The Power of 3s

I used to resist simplistic communication rules. I have come to realize they work.

Many moons ago, I worked as a Master Trainer for Langevin Learning Services, the largest Train-the-Trainer company in the world. One communication principle we taught our clients was the Memory Rule of 7. The Memory Rule of 7 suggests that 7 points, 7 tasks, 7 quick ideas are the limit of new information the human brain can absorb in one sitting. Present more, and the brain shuts down and won’t remember what was presented.

Hey, what is this rule? An old-wives tale? Was there research done to validate this principle?

I don’t know. But I know the Memory Rule of 7 works. If you don’t wish to overload any audience with too much information, stop before you pile on more new information. Ask a question. Encourage reflection. Pause.

Make it stick before you move on.

Let’s take a look at the Power of 3s. I was flipping through one of my favorite communication books, Connie Dieken’s “Talk Less, Say More.” I stumbled onto her pages about the Power of 3s, and I immediately thought to myself, YES. Yes. Yes.

If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”

Winston Churchill

Marketers know about the 3s. When you check out a book on Amazon, Amazon immediately shows you their “frequently bought together” offer. The book you’re looking at, bundled with 2 other books. Yup. 3.

Eager to enhance your impact on your audience? Wish to activate quicker action in your audience? Think the Power of 3s.

Here are some specific ways in which you can apply the Power of 3s in your business communications.

1. Offer 3 options.

Want to drive a team toward making a decision? Frame it by offering 3 potential paths forward. We could hold the retreat in New York, in Dallas, or in San Diego! Offer no option, and you may be perceived as controlling and non-collaborative. Not interested in the thoughts of others. Offer a binary choice, and yes, you have opened the door to a discussion. Offer 3 options, and we suddenly feel like we have some real choices.

Offer 4 or more, on the other hand, and our conversation is much more likely to get lost in the weeds. It will take a lot longer, the decision will be harder. Way harder.

2. Repeat it 3 times.

Writers know about the rhythmic power of 3’s. Be bold. Be brave. Be free. A classic slogan. 3 statements. They have structural repetition. Catchy and memorable.

Similarly, the verbal repetition of a key call to action works well when repeated 3 times. I know we can do this. Offer some elaboration. Then, again, I know we can do this. More elaboration. I know we can do this.

Say it 10 times? Your audience will likely think oh, shut up already. Overkill destroys impact.

3. Present 3 categories.

When you’re constructing a slide and have a set of complex information or data to present, try consolidating this information into 3 categories, 3 columns, or 3 boxes if you can. It’s the same principle we’ve already reviewed. 3 is manageable. 3 does not overwhelm. 2 may feel too simplistic if the message involves complexity. More than 3 can seem daunting.

3 makes me want to tune in. More than 3 makes me want to tune out.

When sub-organizing your categories, think 3 bullet points, as well. 3 will force you to prioritize. If I only have 3, what’s the most pressing information that I need to include? And when you list 3, even if you don’t number your 3’s as I have just done in this text, lead with the most important item. Because that’s where our attention goes first.

I had a meeting with a new coaching client a couple of weeks ago. A colleague in her firm who knows her well said to me casually: When she talks it feels like a verbal assault.

Ouch. That’s not the sort of feedback you or I want. A verbal assault, no matter how impassioned, has little impact.

I have a hunch she and I will start with The Power of 3’s.

Simple. Clean. Time-tested.

Consider it, won’t you!

How A Shark Spots Talent

Barbara Corcoran gets it, I think to myself.

Corcoran is a judge on the tv program “Shark Tank,” mega-entrepreneur, and a legend in Manhattan real estate. And she “gets” the how-I-know-I-want-you-on-my-team considerations.

When Corcoran hires she doesn’t read the resume until after the first conversation. Doesn’t use the HR lingo of leadership competencies or career ladders. According to Corcoran, 90 % of successful people in the workplace have 3 distinct qualities. These qualities she wants.

Every artist was first an amateur.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Be forewarned. Corcoran’s filters may sound fluffy to you. A little “feminine.” I think Corcoran’s got it 100 % right.

Ms. Corcoran’s Talent Filters

1. The Light is on. I just look for the light in the person, to see what’s good about them, Corcoran told the wonderful Adam Bryant of The New York Times 7 years ago (NY Times Business Section, 6/4/2017). I can spot it a mile away.

The light, you wonder? What the heck is Corcoran talking about? I use the very same phrase to describe the people I meet. The light is on – in my world it means you emanate a sense of passion. You’re conscious of the words you speak. You are effortlessly animated. You lead with a smile. And you sincerely wish to speak with me.

2. The Person is happy. Because unhappy people don’t accomplish a lot, Corcoran affirms. Amen. Unhappy folks tend to not telegraph their unhappiness in a business conversation. It will slip out sideways. The dismissive comment. The sarcastic aside. The finding-fault-in-others. The permanently furrowed brows. Yes, folks don’t wear their unhappiness on their sleeves. The signals will be there. Notice. And notice the absence of joy, as well.

3. They have energy. It means your energy is palpable as I meet you. It is kinesthetically palpable – I sense physical energy, and I sense that this energy is not just an act. Not fake, put-on energy. No, your energy is connected to your deepest desire to get things done. This desire is supported by the language you use as you speak. Your language is robust and energizing and infused by the deep conviction that obstacles will be surmounted and success awaits. Your physical, mental and verbal choices energize me.

Yup. Corcoran screens for the intangibles. Her filters are a quest for clear evidence of a positive attitude. Corcoran’s biggest turn-off?

The minute I make a deal with someone, Corcoran says as she talks about the folks she has invested in on Shark Tank, I put a photo of them in a matted frame on my wall. They look beautiful. They’re like my kids on the walls.

But the minute I hear them sounding like a victim on the phone I hang up, walk over to the wall and I flip their picture upside-down. They’ll never succeed. Victims don’t succeed.

Barbara Corcoran knows. Don’t be fooled by credentials. Always, always, always hire for positive attitude. Learn to read the signals quickly. And ask yourself: Do I pass the Barbara Corcoran test?

If the answer is NO – get to work. Because Barbara knows.

When You Are Triggered, Take 3

This is just another week of war in the world, violence where we don’t normally see it, lies and more unethical behavior exposed. Public discourse got more heated than it had already been. Even if you tried to avoid the coverage, chances are you watched. And, pardon the gun metaphor – you got triggered. I got triggered. You bet I did. 

There’s having a reaction. There’s being triggered. 

I have a point of view. Based on my values, my narratives about a person, a party, the world. I react. And I react with at times strong emotion. 

And yes, then there’s being triggered. A whole other stratosphere of reaction. Think of triggered as a reaction on steroids. Boiling hot emotion. Eruptive and enraged. Outsized. Coupled with obsessive thoughts that I seem incapable of letting go.

For every minute you remain angry, you give up 60 seconds of peace.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Here’s the gift of the triggered response. Yup, really – there IS a gift. The severity of our triggered response often points to our own personal shadow. That is the dark side we try to hide. The side of ourselves we may not actually be conscious of. The side that consistently gets us into trouble because, well, we like to think it simply isn’t there.

Because we’re more perfect than others. Morally superior to others. Because the dark side isn’t pretty. 

There were many reasons to feel strong emotions last week. Here is what triggered looks like at work: We vilify a certain colleague. We rage in silence during a meeting we can’t stand. We complain incessantly behind the scenes about everything that’s wrong. We cut corners to beat the system.  

Triggered. And squarely in our dark side.   Not paying attention to the dark side is a vicious derailer in our professional lives. So, accept the gift. When you find yourself triggered at work, think of it as the shadow calling you to lift your leadership game. Lift the game by asking 3 simple Trigger-Point Questions:

My THREE Trigger-Point Questions

What am I feeling right now?

This may sound simple. Don’t we usually know what we’re feeling? Well, actually, most of the time we don’t. Especially when we’re triggered, we get so caught up in our obsessive responsive that we’re unaware of the intensity of our reaction. By naming what we feel – I am enraged, I am insulted, I am furious – we direct the attention away from the external trigger back to us. Because that is where we ultimately play, or possibly lift, our game

What core beliefs do I hold dear?

The severity of my response to you is likely triggered by my perception that you are violating one or several of my core beliefs. People should be honest. Policies should be fair. A leader should be empathetic. A decision should be just. Everyone’s opinion should be valued. And so on and so on.It’s great to claim the core belief. Claiming it helps us to connect the dots between emotions that seem to run away with us, and our core that ignites the severity of our response. It also begs the question: Does someone else have a different core belief? And as indignant as I may be – what might be their reason for embracing such a different belief?

When has MY behavior not been aligned with my core beliefs?

When we ask this question honestly, the answer likely is often, a lot, on a daily basis. Be specific in your answer to this question. Answer it without beating yourself up. Notice your desire to, even here, want to cover up the dark side. Don’t. Scrupulous honesty with ourselves has two powerful impacts: It lessens the severity of our triggered responses. And it shows us at once where we can lift our everyday leadership behavior. One conscious choice, once conscious behavior at a time. It’s that simple. 

Have your reactions. Notice when you’re triggered. We’re in a year when we will likely be triggered again and again. The gifts will keep on coming, and our personal leadership lessons are endless.  

Choose to learn. Own your game. The 3 Trigger-Point Questions will help you do just that. 


I like to talk. I have been known to over-talk.

It’s what happens when I go to the dark side. I have a strong point of view and I will let you know. And darn it, sometimes you don’t respond. My unchecked instinct is to keep talking UNTIL YOU DO RESPOND. The more I talk, the more impassioned I tend to get, the more stone-faced you will become.

Not pretty.

I’m in the midst of conducting 360 feedback interviews on behalf of Mike, SVP of Supply Chain for a global manufacturing enterprise. I think of my own character defect as I listen to the feedback. He lobbies too hard. He doesn’t know when to stop. He needs to shut up.

When I check in with Stephanie, the CHRO in Mike’s business, she says to me tongue-in-cheek: Things are going well with Mike. He hasn’t bothered me with anything.


When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”

Dalai Lama

Being habitually silent certainly does not work in a business meeting. We abdicate our ability to influence. We stifle our voice.

Also not pretty.

Choosing to shut up when we really long to talk is at times the most inspired choice. Silent not because we are afraid to talk. Silent because our silence will advance the conversation.

How do we know when it’s time to shut up? Here are 4 simple considerations.

1. Does it need to be said?

Whenever you have a compelling urge to speak, especially when you know that your conversation partners may have a strong reaction to what you will say, do a gut check. Ask yourself these 2 questions:

If your answer to both questions is an unequivocal YES, say it. If not – it may be time to shut up.

2. Has it already been said?

If someone else has already said it, I don’t need to say it again. If I have already said it, I don’t need to say it again. Trust that ONCE IS ENOUGH. Repeating the same old point again, no matter how passionate you are about it, is a surefire way of giving up your social influence.

It can be helpful to be an ally to someone who has already spoken. When you speak because you wish to be an ally, keep it brief. Say it in your own words. Add to what the other person has already said. Because otherwise, it may be time to shut up.

3. Can I say it succinctly?

Here are 2 little guidelines to gauge an optimal level of conversation-contribution:

Even if the point you wish to make is complex, don’t unload all of the complexity on me at once. Deliver complexity one message at a time. 4 sentences or less.

If you can’t break it down for me, it may be time to shut up.

4. Will it deepen commitment?

The biggest reason to NOT shut up is when I am certain that my speaking has the potential to invoke a deeper commitment to a course of action. Deeper commitment is rarely stirred by sharing more data or passionately stating my point-of-view. Chances are others have already done so. Commitment is more likely invoked by a powerful image, a metaphor, a surprising gesture that stirs the soul.

Don’t have a metaphor handy? Can’t think of a surprising gesture? Silence may be your golden choice. More blabber rarely is.

When I first worked as a corporate trainer, back in the late 90s, I was mentored by two very different colleagues. Helen was a diva. She could spin circles around a message and was frequently entertaining. Helen held her conversational space well. Antonio was a master-distiller. He could convey a message in a sentence. The message was always essential. Simple and clear. Deep.

Antonio knew when to shut up. And when he spoke, it mattered. Antonio was the brilliant one.

Habitual silence renders us impotent. Strategic silence accelerates our social influence.

Be the brilliant one. Learn to distill. Know when to shut up.

How ACTIVE IS Your ACTIVE Listening?

I felt inadequate. Like, really inadequate.

Jack was one of my first executive coaching clients, many moons ago. In one of our initial sessions, Jack kept describing a specific dilemma he was facing. The situation that troubled Jack was “way out of my league.” Jack was speaking about nuances and contingencies I did not understand. A little voice in my head kept whispering say something, say something. I chimed in a few times, asked a couple of questions.

When the hour came to an end, I felt utterly deflated. I had been so useless. I had added no value to this conversation.

You were so helpful, Jack said to me as we shook hands and left the room.

Go figure.

Somehow, I had gotten the most basic piece of active listening right. I had shut up and allowed Jack to talk.

I got lucky. Because mature active listening involves a heck of a lot more than my lucky accident.

I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening. Most people never listen.” 

Ernest Hemingway

In my experience, most of us think active listening means:

These are the skills you learn in a corporate communication skills class. As I was flipping through a back issue of Harvard Business Review, I was reminded that these behaviors fall far short of Active Listening at its finest (“What Great Listeners Actually Do,” HBR, Zenger & Folkman, July/August 2016).

Basic active listening behaviors are not ACTIVE enough.

In their research, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman analyzed data describing the behavior of 3,492 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches. As part of this program, the managers’ coaching skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments. Zenger and Folkman identified those who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%). They then compared the best listeners to the average of all other managers in the data set.

The authors arrived at some unexpected conclusions. They organized these conclusions into four main areas. These areas transcend traditional active listening wisdom. They transcend listening to all that isn’t said. They suggest an explicitly ACTIVE engagement in a conversation. Quite ACTIVE.

Good listening is more than shutting up.

People perceive those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight to be the best listeners. These questions may, in fact, respectfully challenge old assumptions, but they do so in a constructive way. Sitting in silence and nodding our head does not provide any evidence that we are listening. Asking a good question tells the other person not only that we heard what they said, but that we comprehend it well enough to desire additional information.

Good listening is consistently viewed as a two-way dialogue rather than a one-way speaker-versus-listener transaction. The best conversations are ACTIVE. Highly ACTIVE.

Good listening builds a person’s self-esteem.

The best listeners make the conversation a positive experience for the other party. This doesn’t happen when the listener is passive or overly critical. A good listener, in fact, makes the other person feel supported and conveys confidence in the person. The speaker feels heard, and more importantly, understood.

Good listening is characterized by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences can be discussed. There is NO experience of good listening without psychological safety.

Good listening generates a cooperative conversation. 

In cooperative interactions, feedback flows smoothly in both directions, with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other makes. In contrast, poor listeners are often seen as competitive – as if they are listening only to identify errors in reasoning and using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. While this may make us an excellent debater, it doesn’t make us a good listener.

Good listeners may actually challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels like the listener is trying to help, not trying to win or be right.

Good listeners tend to make suggestions.

Good listening invariably includes some feedback. This feedback is provided in a way that others will accept. It opens up alternative paths of moving forward.

This finding surprised Zenger and Folkman since it’s not uncommon to hear complaints that so-and-so didn’t listen, they just jumped in and tried to fix me.

The data suggests that, perhaps, making a suggestion is not the problem; it may be the skill with which that suggestion is made. Another possibility is that we’re more likely to accept suggestions from people we already think are good listeners. Someone who is silent for the whole conversation and then jumps in with a suggestion may not be seen as credible. Someone who seems combative or critical and then tries to give advice may not be seen as trustworthy.

This ACTIVE LISTENING playbook is a lot more ACTIVE than most of us thought, isn’t it?

Shut up, focus on the speaker and don’t interrupt are, indeed, great active listening starting points. They don’t suffice. Paraphrasing doesn’t suffice, either. Get more ACTIVELY engaged in your conversations. Have the courage to make your conversation a truly cooperative experience.

One in which you listen, of course.


Don’t Pretend It’s NEGOTIABLE

I love working for my boss, Linda says with genuine conviction.

After a short pause, she sheepishly adds: Except for this. Brian loves to float ideas by us. We will discuss these ideas for several months. Brian always makes us feel like our input really matters. But after a few months it becomes clear that Brian’s mind had been made up all along.

Frustrated sigh.

And we have just wasted 3 months debating something that wasn’t negotiable.

Linda is no Junior staff member. She’s a VP of Operations with 240 employees in her portfolio. Linda thinks tactically. She thinks strategically. She has a lot on her plate, and she does NOT like to waste her time.

I just conducted a 360 feedback process for Reinaldo, a Senior Human Resources executive. Reinaldo is personable. Smart. A creative thinker. The folks in the Business Unit he supports enjoy working with Reinaldo. Except for this one little habit of his that showed up in the feedback, again and again.

Reinaldo wants our input on everything. We spend a lot of time in meetings giving input. Sometimes I want Reinaldo to just say ‘Look, this is what we’re doing. Darn’it. Decision made. Let’s make it work. Let’s get on with it already.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusions that it has taken place.”

George Berbard Shaw

Linda and Reinaldo mean well. They long to be collaborative leaders. They have been schooled in modern management thinking. Too well, perhaps. And they apply this collaborative thinking in a not entirely helpful way.

The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, revered management guru Peter Drucker famously stated, never say “I.” And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say “I.” They don’t think “I.” They think “we.” They understand their job is to make the team function.”

Think of this as a foundational quote for modern collaborative teamwork. And please think of the two individuals I mentioned earlier as examples of this collaborative thinking gone awry.

Not every decision is negotiable. Not every initiative requires lots of flexibility. Consider the following limits as you engage one of your teams in conversation. They will be grateful to you when you do.

When A Decision Has Already Been Made

You have made up your mind on Action Y or Initiative X. You’re clear that this will be your course of action. When speaking with your team, don’t suddenly go wishy-washy on them. Here’s something we may want to do – what do you think? Here’s an idea John and I have been kicking around – any reactions? It might be great if we tried Action Y or Initiative X!

Plans dressed up as if they were ideas up for discussion. Open to negotiation. If a decision has been made, tell your team it has been made. If you continuously hold fake discussions where what others say will not impact a course of action, you will have an angry team on your hand. A very angry one.

Use a What/How Frame

If WHAT we will do has been decided, move on from there. Have the HOW conversation. How can we make sure we execute Action Y well? What are the immediate next steps that have to be taken? Who is best suited to take on task A or project B?

You know how to do this. Jump from strategy to tactics. Get granular. Entertain the possibility that folks you work will get excited about execution. And are perhaps even relieved that a decision was made for them. It has saved them from participating in a potential going-around-in-circles conversation. It allows them to focus on what many members on your team may like more than anything else: Generate results.

Highlight Potential Blind Spots

Don’t second-guess yourself with your team by questioning a decision you have already made. Own your decision – but allow your peeps to poke some holes into your thinking. Is there anything I have missed? What other factors may we wish to consider here? Are there any blind spots in our thinking?

Conduct a Force Field Analysis. It’s a wonderful old-school consulting tool. A basic T-chart where on the left side you list all the forces that favor the successful execution of a course of action, and on the right side all the forces that may hinder it. For each force that may hinder it, identify ways of removing or mitigating this force. When you conduct a Force Field Analysis, you’re not picking apart a decision that was made. No, you haveully switched into successful execution mode. And that tends to feel really good.

Have the Ownership Conversation

Instead of a belabored conversation in which you hem and haw about a decision that is no longer up for discussion, own that you have made the decision. And turn the ownership opportunity over to your team members. What will it take for YOU to fully own the execution of this decision? What, if anything, can I do to help you get to full ownership?

Full commitment to the successful execution of a plan is a wonderful thing. Foster THAT in your team.

It has been common in my work as a C-Suite Coach that my client is, at the same time, working with the venerable McKinsey Consulting Firm to figure out how to improve work processes.

I invariably chuckle at the first recommendation my client receives from McKinsey. It is invariably the same.

Make decisions faster.

I’m a big girl, Linda explains to me. Sometimes just tell me what to do, and I will be happy to get it done.

Let your team off the hook. Don’t torture them with fake open-mindedness. Don’t hold them hostage in conversations where they will not impact a decision of yours.

Own the decision you have already made.

And move on.