Communication

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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Call me a curmudgeon.

I’m not into all the traditional holiday stuff. Not anymore. The social expectations. The over-consumption of everything. No.

I want more. I want magic.

My work travel ended a couple of weeks ago. I’m into magic season now. Yes, I long to spend the rest of 2018 making magic every day.

Open Space Technology is a global movement based on the precepts of Harrison Owen. Open Spacers get together to have conversations. Deep conversations. Galvanizing conversations. Strategic conversations. Unplanned conversations. I spent some time with Suzanne Daigle and Jasmina Nikolic, two of my Open Space friends, in Belgrade this fall. Suzanne and Jasmina both speak with great fervor about their first Open Space experiences: Magic happened. 

Amen.

Conversations are my magic.

My 93-year-old Mom used to come visit me in Florida for the holidays.

Mom doesn’t believe in God – so we didn’t do traditional holiday stuff.

But we had rituals. We brunched at The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. We dined at the now-defunct Sugar Reef restaurant in Hollywood Beach. We took afternoon siestas. We went for daily strolls on the boardwalk. We listened to bands doing cover songs at the band shell. We hit every shopping mall within a 25-mile radius. Some of them more than once.

That’s the stuff we did every year. Not the rituals anyone imposed on us. OUR rituals. The stuff WE discovered. The repetition of the same is the magic sauce.

I just returned from a visit to Mom’s Senior Residence in Germany. The rituals have changed. They are simpler. They are rituals nevertheless.

Taking the elevator from the 4th floor to the 3rd floor. Mom resting on her walker as we ride down. Claiming our own little table in the bistro. Me walking to the counter, picking up 2 cappuccinos. 2 pieces of torte. Mom leaning in, telling me what she truly thinks of the occupants of the other tables.

The same. Every afternoon at 3. Every day.

Rituals are my magic.

I ran down to the beach right after 7 yesterday morning. The boardwalk was already bustling with the walkers, the bicyclists, the joggers, the idlers. The life guards were doing their pre-shift jogs. Tourists were starting to claim prime beach towel spots. The Atlantic was giddy and restless and just a little cold. When I went in my body shivered. Once I fully submerged I felt a calm and a supreme joy wash over me.

The joy of being, at this beach, in that very moment, on that very day.

I will do this every morning. The ocean will be the same every morning. And it will be completely different every morning. That’s its charm.

The ocean is my magic.
 
If you’re one of those folks who work through the holiday season, consider this.

I think of an interview I read a few years back. Amy Erret is the CEO and co-founder of Madison Reed, a firm that provides in-home hair color. As Amy explains in the interview (NY Times Business Section, 11/15/2013) about how she hires talent for her company, I’m starting to think Whoa, she would be a really cool woman to work for!

My personal tipping point in the interview? Ultimately my job, Erret says, with the people who work for me, is to find your genius and to help YOU find your genius. And if we can do that, that’s the magic.

Another amen.

While you show up for work during the holidays, celebrate your genius. And celebrate the genius in everyone you work with. Notice what happens.

Genius is our collective magic.

Yes, I plan to make some magic this season. Every day.

I did, by the way, buy my first-time-ever set of twinkling-light-snow-flakes. My Florida living-room windows will be making some magic, as well …

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Revel in Magic.

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I’m in Germany, visiting my mom. Mom lives in a Senior Residence and I stay in a nearby hotel. The unexpected gift of this filial arrangement? Mom is a month shy of 94 and doesn’t have the energy for day-long socializing. I get time to myself.

Thinking time.

I think of an exchange a few years back. Jeff, the genial CEO of a Fortune 500 firm, is having a chat with a group of his high-potential leaders. A fellow asks Jeff for leadership guidance.

Make sure you have thinking time, Jeff suggests. It’s the advice I didn’t expect.

Keep track of things you want to think about moreJot them down. After a short pause, Jeff adds: Schedule your thinking time.

Spoken by a man who, I trust, never has enough time. Addressed to an audience who never has enough time, either.

Thinking time is common in ideation jobs. R & D. Even here, thinking often equals group-thinking-time. When individuals in the group haven’t had private thinking time, 9 out of 10 times group thinking generates more of the familiar. Thinking lite. Pretend-ideation. Same old story.

How, then, do we carve out individual, dive-down-deep thinking time? Here are a few thoughts on this matter:

  • Purposeful thinking, not accidental thinking
    You may have excellent brain-food habits. Listen to a podcast on your way to work. Read a book before you go to bed. Think about things while you jog. Great habits. I consider them accidental thinking behaviors. Purposeful thinking, however, happens when we stop all other activity and contemplate one simple question, one essential dilemma. This singular focus, which may incorporate resources like a podcast or a book, accelerates the deep dive. The fresh insight. The next-level-thought.

  • Ritualized thinking time
    Study the habits of highly successful people, and a few things become clear: Nearly all of them are morning people. Many of them have morning habits that set them up for success. Meditation and morning exercise are at the top of this list. In addition, most have 15 or 30 minutes in their schedule, first thing in the AM, when they have no appointments. Get-focused-on-the-day time. Think-ahead time. Ritualized private thinking time. Every day. This time is not negotiated away for the occasional international phone call. It is sacred time.

  • Monthly thinking retreat
    One way to generate substantial thinking time: Keep track of issues, concerns, ideas you wish to consider in-depth. Give yourself half a day, or better yet, full day each month to just think. Schedule this time. Leave the office for this period of time. Go to a thought-inducing environment. Ignore your phone and emails, if at all possible. See what happens.

  • Track time
    You are likely tracking time, as is. How much of it you spend in meetings, how much in phone calls, how much performing essential tasks. Great. Why not also track how much time you spend in purposeful thought? Tracking is especially helpful when we aspire to a certain standard. How much time in a given week, month do you wish to spend in thought instead of tactical execution? Decide, and track. Ways of carving out thinking time will be revealed.

Jeff, of course, is right. Thinking time is one way in which we energize ourselves. When we’re energized we energize others. When we are collectively energized, business is better. Always is. These days with mom remind me. Thinking time. How very sweet it is.

Please, make the time. Think. More.

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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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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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