Thursday, May 19, 2016

Is your reason for communicating hiding in plain view?

Can you see the snow leopard in this picture? It's in the centre. Snow leopards are rather spectacular, yet the camera shows us that they can also hide in plain sight.

How clear is your purpose for communicating? The most common problem I uncover as a communication coach is that people haven't really thought through what they want. Like the snow leopard, their purpose is in the picture, but it's not easy to see.

The single most important thing you can do to improve your writing or speaking is to decide before every communication: what do I want to change in my reader or audience? What do I want them to think or do differently because I communicated? And then ask: "What will that get me?" Repeat the question until you're sure you've come to the deepest, best outcome for the email or blog post or presentation you are preparing.

When you give your mind/brain/body a clear description of what you want, that system is remarkably good at adapting to circumstances and finding what you need to get what you want. When you communicate, that system will choose your words, gestures, expressions and postures so that you make the most of what you have prepared. But your performance will only be as good as your words, gestures and expressions and postures. And those will depend on how clearly you have defined your outcome.

It's not enough to know that you "have" to give a presentation or that you have to "cover" a topic. Imagine instead, that the opportunity to connect is a valuable and limited resource. You need to get and to give real value each time you communicate. It's worth preparing not only your topic, but your best reason for speaking or writing.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Do you ever feel frustrated?

If you're reading this post, I know you answered yes to the title question. The truth is that everyone gets frustrated some of the time. It's that feeling you get when you are anxious to move forward and you're not, or when you've let someone push the same button for the thousandth time, or when you hear the voice in your head telling you that you deserve the roadblocks you're facing.

Frustration sucks.

But here's a different question: are you finished being frustrated yet?  And the answer to that might be more complicated than you think. You might want to hang in there with your frustration until it gives you a strength or an insight that you need.

You don't have to be a Jew or a Christian to appreciate the story of Jacob - one of our great stories of frustration. He was not the eldest son (automatic frustration in a system where the eldest son gets the lion's share of opportunity and inheritance). He worked 7 years for the right to marry a beautiful girl only to be tricked into marrying her sister (and agreeing to work another 7 years). And in the middle of an uneasy journey back to his homeland, his way is blocked by an angel who dislocates Jacob's hip.

Jacob doesn't quit. He doesn't let go until the angel promises him a blessing.

If frustration hasn't given you a blessing yet, maybe it's not time to move one. Maybe it's time to hold on. Maybe the resources you need are not the ones that let you move, but the ones that let you wrestle with uncertainty until you find the unexpected opportunity it holds.

If this seems like "just a story," consult your own experience. Think of a time when you quit something because you were frustrated (music lessons? a sport? a job?) and later regretted quitting so soon.  If you look, you'll find that you've given up too early more than once.

Now think of the time you were frustrated and tired and overwhelmed and you held on until something good came of the whole mess. How did you do that? How did you overcome both frustration and logic to create an opportunity?

Saturday, May 07, 2016

How your presentation audience will perceive your mixed messages

I found this video in my Facebook stream this morning. It's about the relationship between sound and vision. When you see the guy's lips making an "F" sound, you hear the sound "fah" and when you see the guy's lips making a "B" sound, you hear the sound "bah." But the sound is the same all the way through (with your eyes closed, it always sounds like "bah.")

This connected for me with a coaching session yesterday, where I was working with a client preparing a short presentation. In the presentation he sometimes used the pronoun "we" to refer to his team, and sometimes used "we" to refer to his team and the audience combined. I imagine this kind of confusion is quite common in organizations, where "we" covers a lot of different units of meaning.

I think the effect is another sorting problem for the brain. In the video, the brain resolves the difference between the sight and the sound by choosing one over the other. In the presentation, the audience is likely to hear the sound "we" and choose either to believe that "we" represents just the presenter's team OR that "we" represents the collective experience of the whole audience. And they'll determine whether or not "we" includes them based on what they see as they watch the presenter and the sound of his voice as he uses the term. In other words, the meaning of "we" will be determined less by the grammar or situation, and more by whether or not other sensory information supports the idea that the presenter is really playing on the same team as the audience.

The way to resolve the shifting use of the pronoun is not to script the presentation: it's to clean up the presenter's intention (either to play on the same team or to influence from outside the team). When that becomes clear, the pronouns he chooses will line up with his meaning.

The trick while presenting is not to get the audience to hear "fah" when we say "bah." It's to get the audience to hear what we are saying accurately (only "bah" means "bah").

We get there by forming such clear intentions that our automatic use of little words (like pronouns) will line up with the message we want to send.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

What to do when frustration has you stuck


You'll notice right away that this is not a picture of frustration. It's a picture of the opposite of frustration: people are experiencing connection and growth with other people and with the garden that surrounds them. And yet, it's also a picture of how close we always are to frustration.

Our topic at ThinkSpot was Dealing with Anxious People. When someone we love is anxious, we feel blocked at every turn. It's easy to feel that nothing will change and there's no way to move around the facts of anxiety. Everyone that came that afternoon knows that anxiety is a breeding ground for frustration.

It was our third spring day at ThinkSpot and the forecast early in the week predicted clouds and rain. I laughed. "Our usual," I thought. But the sun came out and the afternoon was a gift. Things do change.

The answer when you are frustrated is some form of what is happening in the picture above. Breathe. Move. Connect with kindness. And when you are feeling very safe and very brave, allow yourself to become aware of that need that is calling to you through your frustration. 

Because frustration is a sign that growth is happening and you're ready to move. And the thing that's got you stopped, the thing that feels like it will never change - that's the thing inside you that won't move until you give it kind, high-quality attention.

And then, maybe the sun will come out and the buds will uncurl and you'll notice that change was happening all along.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dealing with Anxious People: Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Photo credit: Mikka H

I have often sat in an airplane before take-off, listening to the safety presentation. When they show parents putting on their own oxygen masks before helping a child, my first reaction is always "not likely." It goes against all my fiercely protective instincts to take care of myself before making sure a child (anyone's child, really) is safe. But the safety presentations make a good point.

This weekend, I am running a workshop on Dealing with Anxious People. Of course this means that I have been surrounded by anxious people for several weeks (it's not just confirmation bias: it's end of term at college). And here's the thing I absolutely, down to the toes, know is true about handing other people's anxiety: how well I do it depends on my own state. If I don't have my oxygen mask firmly in place, I catch anxiety faster than I catch colds from the toddlers I love.

If someone else's anxiety is driving you nuts, the first place to check in is with yourself. What is it about your state that makes this so hard to handle? For me, impatience with other people's anxiety is a sign that I am carrying too much stress on too little sleep. The answer is not to solve other people's problems: it's to get enough rest.

Occasionally, there may be something in the situation that makes other people's anxiety hard to handle. If you work for a start up, there are not many layers between you and the person who both runs the show and is accountable for making payroll. That person's anxiety is likely to get under your skin quickly. In other situations, someone you love is anxious because they are failing. That's hard.

But most of the time, if we are anxious, it's because nothing really bad has happened yet. Some people seem to believe that if they worry hard enough, they can prevent bad things from happening to them or people they love. But you don't believe that when you read it here. You can see that's delusional thinking. So when you encounter it, you can put on your oxygen mask and ride out the bumps.

When you are calm, resourceful, and able to see the big picture, you'll manage anxiety just fine (whether it is yours or someone else's). Oxygen is wonderful: it helps you find clarity and comfort. And when you have those, you can share them.