brown, suggests that considered vulnerability fosters connection and personal impact.

I agree. I love stories. I love to tell them, and I have coached many folks on how to tell them well. Here’s the deal, however. Stories are often carefully selected for their potential impact. They are crafted and shaped. At times colored by all the things we leave out and don’t say. For every story we tell there are hundreds we do NOT tell. Each story we tell is a choice of omission. It is manipulated authenticity. We choose to highlight one facet of our narrative over others. Let’s not confuse this with being authentic. Because we could authentically tell legions of other stories that we withhold.

In case of doubt, bring the YOU that enhances execution and personal connection. Check the other selves at the door. Here’s a bit of wisdom from someone who pre-dates the likes of Bill George and Cory Booker and Meghan McCain.

I’ve learned that it’s what you leave OUT of a performance, not what you put INTO it, Tony Bennett says. Less is more. It’s not because of my age, but it’s the right thing to do.

Tony Bennett is 92. He knows.

When you style a song, there’s the craft of singing. And there are the choices you make while you sing. Yes, less is often more. Just one of many authentic choices a performer makes.

When you lead, please don’t be yourself. Bring your BEST self. Make sure your best self comes wrapped in a bit of craft. Be vulnerable when your vulnerability will be helpful to those you lead. Use keen judgment about what to leave OUT.

And stop worrying about being authentic.

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5 Ways of Directing Your IMPATIENCE Well

Patience can be hard.

I was reminded of it again at the start of this year. Hanging out in beautiful Hoi An/Vietnam – and then I came down with a pesky cough and fever. Darn it, that’s not how this was supposed to go. I felt weak. Void of energy. Emotionally down. I could do little to affect what was happening. Couldn’t magically make it go away. You know what it’s like, you’ve been there. Impatient for this circumstance to change.

At once. Right now.

Yep, patience can be hard. Impatience is harder.

Not the petulant, self-righteous, I want it right-here-right-now impatience. That’s the easy kind, the one that may have gotten us what we wanted when we were a toddler. It rarely works for grown-ups.

No, I’m thinking of the sort of repetitive impatience that gets triggered in places of work. Impatience with the slow pace of change in your organization. Impatience with processes that plain don’t work. Impatience with colleagues who never get their stuff done in time. Impatience with questionable ethics. Impatience with glaring incompetence and the same tired excuses for why something cannot be done.

Our daily frustration with individual and systemic mediocrity.

I get it. You’re impatient for change. Impatience with the status quo is the hallmark of an inspired leader. You sometimes feel like you will burst out screaming if things don’t change fast.  

Scream at home. When you want to get things done in business, however, focus your impatience. Consider these 5 ways of directing your impatience well.

  1. Open the Door of Possibility – with Grace
    NOT: What we’re doing right now sucks. I know what will work better.

You may like the language of bluster and bravado. It may feel authentic to you. It really does capture exactly how you feel. Dump authentic for a moment and opt for skill and finesse. Invite folks into your point of view – don’t hit them over the head with it.

BUT: It seems we have been struggling with this same dilemma for a while now. I have a few ideas that we may wish to consider.

  1. Respect Tradition
    NOT: Really, I can’t believe we’re still doing this the way we did it 30 years ago.

Most of us have worked in situations where processes feel arcane. Like, really, who ever thought THIS was a good way of doing business! Work flows inhabit progress. Rituals seem rigid, not nimble, don’t make any sense. Truth is, they likely made sense to someone at some point. Especially when rituals are tied to a company’s core values. If core values and tradition matter where you work, find a way to publicly honor them before you go on the attack!

BUT: I can see why this way of doing things contributed to so many of our early successes. There are some very impressive companies that we all know who have found ways of improving how they do things. Let’s see what we can learn from them.

  1. Test Your Ideas – BEHIND the scenes first
    NOT: I will bring this up at our next Executive Meeting to make sure everybody is in the same room and hears the same message from me.

Yes, you will have a captive audience. You also run the risk of being labeled a loose cannon or a troublemaker. Before you bring up a potentially explosive topic in a large forum, test it in private 1-1 conversations. Float an idea by a colleague or two. Think of these as casual, low-risk lobbying conversations. Instead of forcing your idea on these colleagues, invite their honest reactions. Pay attention to what they say and what they don’t say. Truly listen. Then decide what to do with your idea.

BUT: I will test my ideas in informal 1-1 conversations to hear what others think and discover if my ideas resonate before I take a bold stand in the “big” meeting.

  1. Forge Alliances
    NOT: I will take this on as my pet project because nobody here is as passionate about this as I am.

Don’t be a martyr. Don’t assume that you’re the only one, or the most qualified one, to take on a cause. You may, in fact, be the most qualified. You will, however, have a lot more impact if you have allies. Your effort will be harder to dismiss. Take your lobbying conversations to the second level – that’s the level where you switch from testing an idea to getting a commitment of support from your conversation partners. That’s how allies are born.

BUT: I will work to make sure that at least 3 other key influencers are as fired up about making this change as I am. We will be a rebel tribe. Together, we will have a powerful voice.

  1. Accelerate the Process
    NOT: Great conversation. Let’s revisit this at our next monthly staff meeting.

We know that when we desire change and momentum, this is not a compelling way to end a meeting. And we’ve all been in meetings, especially those where new ideas were proffered, that end in deferment. Don’t accept deferment. Ask for more. Suggest next-step commitments. And make them time-bound, please.

BUT: Great conversation. Let’s commit to the following three actions! Can we get this done by the end of next week? Who will take on which item? Awesome.

Successful impatience is strategic, it is persistent, and it pushes the proverbial envelope while playing successfully with others.

Celebrate your impatience. Impatience with the status quo is a powerful incubator for new ideas and new ways of doing/being. Season your impatience with your ability to be patient. They are flip sides of the same coin.

Hard? Perhaps. Not harnessing your impatience is harder. Go and grab it by the horns – and direct it WELL!

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People have always told me that I’m very direct. Little do you know all the things I’m not telling, I invariably think to myself.

I come from a country that prides itself on directness. Germans like to complain about Americans. Their need to be “nice” and never say what they really think. Others, of course, may experience German directness as harsh. Americans like to complain about how some of their Asian colleagues never say what they really think. A Chinese person, however, may experience an American communication as brash. Yes, directness is culture-relative.

I’m a lot more direct these days. Directness feels good. I feel untethered, and directness has powerfully elevated my professional impact.

Then, the other day …

I come home from a dinner and think of a few things I have said to my host, and I suddenly panic. Wait a minute, that may have been way too unfiltered. You may have totally offended him!

Potential unintended impact. Not my intent. GoshI hope I’m not turning into a self-righteous jerk, I wonder. And I remember the two emails I sent. They contained difficult messages. They were to the point. I did not received answers right away.

Really, am I being too direct?

Maturity means you and I second-guess ourselves less. We have the courage of getting to the point. And we are, I hope, kind to others.

I want to continue being direct. Here’s my Directness Checklist. Memo to Achim. If it works for you as well – consider it a Memo to You:

  1. Don’t Make Them Wrong

In case of doubt, argue passionately FOR what you stand for instead of AGAINST what they believe in. Draw a contrast between two divergent positions if you must, but resist the temptation to hammer away at everything that is wrong about what s/he values. Chances are, you will get lost in a tirade. Directness gone wrong.

  1. Cut the Edge

The edge – that is any tinge of arrogance, superiority, sarcasm. Any touch of bravado or self-righteousness. Your swagger. Cut it. The edge tends to show up when we’re not aware of what we’re feeling, and those feelings suddenly hijack the message instead of informing it. When we speak with an edge all they will hear is the edge, and what we advocate for so strongly will be instantly dismissed.

  1. Keep it Brief

Direct goes hand-in-hand with concise. The danger? When we feel strongly about a point of view, we will always be tempted to go on and on. And on. Because we want them to “really get it.” The less they get it, the more we go on and on. Their wall goes up. A vicious cycle. It’s brutal. Brevity, please.

  1. The 1-second Delay

You pride yourself on being direct but others have labeled you a “shoot-from-the-hip” kinda person? You may think to yourself yeah that’s kinda cool, but chances are the label was not intended as a compliment. Direct with no impact. You know how they have a 7-second delay in live television so an editor can bleep the unacceptable crap? You may not need 7 seconds, but when you find yourself wanting to shoot from the hip, impose your own 1-second delay. Breathe. Think. Edit yourself. What comes next will likely be a little more direct with a lot more impact.

  1. The Essential Questions Scan

If you’re not sure if being direct will be helpful in a given situation, ask yourself these two questions during your 1-second Delay: Does it need to be said? and Am I the one who needs to say it? If the answer to either question is NO, consider being less direct than you’re inclined to be.

Here’s my Cruise-Ship Directness lesson. You know how there are those conversations we have over and over again? They are our splendid teachers. Here’s a conversation that is endemic to South Florida where I live. My home is 15 minutes from the Port Everglades Cruiseport in Ft. Lauderdale, and nearly everyone in my social circles takes advantage of this proximity. Folks here LOVE to cruise. And they LOVE to talk about it. I don’t love cruising. To me, being on a cruise ship feels like being locked up in a gaudy Las Vegas hotel with too many guests in the halls and no way to escape. This is a sacrilegious perspective in my neck of the woods, I know. I have learned to not indulge my disdain of cruises. I talk about the joys of vacationing in the Keys, instead. Very directly.

The two emails I wrote? The responses came in and all is well. I had a very pleasant social exchange with my dinner host. But I’m relieved that I considered my Directness Checklist again. A crucial tune-up.

I need it ever so often.

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I coach folks on personal impact.

Sometimes, I get a little fancy with my coaching. And then, once in a while, I am reminded that the simplest adjustment often produces the most compelling results.

I stumbled on a radio chat about upspeak and vocal fry a few years back, moderated by Terry Gross, host of the Fresh Air program on National Public Radio. Upspeak describes the tendency by some folks to raise their inflection at the end of a sentence. The individual wishes to make a declarative statement but what comes out sounds like a question.

Vocal fry describes the habit of drawing out ends of words and sentences with a low, creaky voice.

Both habits are often ascribed to women. I coach many men, however, who engage in upspeak and vocal fry, as well. These habits significantly impede personal impact.

I chuckle at a line of reasoning proposed by one of Ms. Gross’ guests. Upspeak and vocal fry are not the problem, she suggests, but our social conditioning that deems these speech patterns unauthoritative is.

It’s my problem and that of others in the room that we find your speech pattern annoying? Good luck in winning that battle! There are languages where an uptick at the end of a sentence is part of the cultural cadence. Global Business English isn’t one of them.

Here are 3 simple speaking adjustments that will elevate your personal impact by 50%. They are ridiculously simple to execute. It merely requires that you stay mindful of them. Here’s what you do:

1.    Keep your sentences short.

Stick to one idea per sentence. Have lots of ideas? Awesome. Start a new sentence for every new idea or message. Run-on sentences are horrid in written documents. They’re an even stronger impact-killer in verbal communication. A period and a pause are wonderful things – they bring your message into focus.

2.    Stop at the end of a sentence.

Your pause lets me know that a thought is complete. It gives me a moment to absorb your idea. And it allows me to tune into what you’re about to say next. If you don’t pause for 3 sentences in a row, I have already tuned you out – you are simply blabbering!

3.    Drop your voice on the last word.

No upspeak please unless you’re asking a question. When your inflection goes down on the final word, I get a sense that you mean what you say and that what you say matters. And while you’re at it, avoid vocal fry, as well. Upspeak can come across as uncertainty and lack of conviction. I’m making a point – but I’m not sure I fully believe it! I’m making a point – but please go ahead and approve it for me!  Practice the power of a declarative ending. Drop the voice.

Ridiculously simple, isn’t it?

A bonus tip: In case of doubt, speak slower than your instinct wants you to. We often conflate a quick pace and enthusiasm. Expressed enthusiasm is almost always a wonderful thing. Couple it with a rapidfire pace, however, and you run the risk of becoming the person that rattles on and on. Observe folks who are comfortable with their sense of personal power. They claim the moment. They take their time. They don’t rush.

Here’s what these simple adjustments do for you. They bring you into focus. They allow me to hear your message clearly. And even when you don’t feel very authoritative inside, these adjustments help you project a sense that you are.

3 little adjustments. 50%. The impact is that dramatic.

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Personal Influence. Most folks like the notion of having some. My professional practice is predicated on the benefits of getting it.

The right position in the right firm gets us a modicum of influence. Knowing other influential people gets us some more. Presenting innovative ideas – huh, now we’re getting somewhere. The most disarming way of being influential?

Yep. Ask great questions.

It’s that simple. It’s not that obvious. It allows everyone in every organizational function to wield influence. And it needs to be executed with finesse.

When we hired Leandra Campbell to be the Relationship Manager at my firm, we hired her over more seasoned, more flashy, more obvious candidates. Why did we hire Leandra? In the interview, Leandra asked keenly thoughtful questions.

Back in the days, when I had my very first assignment as an Executive Coach, I had a session with my client Oliver in which I felt resoundingly inadequate. Oliver talked and talked, and I simply had no insights to offer or any great wisdom to share. I chimed in a few times, remained silent the remainder of our session. It was an utterly excruciating experience for me.

“You were so helpful,” Oliver said when we were done.

Yep. I asked a couple of questions.

What makes a question a great influencing question? Influencing questions expand the scope of a conversation. They invite fresh perspectives and surprising ways of looking at the familiar. They help others to see things they may have overlooked. They create momentum.

Here are 4 ways of influencing a conversation with a question:

  • Appreciate assets when folks get too critical in their thinking:
    What are some things that we’re really good at that we don’t want to forget?
  • Consider alternative scenarios that have not yet been considered:
    I wonder what would happen if __________ ?
  • Broaden the context if a conversation is getting stuck in predictable thinking:
    How does what we are considering compare to what companies like ________ are doing?
  • Mine added reasons  for pursuing a certain path:
    What might be some other considerations that would prompt us to follow this particular course of action?

This the finesse part I suggest we never forget. It’s as critical – and influential – as the questions themselves.

  • Pose every question with a sense of childlike curiosity.
  • Don’t ever try to outsmart a Senior Stakeholder with your question.
  • Keep your ego 100% out of the conversation.
  • Don’t force the flow of the conversation if your question doesn’t yield instant insight. Listen – and then offer another influencing question

Sometimes we influence with a fresh idea, a new course of action. Here’s the gift of influencing with questions: We can do it in the absence of a fresh idea or a new course of action. We can do it any day, anywhere, anytime. We can always be influential.

I find that profoundly liberating.

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I confess. I used to disdain the phrase soft eyes.

Back in the days, when I taught rapport-building skills, the term popped up in one of my training manuals. Soft eyes just sounded kinda cheesy to me. You know, softly gazing at someone. Like a scene from a sappy Hollywood movie.

That’s not what soft eyes is, of course.

You know folks who have been drilled in how to give eye contact, right? The ones who don’t do it well? They stare at you intently. Often intensely. Their gaze is unwaveringly focused on you.  They really really look you in the eye. Their eyes seem to somehow never blink. And you simply want to recoil. Run. Run as fast from them as you can. Have them leave you the heck alone.

That’s bad eye contact. The opposite of soft eyes.

A little bit of context. The term soft eyes has been around for a long while. Hunters use this phrase to describe their skill in animal tracking. It is generally believed to have Native American origins. NLP (the study of neuro-linguistic programming) uses the term to describe a relaxed way of being present. In the HBO series “The Wire,” an entire episode was named Soft Eyes. In it, the character Bunk Moreland uses the phrase in conversation. He suggests that when we look with soft eyes we’re able to see more than what we see at first glance.

Nice. Let’s distinguish between 3 different ways of viewing what’s in front of us.

  • Peripheral vision:

    Most of us are not great at it. It’s an acquired muscle-memory skill. When we practice peripheral vision we approach our field of vision with the widest possible span and try to catch all that is on the edges of this span. I think of it as the old Cinemascope view of the world. We scope deep and wide.

    The risk:  We get constantly distracted by all we see and don’t notice what’s actually right in front of us. Not unlike a state of steady social media overwhelm. More, always more.

  • Foveal vision:

    Consider it the art of the laser focus. We are able to bring our attention to the tiniest detail that others will miss. My friends Pedro and Frank, both gemologists, immediately come to mind. Gemologists are trained to notice, and focus on, near imperceptible matter. The sort of stuff I tend to not see even after it is pointed out to me

    The risk:  We zero in on a seductive detail and miss significant details beyond our point of focus or significant changes in our surroundings. We have stereotypical tunnel vision

  • Soft eyes:

    It’s the effortless combination of both peripheral and foveal vision. When we focus on a person or an object, we do so without straining. Our eye muscles stay relaxed. Our gaze is not hard or intense. It is soft. At the same time, we stay aware of our peripheral vision and see all that is present in the broadest field of view.

    The risk:  I don’t, pardon the pun, see any risk. I see only assets.

The benefits of looking at the world in front of us are in some ways obvious – and tremendous:

  1. More relaxed:

    Because the inherent tenet of soft eyes is that we don’t strain, it tends to lull us into a more relaxed way of looking at others and the world around us. It puts us AND others at ease because we’re not “trying so hard.” Folks who meditate liken it to being in a state of walking meditation, much of the time. An easy, conscious, aware way of moving through the world.

  2. More open:

    When we doggedly focus on one person or object, we inadvertently close ourselves off to the many subtle non-verbal signals that may be “talking” to us while we over-focus. Soft eyes keep us aware of these signals and, in turn, make it easier for us to adapt our behavior accordingly. We show up more “in tune” with our environment.

  3. Less self-talk:

    I wish I had research data for this claim. The anecdotal evidence is powerful, and I trust that on a gut-level it makes sense. When I look at my surroundings with soft eyes I am powerfully in tune with the world in front of me WITHOUT trying too hard. This constant and effortless immersion with what I see pulls my focus outward, away from the sometimes incessant mind chatter we all know. The mind chatter dials down. Thanks to soft eyes, I am more present in the moment.

I have dreams and intentions for 2019. I am excited about them. And I know that everything will unfold with more grace and ease if I approach people and situations with soft eyes.

I claim 2019 as My Year of Soft Eyes.

I can’t think of any reason not to. Won’t you join me please?

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It’s an ironic part of the year. While we hustle and bustle from one social activity to the next, many of our social interactions will feel rushed. The volume, the pressure, the accelerated pace. What longs to be a time of connection can quickly devolve into a series of rushed non-connections.

Classic wisdom is that if we desire stronger relationships, we need to spend more time with folks. If you don’t have more time to spend, use language that accelerates connection. This works best in person. It will work equally well on the phone or in writing.

People with rich vocabularies, success guru Tony Robbins suggests in his book “Giant Steps,” have a multihued palette of colors with which to paint their life’s experience.

Agreed. And the colors in your palette don’t need to be high-falutin’. Here are my top 5 verbal cues that I know will strengthen any business relationship we’re in – and all others, as well. They may come in handy in this period of harried social contact:

1. “I was touched by …”

Most of us, even if we’re a little gruff on the outside, have a keen desire to impact folks. The deepest impact occurs when we touch someone’s heart. This simple phrase indicates to the other person that s/he has, indeed, via an action or a gesture, had that sort of impact on us. Powerful.

2. “You really helped me …”

It feels good to know that something we have done, no matter how small it may have seemed to us, has been of help to someone. It feels even better to hear this acknowledged. Whenever possible, let someone know that something they said or did, even if it was routine behavior for them, was helpful to you. “Help” is a crucial relationship word.

3. “I never looked at it this way before …”

Especially in a conversation that may have had its rough patches, acknowledge that the other person had a positive impact on you. Made you think of new possibilities, had you question hidden assumptions, forced you to reach beyond easy answers. This phrase celebrates the positive aspects of a potentially uncomfortable conversation.

4. “I don’t agree with …”

You may wonder, hey, how is disagreeing with someone a relationship-builder? Folks who have strong relationships with others are not afraid to disagree. They don’t waste time dancing around a moment of disagreement. They state their disagreement “in neutral.” No raised voice, no elevated emotion, no drama. Just a fact. The moment a disagreement is stated, the conversation can shift toward new ideas and fresh solutions. How liberating!

5. “I know we can come up with something better …”

Even as we discard a present state that we believe isn’t working, we look to the future with unwavering optimism in our ability to deliver. The word “we” is a potent non-blame word. The affirmation of my faith in the “we” is a sublime relationship-shaper. Couple it with the verb “can,” and it is sure to melt at least a modicum of doubt and resistance.

There are folks with whom it is tough to build relationships, I know. But even a tough nut tends to crack when approached with a relationship-enhancing cue.

The most common objection I hear to the just-listed cues: This is simply not how I talk. That, of course, is the point. Would you say this when you start to learn a foreign language? Of course not. Consider these cues part of your new and enhanced vocabulary. Toss the objections. Expand your palette. And accelerate connection.

 

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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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