Exceptional Communicators REFRAME A Conversation. Often.

You know that moment when you feel stuck in a conversation you don’t wish to have, right?

The stomach tightens, the throat feels tense, the mind starts racing. The other person is harping on a point you no longer wish to debate. The vehemence of the individual’s argument is making you uncomfortable. You want to shift gears – but in that moment it just seems impossible.

We could certainly just tell the other person that we don’t want to talk about whatever it is we’re talking about any more. The straight-shooting approach. We could exit the conversation altogether by excusing ourselves. The avoidance approach.

Or we could reframe. Elegantly, invisibly reframe.

An expert reframer takes a comment or idea that’s “on the table” and shifts it in a new direction. S/he does so by asking a question. The question is strategic, and the nature of the question will redefine the flow of the conversation, going forward.

Conflict cannot survive without your participation.”

Dr. Wayne Dyer

The best part of an elegant reframe? The technique we use as we reframe is entirely invisible to the other person. We know that we’re strategically shifting a conversation; our conversation partner merely hears us asking a very pertinent question.

We reframe instinctively all the time. At times we get lucky, and our question really does steer the conversation in a helpful direction. An expert reframer doesn’t rely on luck. S/he knows what sort of reframing techniques work well – and s/he makes a deliberate choice.

Reframing questions are your most powerful tool for shaping ANY challenging conversation. Here are my 4 favorite reframing techniques. There are more, of course.

4 Powerful Reframing Techniques

I live in Hollywood/Florida. In the face of lots of new real estate development, the debates between the development advocates and those who wish to stop new development are fierce and relentless in my town. I will use this context for our reframing examples.

1. Widen the Lens

Sample StatementThere is way too much new building construction going on in our town!  
Reframing QuestionHow does the volume of construction in our town compare to the volume of construction in other large coastal towns around the country?  
BenefitWe take a narrowly focused conversation and invite a broader reflection, with a larger context.  

2. Narrow the Lens

Sample StatementDevelopers just want to make money, and they don’t care about what they destroy along the way!  
Reframing QuestionWhat is one specific example of something a developer has done in our town that does not sit well with you?  
BenefitWe take sweeping generalizations and invite a more focused reflection.  

3. Contemplate the Opposite

Sample StatementAll these new developments change the character of our city and destroy everything that is charming and unique here.  
Reframing QuestionWhat would happen if we stopped all new development and kept things just as they are?  
BenefitWe invite a deeper reflection upon the rationale for a controversial decision or action.  

4. Switch from Problem to Solution

Sample StatementThese new developments are simply not compatible with the character of our town.  
Reframing QuestionWhat changes to zoning or building design would make new development less intrusive to the character of our town?  
BenefitWe stop persistent complaining by inviting helpful and constructive suggestions.  

These techniques look simple in writing – they are a little tougher to execute in the middle of a conversation, on the fly. They will begin to feel more effortless after repeated practice in a whole slew of different situations.

The following tips will help you to reframe with finesse. Remember – there are many situations when your most powerful choice is to claim your perspective and engage in a robust debate. When we reframe, however, we choose to steer away from a conflict or a moment of “feeling stuck.” We decide to not debate the same point, yet again.

Tip #1: Withhold your emotions.

We reframe because we wish to steer a conversation in a new direction. An emotional response to a comment we just heard, a sarcastic aside, a derogatory body movement – they all keep us stuck in the present conversation. Have your emotional response but do not show it when you are reframing.

Tip #2: Don’t regurgitate what has just been said.

You may be highly skilled at paraphrasing, validating or summarizing. These are powerful conversational tools. They do, however, inherently return to something that was just said in the conversation. When you want to shift a conversation, don’t use these techniques. Go straight to your reframing question.

Tip #3: Keep it short.

When we reframe a conversation, we want to do so efficiently. Don’t babble, don’t elaborate, don’t ask the same question three times over. An effective reframing question is succinct.

The reframing techniques we just reviewed are disarmingly simple. Their power rests in the fact that they, when deployed with strategic intent, always change the course of a conversation.

They do it with invisible elegance. Nice, right?

Go ahead, reframe freely. Reframe often. Do it well.

It’s OK To Say I, Not WE. Really!

They told you to never say “I” in a business meeting. Say “We.” Always We.

Ignore them. They are wrong.

They told you that when you say I, it sounds like it’s all about you. Said you would sound like a grandstanding, self-promoting, self-aggrandizing narcissist.

A bit of projection, perhaps?

They are wrong.

Let’s break down the traits of narcissism, shall we! Research conducted at New York University by Pascal Wallisch, Clinical Associate Professor in both NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Data Science (“Journal of Personality and Individual Differences,” March 2021), offers a compelling perspective.

Wallisch’s team surveyed nearly 300 participants - approximately 60 percent female and 40 percent male. It examined Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), conceptualized as excessive self-love and consisting of two subtypes, known as grandiose and vulnerable narcissism.

Specifically, narcissistic behavior was shown to be made up of 4 components:

I loathe narcissism but I approve of vanity."

Diana Vreelands

When I consider these 4 components, I DO think of folks in my professional world who seem to be animated by these drivers. The annoying self-promoters. And I can recognize some of these drivers in myself, as well.

The bulk of narcissists in the NYU study proved to be insecure, or best described by the vulnerable narcissism subtype. Their narcissism was a compensatory mechanism to mask their insecurity. A significantly smaller subset was animated by grandiose narcissism, or a manifestation of what psychologists call psychopathy.       

Please don’t compensate publicly for your insecurities. Be mindful of any tendencies toward grandiosity. But in a business conversation, have the courage to say “I.”

It does not make you a narcissist. Doesn’t imply you don’t value your team.

It DOES mean that in a critical conversation, you fully own your feelings, your messages, your proposals, your ideas, your point-of-view.

You stand behind what you say. I fully own this. I do.

Let’s take a closer look.

Don’t Be …

Fake-Neutral

Going to neutral is a great spiritual practice. Detaching from the drama of what’s going on around us. Understanding that it’s all a game of illusion and projection. Knowing that neutral is our original, primordial state.

Fine. Chances are, you aren’t SO enlightened that you don’t have a thought or perspective on what is being discussed. Pretending you don’t is what I term fake-neutral. Pretending to be more detached than you are is fake-neutral.

Worse yet, you likely have not been hired to be fake-neutral. You have been hired because you have a brain and a perspective on things. Smart business folk know not to always share everything they think. But when they do, they go to “I:”

Here’s what I think. Here’s what I see. Here’s what stands out for me.

A Data Dumper

When we present data to a group of colleagues at a business meeting, it is tempting to harbor the illusion that it’s about the data we present, not about us. WRONG. It is never about the data.

It’s about how we make sense of the data we provide. Our interpretation. Our meaning-making. Our “take” on the data. So please don’t ever, ever be a data dumper. Be a data meaning-maker. That requires you to go to “I.”

Here’s what I think is most important. Here’s what jumps out to me. This is how I suggest we interpret this information.

DO …

Bring Your Whole Self

Your “Whole Self” has thoughts and feelings about pretty much everything. Your diminished Self hides much of what s/he is thinking or feeling. Clear, right? Which Self adds more value to the proceedings in your business?

Bringing your Whole Self does NOT mean over-sharing. Does NOT suggest that we do not have healthy professional boundaries. It DOES suggest that we are conscious of our thoughts and feelings, and that we will, when we sense that speaking up will be beneficial to a proceeding, do so authentically. It means stepping into “I.”

I am worried about. I don’t believe we can. I am enthusiastic about.

Own What You Stand For

You have a point-of-view on things. You have values that matter to you. You have strategies that animate you. Tactics that you believe suck. Again, no need to share everything. No need to shame others. But please, speak up.

Share nothing, and you become the quintessential drone who sounds like an empty vessel – the sort of person you yourself have made fun of and said you’d never become. Own your point-of-view to help the entire team get to a better outcome. And yes, that means going to “I.”

I feel strongly that.  I am confident we can.  I don’t think this approach is the best.

There ARE cultural differences about how we state an opinion, a perspective or a point-of-view. Differences about how acceptable it is to go to the “I.”

I was born in Germany, and German is my first language. I have a distinct memory of older folks in my culture shying away from using the word “I” when stating something personal. They would invariably switch to neutral wording. For example, instead of saying I don’t like to get upset, a German of a certain generation might say ”Man regt sich nicht gerne auf.” One doesn’t like to get upset.

Going to the impersonal. Hiding the “I.”

Respect different cultural norms. The more Senior your role in the business world, however, especially when you work in a global US-centric enterprise, the less you can hide the “I.” When you do, it marks you as a Junior leader.

By all means, acknowledge the contributions of your team. Include a lot of heartfelt “we” language. But please, please own your “I.”

Leave the narcissism at the door.

Use your judgment. And own your “I.”

The Neurobiology of GREAT Business Writing

Does compelling business writing matter anymore? I mean, really matter? In a time of texting, tweeting, keywords, hashtags, tiktok, sound-bites and the rapid-fire scanning of emails – does anyone still care about a well-crafted message?

Ok, that was a hypothetical question.

My friend Damien accepted a new Senior Director of HR role at a biotech company. 6 weeks later, when Denise, Head of HR, called him into her office and informed him that he would be assigned a writing coach, it was clear to Damien – and me – that writing, indeed, still matters. Damien had sailed through 4 rounds of interviews with personal charm and confident answers. Nobody had bothered to check a writing sample.

When Denise broached the topic, Damien felt like a shameful secret had been exposed.

Bill Brichard’s article in The Harvard Business Review got me thinking about all this (Brichard, “The Science of Strong Business Writing,“ July/August 2021). Brichard is a writing coach. His article is chock-full of writing-impact-research-data. Neurobiology supports some of the “good-business-writing-tips” you were likely taught in school. And it held a surprise or two for me.

Good writing, explains Brichard, gets the reader’s dopamine flowing in the area of the brain known as the reward circuit. Great writing releases opioids that turn on reward hot spots. Just like good food, a soothing bath, or an enveloping hug, well-executed prose makes us feel pleasure, which makes us want to keep reading.

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do."

Thomas Jefferson

Think of your writing. Does it get anyone’s dopamine going? Do YOU activate brain hot spots?

Researchers used to believe that the reward circuits which keep a reader engaged respond predominantly to sensory cues. Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist from the University of Michigan, explains that “it’s become clear in the past 50 years from neuroimaging studies that all kinds of social and cultural rewards can also activate this system.”

Whoa. Sounds a little overwhelming, right? Which specific writing techniques truly DO activate the neural wiring in our readers’ brains?

Brichard offers 8 key tips: Writing that is simple, specific, surprising, stirring, seductive, smart, social or story-driven. In the spirit of the first item on Brichard’s list, let me further simplify.

4 Writing Tips That Activate Neural Circuits

Simplicity

It’s the classic. Keep it simple. The neuroscience behind it is entirely common-sense. Simplicity increases what scientists call the brain’s “processing fluidity.” Short sentences, familiar words and clean syntax ensure that the reader doesn’t have to exert too much brainpower to understand your meaning.

Data point after data point proves that it is so. A study conducted by Tsuyoshi Okuhara at the University of Tokyo, for example, gave 400 subjects aged 40-69 material to read about how to exercise for better health. Half received highly detailed and somewhat technical content, the other half received a significantly abbreviated edit of the same material. The group that read the simple version, presented in shorter words and sentences, expressed a lot more confidence in being able to succeed with the suggested behaviors.

Follow the basics, please: Cut extraneous words and use the active voice. Distill to what is truly essential. Discard ancillary information. Your readers’ brain response will reward you.

Surprise

Our brains are wired to make nonstop predictions. This includes guessing the next word in every line of text. Deliver consistently on these predictions, and what is at first comforting can become predictable and dull. Surprise your reader with an unexpected phrase, analogy, word, and the surprise will spike deeper brain engagement.

Research conducted by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman saw the impact of surprising content when they examined nearly 7,000 articles that appeared online in the New York Times. They found that the articles that were rated as surprising were 14% more likely to be mailed to others.

I am not a car geek, but Dan Neil’s lusciously written car columns in the Weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal have me showing up for more, every Saturday. Neil is a master of surprise writing. His 6/17/21 review of the 2022 Porsche 911 GT3 begins as follows: God is my co-pilot but Patrick Long was my navigator. The Porsche factory driver and Le Mans winner was leading me around the Road Atlanta race circuit last week, he in a Porsche 911 Turbo S and I in the latest, most luminous version of the 911 GT3.

Now, I am not obsessed with Porsches and don’t know who Patrick Long is – but darn it, this is the opening of a car review, and it is chock full of surprises. I am fired up to keep reading.

Seductiveness

As humans, we’re wired to savor anticipation. One famous study showed that people are often happier planning a vacation than they are after taking one. Scientists call the reward “anticipatory utility.” Dan Neil’s just-quoted snippet of writing is a fine example of anticipation-in-action. Even though I don’t actually care about Patrick Long, somewhere deep down I wonder what will happen between the author and Patrick Long on the racetrack. The anticipation keeps me reading.

A more mundane way to create anticipation is starting a report or email with a question. Pose your customer problem as a conundrum. Define your product development work as solving a mystery. Put readers in a state of uncertainty so that you can lead them to something better. That is, in fact, how this Post kicked off.

Social Connection

Our brains are wired to crave human connection, even in what we read. Consider a study of reader’s responses to different kinds of literary excerpts - some with vivid descriptions of people or their thoughts, others without such focus. The passages that included people activated the areas of participants’ brains that interpret social signals, which in turn triggered their reward circuits.

In your business writing you likely won’t rely on explicit character development - unless you include a pertinent anecdote or a client case study. But there are other ways of satisfying your readers’ desire to connect with you. There are subtle ways of revealing yourself and inviting your reader into your writing. Think voice, worldview, vocabulary choice, wit, syntax, poetic rhythm. And whenever possible, humanize the matter you’re describing. If you wish to make a point about a supply chain challenge, don’t describe the problem as a “trucking disconnect.” Write instead about mixed signals between the driver and dispatcher.

All writing is craft. Craft can be learned. Improvement comes with intentional practice.

Keep activating your readers’ reward circuits. This is holiday season – a perfect time to do a whole lot of holiday-related writing. The 4 areas I have highlighted – simplicity, surprise, seductiveness and social connection - are a fine place to start.

Funny thing I know as a writer – when I practice my craft with intention, I not only fire up my readers’ reward circuits, I fire up my own. I keep surprising myself. And that is one of our four great writing habits, isn’t it? Oh, what joy.

Seduce Me With Your Language, Please.

We celebrate efficiency.

I love efficiency, too. In work processes. In our choice of language, spoken and written.

Well, quick stop. There are a few exceptions, dear reader. The exceptions apply to the moment when we start a communication. Any communication – a formal presentation, a random conversation, a virtual 1-1.

How often have you sat in a business meeting when Joe jumps right to what I call “procedural language?” Crisp, efficient, spare, with little personal color added. Hi, I’m Joe Petersen, and I’m here to give you an update on our Operational Excellence activities. Here is my agenda …

Efficient, yes. But really, Joe - you sound like a written memo. You expect me to care?

Entice me. Seduce me. Invite me in.

Don’t ever diminish the power of words. Words move hearts and hearts move limbs."

Hamza Yusuf, Neo-Islamic Scholar

Let’s dwell on this formal context for a moment, because the same principle applies to any setting in which we speak, formal or not. In a formal setting, I look for language cues that invite me. Phrases such as I’m happy to speak with you today or I have been looking forward to spending this hour with you or I’m thrilled that you all showed up today.

Basic welcoming words. They make me feel good.

I offer you examples of language that I like and that, depending on the circumstance, I may use. It is language that feels sincere to me when I say it – provided, of course, that it matches my sentiment about the social situation I find myself in.

Please do not use my language. I urge you to find your own words. And stay away from well-trodden cliches like Thank you for taking time out of your busy day. That is not a welcome – it’s a condescending platitude.

2 Types of Invitational Cueing

People with impoverished vocabularies, writes success guru Tony Robbins, love emotionally impoverished lives. People with rich vocabularies have a multihued palette of colors with which to paint their life’s experience, not only for others, but for themselves, as well.

Invitational language is a crucial part of this palette, and emotional cue words are a core ingredient of invitational language.

Yup, good old-fashioned adjectives. The sort of words that we have banished from most transactional communication these days.

There are 2 types of phrases that draw our conversation partner deeper into a conversation. Phrases that I offer at the start of a conversation, as just indicated, and phrases that I say in response to a comment made by another. The sample phrases below are intended as guidance and inspiration.

Phrases that I offer (an invitation that draws the other person in)

Phrases that I say in response (an invitation to a deeper conversation)

Do you read these phrases and think to yourself Huhmmm, I’m not comfortable using that kind of language! I would never say that. That just isn’t me!

Why not flip this line of thinking to I’m not fully comfortable using such language – yet! In my coaching practice, I frequently coach folks who talk too little, folks who talk too much – and folks who use overly fancy language.

Folks who, quite simply, don’t have Tony Robbins’s multihued palette.

Here’s how I explore language with a client. You can easily do this on your own.

Andrea is the Head of US Sales Training for a well-known biotech company. Much of her communication with her team takes place during monthly Zoom calls. Feedback from the team revealed that many folks feel that Melissa isn’t sufficiently engaging during these monthly meetings.

As Andrea and I reviewed this feedback, she observed that she doesn’t really know how to make fully appreciative comments. I realize that all I ever say is ‘That’s great …!’

Little invitation. No seduction.

Andrea’s assignment? Find 8 other ways of saying That’s great and write them down. Intentional vocabulary expansion. Sounds simple, right?

8 phrases are actually a whole lot of language. Andrea came up with 6. But once Andrea started using these 6 phrases in her meetings, she felt a new sense of confidence in responding to the many comments folks made during her monthly calls. Responding became a lot more fun. And this sense of fun was felt by others, immediately.

Go and experiment with verbal cues that invite. Seduce your conversation partners. Your conversations will be immeasurably enriched.

7 Cognitive Distortions That Do NOT Serve You

You and I have been in this moment.

We prepared hard for a presentation. Tweaked it many times over. We were anxious and excited about giving this presentation. We rehearsed. And then, it went nothing as planned.

That was just wonderful, people say to you right afterwards. So clear and so thoughtful.

You immediately think to yourself, Impossible! I know I did terribly. Lucky me, they didn’t realize it. That is your mind leading you into the land of cognitive distortions.

What are cognitive distortions?

A cognitive distortion — and there are many — is an exaggerated pattern of thought that’s not based on facts. It consequently leads us to view things more negatively than they really are.

In a cognitive distortion, our mind convinces us to believe things about ourself and our world that are not necessarily true.

My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened."

Michel De Montaigne.

Mind you, we all succumb to cognitive distortions on occasion. It’s part of the human experience. This happens particularly when we’re feeling down. If we engage too frequently in them, however, our mental health will take a hit. So will our ability to perform effectively.

Once we learn to identify cognitive distortions, we will better know when our mind is playing tricks on us. Then we can reframe and redirect our thoughts so that they have less of a negative impact on our mood and behaviors.

7 common cognitive distortions

In 1976, American psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy, proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions, and in the 1980s, Stanford University psychiatry professor David Burns popularized our understanding of cognitive distortions with several best-selling books.

Very specifically, Burns identified and named the 15 most common cognitive distortions. I will focus on the 7 that you will most likely recognize at once.

Self-examination is the first step toward reversing the negative thinking at the core of these mental patterns.

1. Filtering

Mental filtering is the act of dismissing all positives in a situation and, instead, dwelling on its negatives.

Even if there are more positive aspects than negative in a situation or person, we are prone to focus exclusively on the negatives.

For example, it may be performance review time at your company, and your boss repeatedly compliments your hard work. In the end, she makes one improvement suggestion. You leave the meeting feeling miserable and dwell on that one suggestion all day long.

2. Polarization

Polarized thinking is the act of thinking about ourselves and the world in an “all-or-nothing” way.

When we engage in thoughts of black or white, either/or, with no shades of gray in-between, this type of cognitive distortion controls us.

All-or-nothing thinking usually leads to extremely unrealistic standards for ourselves and others that will affect our relationships and motivation.

You may, for example, have decided to eat healthy foods. But today, you didn’t have time to prepare a meal, so you eat a bacon burger. This immediately leads you to conclude that you’ve ruined your healthy eating routine, so you decide to no longer even try. Your thinking has just set you up for failure.

3. Overgeneralization

When we overgeneralize something, we take an isolated negative event and turn it into a never-ending pattern of loss and defeat.

You may speak up at a team meeting, for example, and your suggestions are not included in the project. You leave the meeting thinking, I ruined my chances for a promotion. I never say the right thing!

Overgeneralization can also manifest in our thoughts about the world and its events. Words like “always,” “never,” “everything,” and “nothing” are frequent in your train of thought.

You may, for example, be running late for work, and on your way there, you hit a red light. You think, Nothing ever goes my way!

4. Jumping to conclusions

When we jump to conclusions, we interpret an event or situation negatively without evidence supporting such a conclusion. Then, we react to our assumption.

For example, your boss comes to a meeting looking serious. Instead of asking how he is, you immediately assume he is mad at you about something. Consequently, you stay curt and aloof. In reality, your partner boss is simply having a bad day.

Jumping to conclusions or “mind-reading” is often in response to a persistent thought or concern of yours. Because your conclusion in unsubstantiated, your behavior, in turn, exacerbates a situation or relationship.

5. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is related to jumping to conclusions. In this case, you jump to the worst possible conclusion in every scenario, no matter how improbable it is.

This cognitive distortion often comes with “what if” questions. What if he didn’t call because he got into an accident? What if she hasn’t arrived because she really didn’t want to spend time with me? What if I help this person and they end up betraying or abandoning me?

Several questions often follow in response to one event. These questions tend to invoke mental paralysis and lead to behavioral inaction.

6. Personalization

Personalization leads us to believe that we’re responsible for events that, in reality, are completely or partially out of our control.

This cognitive distortion often results in us feeling guilty or assigning blame without contemplating all factors involved.

For example, your team member has an accident on the way to a meeting to which you sent her, and you blame yourself for insisting she attend that meeting. Or, you feel that if your partner had woken up earlier, you would have been ready on time for your work.

With personalizing, we take all things personally.

7. Control fallacies

The word fallacy refers to an illusion, misconception, or error.

Control fallacies can go two opposite ways: You either feel responsible or in control of everything in your and other people’s lives, or you feel you have no control at all over anything in your life.

You, for example, couldn’t complete a report that was due today. You immediately think, Of course I couldn’t complete it! My boss is overworking me, and everyone was so loud today at the office. Who can get anything done like that?

This is an external control fallacy. You place all control of your behavior on someone else or an external circumstance. The other type of control fallacy is based on the belief that your actions and presence impact or control the lives of others. You may, for example, believe that your behavior vis-à-vis a colleague make him happy or unhappy. You think that all of their emotions are controlled directly or indirectly by your behaviors.

How we stop cognitive distortions

Try to remember that, in many instances, it’s not the events but your thoughts that upset you. You might not be able to change the events, but you can work on redirecting your thoughts.

Small changes can be helpful. Here are some tips:

Think about your thoughts. If an event is upsetting you, step away from it if you can and try to focus on what you’re telling yourself about the event.

Replace absolutes. Once you focus on your thoughts and recognize a pattern, consider replacing statements such as “always” and “nothing” with “sometimes” and “this.”

Define yourself and others. Try labeling the behavior. Instead of labeling yourself “lazy” because you didn’t clean today, consider: “I just didn’t clean today.” One action doesn’t have to define you.

Search for positive aspects. Even if it’s challenging at first, what if you find at least three positive examples in each situation. It might not feel natural, but eventually, it may become a spontaneous habit.

Look for evidence.  Before concluding, consider asking, investigating, questioning yourself and others to ensure you have as many facts as possible. If you can, make an extra effort to believe these facts.

And this list, dear reader, is NOT a cognitive distortion.

Don’t Think of Small Talk as SMALL Talk

I hate small talk.

I used to think that. Used to say it out loud. And I have clients who say this to me all the time.

I hate to make small talk.

We understand this, right? I don’t like to waste my time. We have so much important stuff to talk about. We have a very packed agenda. Why spend time, well, talking about frivolous things?

And yet, the expectation in any business conversation these days is that we start with a bit of small talk. We don’t leap into any meeting – virtual, in-person - with Agenda item #1 right away. We warm up. We ease in. And now that you’re back in the office, once in a while – there’s the hallway chat. The elevator chat.

Small talk. The phrase itself sounds pejorative, doesn’t it? Trivial. Irrelevant. Small. Doesn’t matter.

It’s a byproduct of a cultural lens that believes all time needs to be used productively. That the nonproductive use of time is wasted time. There are other cultural lenses, of course. These lenses are dominant in large swaths of the world. They value social pleasantry and conversation over efficient agenda-run-throughs. That affirm that we won’t get to step 2 without hanging out in step 1.

Step 1 being small talk.

To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of culture, which depends on the quality of relationships, which depends on the quality of conversations."

Judith Glaser, Author of Conversational Intelligence

Time to up-end some of our notions of small talk, don’t you think? Let’s consider 3 conversational delineations as outlined by the renowned Judith Glaser, author of “Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust & Get Extraordinary Results.”

Level I: Transactional Conversations.

We exchange information, updates, and facts that help us align our realities or confirm that we are on the same page. There is not a lot of trust, and we focus more on what we need to get from each other.

Level II: Positional Conversations.

What is this about, really? I can have a tough conversation with a colleague who matters little to me but fear having it with a friend? A difficult chat with a friend creates greater discomfort even though I have a relationship that supposedly involves shared history, honesty and trust?

Level III: Transformational Conversations.

Marked by “Share and Discover” dynamics. When I share first, my brain receives a cue that I will be vulnerable with you and that I will open up my inner thoughts, ideas, and feelings. You receive the signal that I will be open to your thoughts, ideas, emotions.

Small Talk, at its very best, is neither transactional nor positional. It is a Level III Conversation. It has the potential to be the highest, or deepest, way of engaging with another human.

Because our conversation can go absolutely anywhere.

Let’s look at how most virtual business conversations start. Zoom, Google Meetings, or Webex link up with each other. A video screen pops up. More often than not, the other person is fiddling with their audio. And then, of a sudden, we’re audio- and video-connected.

And we dive into Small Talk. Consider the following prototypes of what is likely to happen in the first 60 seconds of small talk.

We Declare "How We're Doing."

It's totally automatic, isn't it? Without much thought, we ask How are you doing? or How's it going? More often than not, we turn this question and subsequent answer into a platitude that means nothing. We make it truly small. We choose to hide. Don't. Why not be truthful?

The judgment I make is that no one wants to truly know how I'm doing today. The other person has made the same judgment. What is really going on and how we really feel - frustrated, exhilarated, tired, energized, overwhelmed - is not to be mentioned. We keep the lid to a more honest revelation tightly shut. Why? What could be an exchange of empathy or shared experience is never allowed to happen. Allow it.

We Notice the Moment.

The video turns on, and you may find your conversation partner in an unusual setting. You may be in a setting the other person has never seen. You may spot an unusual object, a surprising artifact in the frame. Your colleague may look different to you just because the lighting in that very moment is different. That's fodder for conversation. Because it's staring at you and screaming, acknowledge me.

I was chatting about these little observations with Jeannie, a client. Jeannie described a moment when she facilitated a sales meeting with her global team, and she noticed that Phil from the UK was wearing a really funny sweater. "I wanted to comment on the sweater," Jeannie says to me, "but then I decided not to. I thought that might be too personal." Why, I thought to myself? If Phil wears a funny sweater he wants you to notice the sweater. It's almost rude to not acknowledge the sweater. What marvelous stories may be lurking behind that sweater?

We Widen the Context

There is so much going on in everyone's immediate world, every day. What's going on need not necessarily be talked about. Understood. But why not at least open the possibility of "going there?" Instead of asking How are you doing?, consider asking How are things in Hollywood? A wider frame. If I want to walk through the Hollywood door with you (that is where I reside), we suddenly have a richer and more nuanced start to our conversation.

I began a call with my client Steve the other day with "How are things in Phoenix?" Steve responded by sharing his frustrations with the noise of new construction happening on his block. This allowed me to tell Steve about the new development going on in my part of Hollywood, and my involvements as the Board member of my neighborhood civic association. My question prompted a richly personal start to our conversation. This start, of course, elevated the entire rest of the conversation!

Don’t just talk about nothing. Talk about something.

Small talk = human connection. Or, to be clear, the opportunity for human connection. Why would we squander that opportunity?

Judith Glaser got this right. Transformational conversations are the richest and most potent conversations that we can have with another human. They are marked by a "share and discover" dynamic. And that's what happens in conscious Small Talk.

So please, let us discover. Small Talk, anyone?

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The Case for Less Vulnerability

I hate the word ‘vulnerability,’ she says to me.

Meredith Is the Chief Operating Officer of a sprawling global manufacturing enterprise. She climbed the ranks in male-dominated companies and is now the highest-ranking female executive in her field, anywhere. Meredith has been supremely successful and produced results.

And suddenly Meredith is told that she is just a little too buttoned-up. That she needs to “be more vulnerable.”

Emma Goldman’s brilliant article in The New York Times got me thinking about all of this (Goldman, “When Your Boss Is Crying, but You’re the One Being Laid Off,” 8/24/22). After decades of leadership classes where executives are told that to be effective, they need to share more of their feelings and private lives with their teams, it is easy to see why some leaders are increasingly confused about how much sharing is helpful.

Is simply doing a good job not enough?

Take the individual referenced in Goldman’s headline. Braden Wallake, 32, Head of a small Sales and Marketing company, recently had to lay off 2 of his 17 employees. Braden prides himself on being emotionally in-touch.

Moments after he had laid off his 2 employees, Braden started sobbing. He could not imagine hiding this emotional response. He took a photo of his teary-eyed self, posted it on LinkedIn, and added the following commentary:

I just want people to see that not every CEO out there is cold-hearted. I know it isn’t professional to tell my employees that I love them. But from the bottom of my heart, I hope they know how much I do.

The backlash was swift and instant. Over 10,000 comments. Wait a minute, dude – you’re laying off 2 people and it’s all about YOUR emotions?

When is sharing over-sharing? When do your emotions become an exercise in narcissism?

Goldman also tells the tale of Ryan Caldbeck, 43, the former CEO of financial technology company CircleUp. Caldbeck has wrestled with finding the balance between delivering a clean business message and oversharing.

There was a time when I went into work, Caldbeck tells Goldberg, and in a meeting, we were going around the room saying how was your weekend, and I said, ‘Oh, I got in a difficult fight with my wife.’ Everyone’s mouth dropped. I realized I went too far. That wasn’t appropriate. That’s not how you show vulnerability at work.

Nancy Rothbard, a professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has studied emotions in the workplace. Her surveys show that many people tend to prefer segmenting their professional and personal lives instead of integrating them. But in the time of “bring your Whole Self to work,” they feel they don’t have a choice.

Is this focus on vulnerability and expressing emotions a primarily American obsession? Brown and Goleman are both esteemed American academics. In Germany, where I was born, we used to joke that Americans will tell you their innermost secrets at the drop of a hat. Are we merely cajoling the rest of the world to fall in line with an American cultural bias?

I like a leader who knows how to be appropriately vulnerable. I believe in showing more of who we are, not less. This is stuff we grapple with in my Executive Coaching practice, all the time. I also have empathy for those leaders who don’t have a great desire to share all that much of their personal lives at work.

Here are some considerations around how much to share in a culture that wants to know all of you:

Your Personal Vulnerability Barometer

Consider Context

There is the simple check-in at a meeting, a la Ryan Cladbeck. There is the hallway chit-chat. There is the more expansive conversation over a business dinner. A $5 question does not warrant a $50 answer. If you can, avoid going “personal heavy” in response to a $5 question. Share the more deeply personal information in a 1-1 conversation, not a light group chat. There will be more psychological safety for you and the person receiving your information.

Conversely, have the courage to have the $50 conversation over a more expansive dinner. Don’t force it. Sense the mood of the group you’re with. If you, however, consistently stick to light banner in a more socially substantive forum or purely workplace topics, you run the risk of being dismissed as a lightweight. The $5 player with no depth.

Consider Impact on Others

If you have an inkling that you’re about to share something personal that feels risky, consider these questions: Will it make others squirm? Will they feel like they need to take care of me? Or will my comment perhaps open the door to greater common ground that has not previously been expressed?

Sometimes I think life is not worth living is a fleeting thought you may have had in recent weeks. There is a lot on your plate. You are experiencing a high level of stress – but you’re certainly not feeling suicidal. Expressing this sentiment will be authentic, yes. It may be best expressed to a loved one who you’re very close to or a mental health professional. At work, it will likely trigger alarm and a high degree of concern, as well as the feeling that nobody can really help you.

Consider your Comfort Level

When we toil in a vulnerability culture, it is easy to compare and despair. Marcia talks so freely about her interests and adventures outside of work. You and everyone else feel like they really know Marcia. Her sharing feels effortless and unforced. Marcia is hugely popular. And you’re NOT Marcia.

Self-expression exists on a continuum, as so many things in life do. If you’re in a comparison mode, you may think of Marcia as a 9 on a scale of 1 -10 when it comes to her level of self-expression and personal vulnerability. You see yourself as perhaps a 4. You’re a little envious of Marcia.

Good news – there is no need for you to be a 9. But if you decide that perhaps you’d like to show up as a 6 or a 7, consider what other parts of you might be Ok to share in a professional setting. You get to decide. You get to do it on your terms. You get to experiment. Once you think of it with this level of intention, you may be surprised at how easy it is to take more social risks that actually feel comfortable.

Consider your Personal Brand

I think of “Personal Brand” as a slightly retro term from a GE culture. Here’s what I like about the term: It invites us to contemplate how we would like to show up around others and how we’d like them to perceive us. It challenges us to make personal choices to this effect. These choices are not about “acting fake” or “being inauthentic.” They are about choice. Personal choice.

Folks at work may see you as dedicated, hard-working, motivated and very athletic. You love to talk about your exercise regimen and your commitment to healthy eating. Great. That’s a compelling personal brand – and likely a little safe. Perhaps you’re also interested in metaphysical literature? Perhaps you’re proud of having overcome different sorts of adversities in your life? Perhaps you’re engaged in powerful community service work that feels like the very opposite of what you do at work?

Wonderful. You don’t NEED to talk about any of that at work. But when you do, your Personal Brand expands. It becomes a more complex brand. And likely a brand that connects with a lot more folks. It’s not a brand that tells everything. It’s a brand with personal boundaries. And it’s a brand you get to own.

Meredith ended up reading Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead.” She found it to be a valuable book.

We dropped the word “vulnerability” from our conversations altogether We decided that it was perhaps not the most helpful word.

But Meredith saw that being more of herself at work, in a contextually helpful way, served her. It took a lot less effort. And it served others. They felt more connected to Meredith.

Sometimes all we have to do is get out of our own way.

The Skillful Art of Saying NO

I love eating sushi at a sushi bar. It’s about the sushi, of course. But it’s in equal measure about the chit-chat with fellow sushi lovers sitting at the counter.

Early Friday evening, as I sit at the counter of Sozo Sushi in Ft. Lauderdale, I drift into a chat with Andy, the fellow sitting to my right. Andy, it turns out, is the just-retired CEO of a well-known Fortune 500 recruitment firm.

Do you miss your work? I ask Andy

I hated the politics of my job, Andy answers circuitously.

So what kind of guidance would you give another executive on how to navigate politics? I persist

I’m the wrong person to ask, Andy says sheepishly. I was horrible at it. He pauses, and then he volunteers: Learn to say NO and make them feel like they won!

Andy’s comment makes me think of William Ury, co-founder of The Harvard Negotiation Project, a co-author of the classic “Getting to Yes” as well as his own “The Power of a Positive No.”

Every day we find ourselves in situations where we need to say NO, Ury asserts in “The Power of the Positive No,” to people at work, at home, and in our communities; because NO is the word we must use to protect ourselves and to stand up for everything and everyone that matters to us. Ury emphasizes the personal price of not saying NO. In today's world of high stress and limitless choices, the pressure to give in and say yes grows greater every day, producing overload and overwork, expanding e-mail and eroding ethics. Never has NO been more needed. 

So how DO we turn a NO and a perhaps undesired perspective into a WIN? Certainly not by spinning it or spouting a bunch of platitudes, like an unskilled politician. No, we do it by skillfully shaping the conversation so the other person’s perspective is invited to shift. When we do it well, NO suddenly seems like the only possible outcome. And the other individual gets to own the NO.

Easy? Nope. But when it works, the other person will be so grateful to you for your NO. Consider the following ways of presenting a NO that will make the person feel like s/he just got a YES.

4 Ways of Framing Your NO

1.    Create a trade-offs narrative.

The boss who loves your work will always be inspired to put more work on your plate. Not because she is mean. No - because he deeply values the quality of what you do. And while they have a vague sense that you already have a lot on your plate, they don’t know how to fully put themselves in your shoes. That’s where you need to “help them out.”

This project sounds really exciting. And I can see how critical it is to our innovation initiatives. I would love to work on it – and this would mean that I will need to put the integration initiative with our two recent acquisitions on the backburner for a couple of months. Will that work for you?

2.    Articulate a powerful context for your NO.

It can be difficult to oppose a new business initiative that sounds enticing to others. Chances are, those others have done their due diligence, crunched the numbers, conducted a risk analysis – and all of this has further fueled their enthusiasm.

Business is full of initiatives that were fueled by leaders who had blind spots. Their blind spots prompted them to minimize potential challenges; it perhaps prevented them altogether from shining light on a potential challenge. Have the courage to broaden their context when your instinct says NO. Your courage may indeed nudge them toward your NO.

Saying NO right now will save us countless headaches and ensure we don’t take ill-considered risks. It will force us to focus more fully on what we actually do best and improve this core rather than getting distracted by a shiny new object. By not doing this deal now, we will have plenty more cash and energy on hand for other deals that will likely be a lot more rewarding for us.

3.    State the benefits of making an exception.

You have heard the calls for standardizing policies, processes, procedures. It’s a well-intentioned desire for clarity and predictability. But you want to scream NO. You view such standardizations as a vehicle that squelches agility, experimentation, innovation. So say NO – gently.

By not making this policy uniform and allowing one business unit to follow different guidelines, we can actually better measure the impact of this new initiative. We will have a comparison study that will yield powerful data. We can always turn this temporary NO into a YES later and will then be armed with better information.

4.    Shift their time perspective.

Every person who pitches you an idea is motivated by an either short-term or long-term outlook. When your instinct is to say NO, notice their time perspective and switch it up: If the other person is fixated on a short-term gain, offer a long-term perspective that makes a NO right now sound like the most prudent choice. If the other person is fixated on making a long-term play, offer clear evidence why your particular NO right now will open the door to better paths toward long-term success.

I understand how appealing this opportunity is. It could be a true game-changer for our business in the long run. Please consider, however, how under-resourced we are right now. Asking folks to work even harder and make more sacrifices in the short-term is, in my opinion, simply not realistic. I’m afraid we will lose way more of our work force than we can handle. We will never get to the appealing outcome. I fear we will fold.

Popular wisdom suggests that we not utter the word NO when we mean NO. Reconsider this dictum.

The depth of our relationship with the other person, and the urgency of the circumstances, will define how explicit our NO will be. A clearly stated NO, coupled with our ability to shift another person’s perspective, is the ultimate relationship WIN. Because we have played above board, and we have done so with skill, there really is no hidden politics at play. Chances are, we gain more respect in the other person’s eyes. We have grown our personal influence and earned the right for future NOs.

My friend Marc Rubin, strategy consultant, used to remind his clients that successful strategy is about what we say NO to. I concur.

Be a little more strategic. Have the courage to say NO more often.

Do it with a measure of skill.

How To Be DIRECT Without Pissing People Off

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-Pacific colleagues never say what they really think. A Japanese 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 …

Your ability to communicate with others will account for 85% of your success in your business and in your life.” 

Brian Tracy, motivational speaker

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 receive 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 this memo works for you as well – consider it a Memo to YOU.

5 Keys To Direct Communication That Works

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.

2. 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.

3. 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. We become self-righteous. A vicious cycle. It’s brutal. Brevity, please.

4. 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.

5. 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 publicly 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 last Friday. But I’m relieved that I considered my Directness Checklist again. A crucial tune-up.

I need it ever so often.

The Benefits of Revealing the TRUTH

Congressional hearings are a fascinating social playground.

Individuals are asked questions. Under oath. They make choices about how they answer.

I watch, with keen interest, how this social dynamic plays out in the current January 6 hearings. And I find myself thinking about how you and I respond to questions in our everyday professional lives. Hopefully, not under oath.

When someone asks you a direct question about something potentially embarrassing or uncomfortable, is it best to tell the truth or better to withhold information?

If you have been trained by a media consultant, you have likely been taught to pivot and deflect. Think again.

The findings on this matter by Leslie K. John, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, offer a clue. John’s research was published in an article in PNAS, the Review Journal of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences (Leslie K. John et al, Hiding Personal Information Reveals the Worst, 1/11/2016).

In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

George Orwell

John’s research confirms what many of us, on a gut level, know to be true but often find difficult to practice. Via a series of 7 compromising scenarios, John’s research divides folks into “revealers” and “hiders.”

Down the line, revealers fared better than hiders. They did so in startling ways.

In a Job Interview

Consider a job interview situation. Research participants were made to choose between two candidates who were asked, “What is the lowest grade you ever received on a final exam in school?” The hider checked “choose not to answer” while the revealer indicated a grade of F.

The researchers found that 89% of participants would hire the revealer over the hider, even though when asked, they guessed the numerical grade of the hider was likely higher than that of the revealer.

On a Date

126 participants were asked to choose who they would rather date based on two potential candidates’ answers to a questionnaire that included items such as “Have you ever neglected to tell a partner about an STD you are currently suffering from?” and “Have you ever had a fantasy about doing something terrible (i.e. torturing) to somebody?”

John found that 64% of people said they would rather date someone who responded “frequently” to those questions; just 36% said they would rather date the person who checked “choose not to answer.”

“That, to me, is crazy,” John said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times. “The preference for someone who divulges information is so strong that people actually prefer someone that they know has the worst values as an attribute over someone who only in the worst-case scenario is that bad.”

We yearn for folks who’re telling the truth, even if the truth isn’t pretty.

Every Day At Work

John’s research examines situations in which we are asked a direct question. The implications of her findings, however, transcend this narrow construct. No, it doesn’t behoove us to run around and indiscriminately self-disclose. Yes, context matters. But it is imperative that we stay mindful of the implications of not disclosing.

In case of doubt, tell the truth.

If telling the truth involves thoughts about another person, tell without hurting the other. But be a revealer, even if what you are revealing creates a bit of discomfort for you. Considered self-revelation is a WIN. It makes us more appealing. It makes us more trustworthy. Hiding gets us nowhere.

When observers are made to realize that a person has failed to reveal information, John writes in her PNAS article, they will be quick to make dispositional inferences about that person’s character. Previous research has documented that people readily draw personality inferences about others based on extremely minimal information. In cases of nondisclosure, we suggest that people infer withholders to be untrustworthy. Because trustworthiness is a desirable trait, we predict that those who divulge information – even extremely unsavory information – will be liked more than those who conceal.

If being a trusted colleague and advisor matters to you, choose to divulge, whenever you can.

In the end, telling the truth feels so much better anyway, doesn’t it?