Dodge the conflict… not the issue

At some point or other, we all have to have important conversations that have the potential to get ugly and uncomfortable. When in doubt, I say do your best to avoid the conflict…but not the issue.

I’m not talking about avoiding people in the hallways, refusing to answer the phone or saying “yes” to everyone – whether or not you mean it – so that you don’t have to say “no.”

There will always be disagreements and necessary discussions about difficult or unpleasant topics. But these conversations do not need to degenerate into round after round of browbeating to try to get your point across.

Ideally, the goal is to address the issue in a way that gets to the heart of the matter, and reaches a mutually agreeable resolution quickly and efficiently without raising voices or blood pressure. There is one intuitive – and yet commonly overlooked – key that can keep most disagreements in the realm of civil, productive discussion.

The key is consciously listening to understand. This is where most people fall woefully short in both their efforts and their outcomes. They think that they listen, but they don’t do it right. Listening to understand is critical to avoiding real argument for one crucial reason: most people continue to argue a point because they feel like they have not truly been heard or understood.

Let’s look at the difference and key strategies for listening in a way that gets to a peaceful, positive, and productive result.

Listening “wrong”

In disagreements, most people “listen” in order to find an opportunity to interrupt, contradict, or defend. This isn’t sincere listening; it’s more like scanning the horizon for the best time to retaliate.

When both parties do this, it quickly leads to an impasse with one of two outcomes: Either both sides leave feeling frustrated, with no resolution, or one side “wins” by forcing the other side to concede, i.e. lose, which will have a variety of negative repercussions down the line in the form of morale, work quality, and office politics just to name a few.

Listening “right”

When you listen to understand, you enter the conversation from the perspective that there’s a missing piece, something you don’t yet know or understand about their position, priorities, interests or concerns.

Invite the other person to share first. A good strategy is to take notes as you listen. This keeps you from interrupting, and allows you to go back later and seek clarification when necessary. It also gives you a chance to reflect and organize your thoughts before you do finally speak, which can streamline the process, avoid clumsy and emotionally-charged knee-jerk responses, and help you prioritize issues to address.

Once the other person has finished sharing their perspective, a great segue can be as simple as, “Thanks for taking the time to explain that to me. I want to make sure I understand the key issues. Can I run through my main takeaways based on what I heard, and you can correct me if I’m off somehow?” Who would say no to such a request?

Once you have the go-ahead, start by paraphrasing your understanding of their key points. You should use simple, reporting language such as, “You said that your budget _____,” or “Did I understand correctly that in your department _____,” or “Your primary concern is that _____, right?” Whatever you do, do not comment on anything yet.

This let’s them know that you are valuing their input enough to take time to ensure that you understood it, and allows them to make sure they got their ideas across effectively. This builds trust and facilitates further discussion.

From there, you can transition into sharing your side of the story, and invite them to take notes and respond later as you did. Keep your language objective, and if you feel like their view on something is incorrect, keep your explanation fact-based, calm and impersonal. There’s a big difference between saying, “There are a few details I don’t think your team is aware of,” and, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

At best, once you have heard each other out, and truly sought to understand each other’s objectives and reasons, you can come to a solution that meets everyone’s needs. But at the very least, if the answer still has to be “no,” there is still potential for positive outcome.

Even though the other person might not be happy with the immediate result, it’s much easier for them to accept the outcome because they understand why, and are emotionally satisfied that they have been respected as a person and a professional.

More importantly, you’re leading by example, and fostering a healthy culture of open communication, transparency, and mutual respect.

That’s the difference between someone who has a leadership position, and someone who is a leader.

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Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

Listen Different

Typically, I write about speech. But today I want to take a new look at the role of the listener in leadership communication. To borrow a page from Apple, you have to learn to “Listen Different.”

Of course, it is incumbent upon you as the speaker to present your information in a way that will make sense to the listener of the moment, and the ability to adapt your speaking style to fit the context is generally viewed as a strong leadership skill. But that’s only half the story.

Not everyone is going to be good at adapting their speech to fit your expectations for what good communication sounds like. As a result, if you don’t learn to listen differently, you are at risk for missing some of the most valuable information, simply because you don’t see the diamond through the coal dust.

As an example, I work with a lot of women’s groups, and one of the most common frustrations I hear is when a woman makes a comment in a meeting, which gets glossed over, and then five minutes later one of the men at the table says almost the exact same thing, but he is praised for the contribution. The following cartoon illustrates the sentiment.

But gender-bias issues aside, it begs the question of why this is such a commonly shared experience, and what to do about it, because the underlying principle stands for everyone – men and women. The truth is that the responsibility for change is shared by everyone at the table. Here’s why:

One reason that some people may feel like they don’t get heard is because the way they frame their ideas makes it subconsciously harder for the listener to register what they’ve said. For example, rather than state an idea like, “We haven’t tried X yet; let’s take a look at that option,” they say something like “What about X? Should we look at that? Would that work?”

The challenge is that many listeners don’t understand the nature of what they’re really hearing, and need to recognize the speaker’s intent. At their core, both of the above examples have the same underlying purpose and meaning (what linguists refer to as the “illocutionary force”): making a suggestion. But on the surface (the “locutionary force”), the former’s grammar is confidently asserting a recommendation, whereas the latter is literally asking questions that seek validation from the others regarding the nature of the idea.

Mind you, there is a time and a place for each approach. The former is typically more effective in contexts where strength, assertiveness and confidence are valued; in that case, the indirect style may fall on deaf ears, despite the inherent value of the suggestion. The latter will likely work better in groups who appreciate subtlety and a more collaborative approach that endeavors to show respect to group consensus, in which case the more assertive style can be dismissed as abrasive and unwelcome, regardless of how the speaker thought he or she came across.

If you’ve ever felt like Miss Triggs – that your message wasn’t heard, or was not received as intended – you might have framed your comment using the dis-preferred style for that group. While no group is going to use one style all the time, and most groups will claim to recognize both, the fact is that on a subconscious level, we tend to hear, process and respond to them differently.

That is, our default listening style tends to register them differently, which is why it’s important to go into conversations with the goal of listening more intently to identify each speaker’s content and intent. This is where the meeting facilitator and other participants in a discussion might miss the boat.

When listening, make sure you’re truly present when someone is speaking, because we first process tone and instinctive feeling before we process actual meaning. So, for example, while you’re pondering your own solutions for a problem, your brain might subconsciously register “someone is asking another question… I’m still working on answering my own, no time for another one now”, at which point you miss a great suggestion. Check your assumptions at the door, so that before your brain dismisses something as incorrect or unimportant, you take a second look to make sure you’re not missing something in the process.

And most importantly, if you are a participant in a discussion and you do hear the value in someone’s contribution but believe the convener or group has missed it, or if “Ms./Mr. Triggs” makes a comment that gets praise only when reiterated by someone else, it is then your responsibility to gently draw it to everyone’s attention: “Yes, Pat, I think you’re reinforcing what Chris said a moment ago about…” Passive listening and lack of proactive participation are not qualities of successful leadership.

It may be frustrating to feel like you need to work harder at listening, that people should just “speak clearly,” but as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” In the end, if you really want to lead, true leadership communication skills go beyond effective speaking. Whether you’re talking to a family member, employee, client or vendor, communication is a two-way street, so learn to listen different.

The 4-Word Secret to Confident Public Speaking

I work with a lot of clients on a wide variety of skill sets. For many, the primary focus is public speaking. The story is common: You’re confident in front of your team, but when you have to speak to larger groups, especially to high-stakes audiences or groups of people you don’t know as well, your heart races, your face turns red, palms sweat, and all sorts of self-defeating “what if” scenarios circulate through your mind.

What if I forget what I wanted to say?
What if I make a mistake?
What if they don’t like me?
What if I don’t come across as an expert?
What if they ask a question I can’t answer?

These self-defeating questions are what is referred to as “head trash.” It will pile up, fester, and become overwhelming unless you take action to get rid of it and replace it with something more productive.

When talking to one particular client whose head trash was getting the best of her, I said: “I’m going to tell you a secret that will change everything and help you speak with complete confidence. It’s just four little words. I want you to write them down in big letters, and tape the message to your computer, bathroom mirror, laptop, door or anywhere you’ll see it regularly. Will you do that?”

“Yes,” she agreed, and grabbed her pen.

Then I told her the secret: “IT’S…NOT… ABOUT… YOU.”

She wrote it down, then stared at it, processing its meaning.

“Here’s the key,” I continued. When you present, you’re focus needs to be on customer service. It is your primary responsibility to ensure that the audience has the best experience possible. Do you love your topic or at least think it’s really important? Share that passion with them, and help them understand it.

“Eye contact is your friend. Each person there wants to feel like you’re talking to them personally. Look at each person, all around the room, to let them know that they matter to you, and make them feel like they’re part of the event.”

She was digesting what I was telling her, so I continued. “When you go to hear a speaker, do you sit there critiquing them the whole time, hoping to catch a mistake? Of course not. If they make lots of mistakes or flounder, that makes everyone uncomfortable. You’re just hoping that they’ll be interesting and give you some important information to make it worth your while to have shown up. You are rooting for their success, because if they do well, you’ll have a good experience, which is what you really want in the end. That’s exactly what your audience is hoping for too.”

She was quiet for a moment, so I asked, “How do you feel about that?”

“Honestly?” she said, “As soon as you said it’s not about me, I felt instantly relieved. I can focus on taking care of the audience, because it is important that they feel like they learned something important. Then it’s not about performance perfection, whatever that means. Suddenly, it all seems like a very reachable goal. I know I can do this.”

So take out your “head trash,” and focus on serving your audience. You can start with thinking about what kind of speaker you’d want to listen to if you were in audience, and then work on letting those qualities shine through. Put the audience first, and you’re guaranteed to feel confident and be successful..

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Does your head trash get in your way of being a powerful, confident public speaker? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!

The Value of Vulnerability

Showing vulnerability in order to show strength is an irony many leaders have a hard time grasping.

Naturally, it is important – albeit sometimes difficult – to be vulnerable in our personal relationships. A certain degree of vulnerability is necessary for love and intimacy to be possible. But it is equally as important in developing our professional relationships as well.

I had a client who, as head of the department, was told by her supervisor that she needed to let people get to know her better in order to strengthen team chemistry and trust. For someone whose primary motivation had been to avoid any potential of being seen as “weak,” this was daunting.

“How can I open up to them? I don’t know if I can trust them to see that side of me,” she said.

I replied, “My guess is that they probably feel the same about you. But here’s the thing: When two people each need to receive trust before they’re willing to give it, there’s a stalemate. Eventually, one person has to take the first step, giving the other person the opportunity to demonstrate that they are trustworthy. That unlocks the door to change.”

I’m not saying you have to give them your bank account number and password. Sometimes it’s about laughing at yourself, or letting them know that you’re swamped and need their assistance.

Last week I got a frantic email from a client asking to have a strategy call the next morning before a high-stakes meeting that had just been organized. I wanted to help, but had a logistical challenge, so I told her the truth in full transparency: the only time I could squeeze her in the next morning was 9am, but I would be in ‘mommy mode’ at that time, since I had to take my son for a pediatric checkup at 10, and wouldn’t have childcare at that time. I couldn’t predict what mood he’d be in or how much he would interrupt, but I was willing to give it a try if she was.

Without hesitating, she said, “I’ll take it.”

So at 9am the video call comes in via FaceTime, as usual, but this time I answered in a t-shirt and jeans with my hair pulled back. I hoped she wouldn’t be distracted by my casual appearance. “I think we’re safe – he’s in his highchair and I’m feeding him breakfast, so he’s busy and happy for a while,” I told her.

My willingness to be vulnerable by letting my client see me this way was immediately rewarded.

“Oh, is he there? Can you turn the camera? I’d love to see him.”

I re-angled the camera so my client was face-to-face with the big blue eyes of my son. He stared back at her, curious about face on the screen. And then this high-powered CFO of a multi-billion-dollar company did the best thing possible: she launched straight into full-scale “peek-a-boo” mode.

My son’s face lit up immediately, and he squealed with laughter as played with him. After a moment or two I finally turned the phone back so we could get on with our meeting – and my son’s breakfast. She sighed with a big smile, and said, “That was the perfect antidote to the morning I’ve already had, thank you!”

From there we shifted gears and got down to business. We had each let down our guard with the other and I am sure that we would agree that the experience further strengthened our bond, both personally and professionally.

So once in a while, take a little chance: (metaphorically) play a bit of “peek-a-boo,” and let them see you.

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Do you have other questions or feedback about vulnerability and leadership? If so, contact me at laura@vocalimpactproductions.com or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally!