Are You Flat?

Do you ever feel like an android when you’re giving a business presentation? Your voice sounds filtered and frozen. Slide after slide, you mirror the dominant view that intelligent persuasion has mostly to do with logic and reason. Hooray, rationality! The thinking here seems to be: You want to persuade somebody? Make the best rational argument. Use your three best arguments.

Rationality has brought us a lot of great stuff. Science got us up to the moon and down into the smallest of the most miniscule particles. But we’ve paid a price for all our rationality. Feelings, especially negative feelings, have been sent into the corner of business offices and told to shut up and stay put. Of course, who wants their perfectly rational agenda upset by messy, unreliable feelings? 

Your presentations may be dull because you’re you’re keeping your feelings in check. You’re afraid and ashamed, so you remove yourself from the scene. Your audience experiences this as a kind of monotonous flatness. And so do you! So bring your feelings back into the room. Tell people how you feel about your topic. You don’t have to go into a rant about a lame product idea, or swoon in front of the CEO. Before you present or run a meeting, deal with your anger, shame, guilt, fear and hate. Build your hope, joy, compassion, forgiveness into your next presentation. Tell your audience how much you like an idea, how inspired you are by it, how much it means to you. Tell an emotional story.  Tap into your feelings. Build and include. Widen your tolerance. Expand your creativity. Lift your audience. Objectivity is great, but objectivity tempered with a dose of emotion is even greater.

Fake Happy? Be Happy

In one of my recent presentation skills workshop, fifteen people gave three-minute presentations.  Not one seemed happy. They seemed to take no pleasure in talking about the fascinating stuff they’re working on. These were experts: PhDs in microbiology, pharmacology, biochemistry. Two were physicians. One was a surgeon. Another a widely published neuroscientist.  And yet, they appeared to be talking from a deep well of anxiety and doubt.  None of them smiled. What is going on here?

There’s a host of happiness research that presenters can learn from. Much of it is outlined in a wonderful little book called :59 Seconds: Think A Little Change A Lot (59 Seconds). According to the book, here are three things you can do to engage your audience with happy behaviors:

  1. Smile.  Before you start talking, smile for 15 seconds. Look into the eyes of the audience and smile. I’ve been trying this on the streets of Zurich recently. I smile at complete strangers. I won’t spoil the effect – try it, you’ll see.  If you’re having trouble smiling, imagine a moment that made you smile.
  2. Stand up straight. In research done at the University of Colorado (Not all who stand tall are proud) participants were asked at random to spend three minutes sitting up straight or slumping in their chairs. They all took a math test and were asked to assess their mood. The straight-backers were much happier than the slouchers.
  3. Act happy. Research shows that happy people move in different ways from unhappy people (Achieving sustainable happiness). Watch any presentation: you know within a few seconds who’s happy. Many presenters leave their personalities outside the room. You can get your audience to pay more attention to you by acting happy. Walk to the podium in a more relaxed way. Relax your shoulders. Swing your arms a little more than usual, and stop worrying about them!  Tale with your hands. Reach toward the audience. Nod your head. Use positive words: like, love, fond, enjoy, pleased. Vary the pitch of your voice, the way you might tell a story to a friend in a bar.

It’s Persuasion, Dude

Some managers I know are trapped in old communication approaches: tactical, complicated, top-down, one-way and one-time. “I speak, you listen.” Focused on informing people, not communicating with them.  These approaches come with risks:

  • Ineffective communication may empty your coffers
  • The consequences of poor communication can ripple
  • As the complexity of the 21st century workplace increases, misunderstandings jump
  • Our brains are not wired for complexity

So, here’s what I recommend:They forget … their communication has one purpose: to get results.

  • Ask more than you tell; listen more than you speak.
  • Use two-way communication with everybody, including customers
  • Break down communication barriers
  • Use a wider range of communication approaches
  • Tap informal, innovative communication channels
  • Minimize complexity, build simplicity

Try this little trick: ask your stakeholders how they want you to communicate with them. They might even tell you. And everybody wins.

Listen. Pay Attention.

I’m standing in the changing room of the local indoor pool. A group of schoolboys swarms in. Yelling. Screaming.  “I’m the king of the locker room.” “I’m the king of the swimming pool.” “The shower is mine!”  They drum on the benches, kick the lockers, snap towels, finish each others’ sentences. They jostle each other. If words had elbows, the boys would be covered with bruises. I say, “Please keep it down.” One boy says, “Sorry,” then runs into the showers, and howls, ”I am the king of the universe!” The screams intensify. I rush out to the pool and plunge into the water. Silence!

Why did this scene strike me? The boys were poor listeners. They appeared to be listening, but their internal monologue was saying,  “Me, me, me, it’s all about me.”  We talk to ourselves, according to some estimates, at more than 600 words a minute. We dramatize, get caught up in our emotions. Interrupt. Shut down participation. Make assumptions. We don’t pay attention to our own listening behaviors. Seems to me we’re often listening, not to understand, but to reply. So what should we be doing?

  1. Look people in the eye
  2. Paraphrase, clarify: content and feelings
  3. Watch for non-verbal clues
  4. State your views calmly
  5. Keep an open expression
  6. Check assumptions
  7. Summarize twice in a five-minute conversation

Remember: repeating what someone says word-for-word isn’t active listening. It’s what parrots in Key West, Florida can do: parrot-ing!  Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, said, “We have two ears and one mouth so we will listen twice as much as we talk.”  Managers who want to communicate well should heed this advice.

Keeping It Real

It seems clear,  thanks to the many connections between personal- and neuro-psychology – some  complex processes are at the root of communication.  That won’t surprise you. Effective communication is a two-way process between communicator and receiver that is linked directly with personality. That is, upwards of 60% of your communication impact is determined by your character. The right words from a disingenuous or cynical manager are the wrong words.

Leaders and managers can make use if this knowledge. For one, stop pretending that you can check your personality at the door, or put your emotions in your bottom drawer. Own up to them. How?

  • Get clear about your values.
  • Make sure they’re aligned with your company values.
  • Get clear about your passion and infuse your communication with it.
  • What do you really care about?  Say it. Use “I” statements.
  • Tell personal anecdotes.
  • Be present.
  • Pay attention to the people around you.
  • When you communicate, even by email, bring yourself to the table or keyboard or podium.

Don’t kid yourself: if you’re not working on your emotions, they’re working on you. And the people around you.

Stop Infecting The People Around You

In a recent communication workshop, one participant – we’ll call him Joe Black – comes in late.  He sits in the back. I introduce the day. Mr Black says, I’ve done this before.  His tone says, You’re all fools. His crossed arms say, I want nothing from you.  During the morning, Joachim shoots us critical looks and makes snide remarks. By lunch, we’re grumpy and down. Diagnosis: Joachim has infected us with a case of emotional contagion.

Emotional contagion happens when co-workers “catch other people’s emotions through subconscious mimicry” and think that the emotions are their own. Emotional contagion is the tendency to mimick and synchrnoize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements automatically.  A broader definition of the phenomenon has been suggested by Sigal G. Barsade  – “a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes.”

We need to take emotional contagion seriously. Negativity breaks connections. Hurts performance. If you manage a team, and you worry that the organization is having trouble, or express general fear, anger and anxiety about the economy, your anxiety can spread. Moods can influence our performance and morale as much as words and actions. And moods propagate through the grapevine!

  • How are your own negative emotions and unstated negative feelings affecting the people around you?
  • Is your non-verbal behavior signalling negativity?
  • Is a negative person infecting your team?

When A New Manager Stumbles, Who’s At Fault?

Rafferty Goldstone, the protagonist of this HBR case study, was one of Bulwark Securities’ hottest sales reps, but he dreamed of management. So he was elated when he was chosen to fill a manager’s slot that had opened up on the East Coast. Now, six months later, he’s in deep trouble and doesn’t know where to turn for help. But who’s responsible for Goldstone’s floundering? And can anything be done to direct him down the right path?

When Your Star Performer Can’t Manage

Vic, the CEO of a sporting goods company in this fictional case study, is pleased with the numbers. For several years now, they’ve gone steadily in one direction: up. But there’s trouble in paradise. Hidden from the public’s view of industry-dominating winners–from the coolest snowboards to the hottest in-line skates–lies a product-development department that may be ready to shatter like cheap fiberglass. Carver, the company’s chief of product development, is the workaholic mad genius who is responsible for most–he might say all–of the company’s successful products. At the same time, he has managed to alienate the rest of his staff.

The Case of The Floundering Expatriate

A classic, the case that hundreds of universities and training organizations are still using today.

Frank Waterhouse, CEO of Argos Diesel, Europe, is exasperated. Bert Donaldson, who arrived in Zurich a year ago to create a European team–to facilitate communication among the parts suppliers that Argos has acquired over the past two years–just isn’t working out. Although he has excellent credentials, both as a successful team builder at Argos International in Detroit and as a teacher in Cairo, his style seems abrasive here and he is behind schedule in implementing the team-building program. Moreover, Waterhouse is worried that Donaldson’s failure will reflect badly on himself. But Waterhouse can’t simply fire Donaldson. Donaldson is a smart man with a record of genuine successes in the States. If he gets fired, his career may be destroyed. Further, the CEO of Argos International thinks the world of him and is counting on Waterhouse to make this assignment work. Can Waterhouse teach Donaldson cultural awareness? Can he help him become effective in his job? Waterhouse has scheduled a conversation with Donaldson to discuss the situation. What should he say?

Get It At Harvard Business Review