The Case For Telling The Truth

We live in times when political leaders habitually lie, what a business executive says often sounds like PR spin, and social media can twist anything into something that it’s not.

Does anyone tell the truth anymore? Does is actually pay to tell the truth?

Let’s contemplate our everyday choices. When someone asks you a direct question about something potentially embarrassing, what are you inclined to do? Tell the truth? Withhold information?

It depends, you might say.

Huhmmm. There is a fine line between not telling the truth and lying, between revealing and concealing, isn't there?

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary art.”

George Orwell

There are, at times, strategic reasons why a leader will not tell everything they know. Here, however, are some findings on the matter of truth-telling by Leslie K. John, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (“Tales of two motives: disclosure and concealment.” John, Stepian and Tamir, Current Opinion in Psychology 2020, 31).

These findings compellingly support the work of Brene Brown, modern leadership guru on the power or vulnerability. They also match what many of us, on a gut level, know to be true but find difficult to vigilantly practice.

John’s research, via a series of 7 compromising scenarios, 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 a 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. Of course - it behooves us to NOT run around and indiscriminately self-discloseYes, 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 your revelation 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 nothing. It simply buys time.

When people are forming an opinion of you and you care about that opinion, you may be prone to withholding information, John elaborates. But in fact, you would make a better impression if you came clean and divulged it.

Telling the truth invariably tends to feel better, doesn’t it? So, go ahead, take the risk.

Divulge.

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

The New York Times workplace columnist Emma Goldman wrote a brilliant article about all of this last year (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 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, 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 would 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 coaching practice, all the time. I also have empathy for those leaders who don’t have a great desire to share 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’s the simple check-in at a meeting, a la Ryan Cladbeck. There’s 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 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. Sure - expressing this sentiment will be authentic. 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 work 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 tend to think of “Personal Brand” as a slightly retro term from a GE culture. Here’s what I like about the term, however: 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 Art of Being DIRECT

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 inner Directness meter. Memo to Achim. If this meter 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 week. But I’m relieved that I considered my Directness Checklist again. A crucial tune-up.

I need it ever so often.

You, Too, Can Be A NEPO BABY!

I love actors, said an emotional Jamie Lee Curtis this February when she won a SAG Award for her performance in “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” I love the job we get to do. I love being a part of a crew. I love being part of a cast. I love what we do with each other. It's such a beautiful job.

Then Curtis added, with a bit of mischief, I know you look at me and think ‘Well, nepo baby, that's why she's there' — and I totally get it. But the truth of the matter is I'm 64 years old and this is just amazing!

Nepo baby is jargon for nepotism baby. Applied to children of celebrities, wealthy folk and political families who are perceived to have it easier in life because of preferential access.

I thought of nepo babies again 10 days ago when a video posted by Romy Mars, daughter of filmmaker Sofia Coppola and musician Thomas Mars, went viral. Sofia Coppola, like Jamie Lee Curtis, is an Academy-award winner and the daughter of a legendary filmmaker, Francis Ford Coppola.

Romy, we might argue, is the nepo baby of a nepo baby.

“Why Do People Care That Sofia Coppola’s Daughter Was Grounded?” writes Callie Holtermann in the New York Times (3/23/2023). Her essay is subtitled The internet can’t get enough of nepo baby content.

You can make more friends in 2 months by becoming interested in other people than you can in 2 years by trying to get other people interested in you."

Dale Carnegie

In Romy Mars’s case, the notoriety of her 49-second video may have been prompted by the following confession she makes in the video: “I am grounded because I tried to charter a helicopter from New York to Maryland on my dad’s credit card because I wanted to have dinner with my camp friend.”

We’re in major privilege territory here. But what does this have to do with you and me, you ask?

The same day I read Ms. Holtermann’s essay in the New York Times, I had a chat with Marcia, the Chief Human Resources Officer of a global manufacturing company. I have supported hundreds of HR leaders in my career as an Executive Coach; Marcia is one of the very best.

Marcia was fuming after a chat she had with John, one of the Senior and at times cantankerous executives in the company. In a heated moment with John, he said to her dismissively Well, you’re Steve’s girl.

Steve is the CEO.

The implication was clear: You only got the job because you’re Steve’s girl. You wouldn’t have gotten it if you weren’t Steve’s girl. You don’t have a mind of your own – you’re merely Steve’s stand-in and order taker.

I have heard similarly sexist and misogynist comments made to other female CHROs. Comparable comments are at times hurled at men, as well, who have a tight relationship with a power broker: Well, Brad is Steve’s boy.

This is what the Johns of the world seem to miss. The real nepo power in business is the power or relationships. Relationships born of deep respect for each other, of having been in the trenches together, of remembering that this person had your back. In the real world of business nepo power, CEOs who assume a new role bring along the team who they know they’ll work with well.

That’s business nepo power.

In the world of this power, talented people don’t hunt for job listings on LinkedIn. Their phones regularly ring with calls from folks who know them, appreciate their skills – and more importantly, REALLY want to have them on their team.

These folks have earned the luxury to say NO.

In the real world of business nepo power, being the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis or Francis Ford Coppola is, at best, a conversation starter. At worst, a liability that you may have to overcome.

Here are a few ways in which you, too, can be a business nepo baby. The well-earned way.

4 Keys To Earning Your Business NEPO Power

Have mad skills.

No offspring of a famous person sustains an acting career without acting skills. No business executive sustains an executive career without producing meaningful business outcomes. No marketing professional attracts new clients without evidence of previous campaigns that had demonstrable impact. No leadership role of any sort expands without the ability to generate followership.

You can fake a lack of skills for only so long. Don’t. Be meticulous in your skill-building. Make sure your skills are current and continuously evolving. Fully embrace an agile, life-long skills learning mindset. Consider this the prerequisite. Without this prerequisite, you will become the person who is waiting for the calls that never come.

You will never be on anyone’s nepotism radar.

Build genuine relationships.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We know about the significance of robust business relationships. Let’s break this down, for a moment. You have worked with those colleagues who fake their way through professional relationships. They do and say all the right things. Show up for all the business dinners. Inquire about your family and hobbies. Share a bit about themselves. They know the dance steps of the professional relationship dance. Execute all the right steps, in order. Yet you never, ever feel that they truly care.

Skill is a given. In the substance of your work skills, and in your ability to socially engage. The more Senior your role, the more your sustained success will be driven by your ability to play well with a wide variety of colleagues. True on a film set, true in the board room. The sincerity and depth of your social engagement is the tipping point. Want to be that professional whose phone keeps ringing? Be that person who they clamor to work with and can’t wait to have on their team again.

It starts with not faking the relationship part. Always does.

Understand the dynamics of access.

I have been blessed with having a few professional angels in my life. Folks who opened doors for me. These doors were opened because of their faith in my skills and the depth of relationship we had established.

These angels were, in a way, my nepo business power brokers. They gave me access.

Kit Williams was one of those angels. When Kit moved into a Senior leadership role in one of the hottest biotech companies in the United States, she made it very clear to me how access worked. I cannot get you a single client here, Kit explained. I can introduce you to people. The rest is up to you.

I am grateful to Kit for many things. This clarity is one of them. Kit was one of my power brokers. The brokering was based on her faith in my skills and the depth of our relationship.

Since then, I have been my version of Kit for others. Happily so. Wouldn’t do it if I doubted your skills or didn’t trust our relationship.

That’s the contract. That’s how business nepotism works.

Add value.

Add it constantly. Be clear about what adding value looks like. Understand that adding value means different things to different colleagues. Know what is of value to your colleagues. Give it if you can, or direct them to someone who will add value better than you will.

It’s all connected. If my skill sets are limited, I am limited in the sort of skills I can offer. If I am limited in the amount of substantive relationships I have, I am constrained by the amount of situations where I will be asked to help. If I have not developed genuine relationships with enough people, I have not expanded the field of power referrals that might be possible. And if I don’t get the calls to participate in new professional endeavors, I am not inviting the playgrounds where I might add more value.

The same dots are always connecting. And even though I present them in sequential order here, they all connect simultaneously, at the same time, all the time.

Jamie Lee Curtis got her first acting role in 1977 on the short-lived ABC sitcom Operation Petticoat, adapted from the 1959 movie of the same name that her dad Tony Curtis had starred in. That smacks of old-school nepotism. Sofia Coppola made her film debut as a toddler in her dad’s Godfather.

Yup, nepotism.

Those early moments didn’t get Jamie Lee Curtis her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress earlier this year, at the age of 64, or Sofia Coppola her Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her film Lost in Translation.

They got there with a lot of skill. With depth of relationship. With access to folks who longed to work with them. And the perception that their presence would add value.

You, too, can be a nepo baby. Because that same playbook applies to you.

Stop Being a LAZY Communicator, Please!

Raul received an email from his CEO. Patricia assigned him a special research project. One that came with a rapid one-week turn-around and was challenging, to boot.

Raul is the Head of one of his company’s 4 Business Units. His unit is $ 500 million a year revenue-producer. No small stuff.

“Got it,” was Raul’s email response. Clear. Efficient. Affirmative. Neutral. And perhaps a little lazy.

What did Patricia really need to hear from Raul? After a bit of brainstorming, here’s where we landed: That Raul was excited to work on this. That he was confident he’d get it done in time. That he saw the value of this project. That he was pleased she asked him to work on this. Or that he might perhaps need some guidance to get it done.

A lot more color. NOT neutral.

The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said."

Peter Drucker, business leadership legend

NEUTRAL is the epitome of transactional communication. It gets it done. Does not ever enhance a relationship.

I used to be an acting teacher at some big acting schools in New York. This is one of the first things a novice actor learns in acting class: Sure, you study your lines. But what invariably matters most is the stuff behind the words. The subtext. The subtext that you create for the character you play. And the subtext you discern in the character you interact with.

The subtext of all that isn’t being said.

Want to un-lazy your business communications? Start by listening for what isn’t being said. Enhance your own messages by adding a bit of color to what you communicate.

1. Stop Being a Button Pusher

LinkedIn allows us to simply push a button these days to acknowledge a colleague’s new position, birthday or anniversary. Congratulations. And it has even added a few short generic responses for you to choose from.

Push the button. Efficient. NEUTRAL. It gets us a button-pushing relationship. Nothing else.

My favorite variations:

2. Stop Eliminating the Emotion

I used to not say I am happy for you because I didn’t know how to be truly happy for you. And I didn’t know how to say it.

Sad, yes. I think of this as I dine with my friend Brian. While we gorge on heaps of sushi our conversation takes us on a trip down memory lane, to a time when we both lived in the same cities but our paths had not yet crossed. It is one of those delicious conversations in which one discovers new things about a friend.

And new things about oneself.

I so enjoyed this conversation we just had. I used to not know how to say it. I couldn’t say it because I didn’t feel it.

My business relationships are so much richer now than they were back in the days. I have learned to pay attention to the emotional dimension of everything I do. Feel it. And when helpful, explicitly state it:

The quality of your communication is the quality of your life."

Anthony Robbins

Here’s where Raul landed in his enhanced response to Patricia: Thank you for challenging me with this project. I’m excited to work on it. Can’t wait to share the results with you!

More color. No longer in NEUTRAL. More color = more of YOU. That’s how we enhance, enrich, and charge a relationship with genuine energy.

Go ahead. Un-lazy your relationships. Listen for what isn’t being said. Have the courage name it.

I’m a theater guy, so I leave you with this quote from the illustrious George Bernard Shaw: The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

Step out of the illusion. Start by ignoring the buttons. Throw a bit of you into the mix.

And still keep it efficient, please.

Is Your ACTIVE Listening ACTIVE Enough?

I felt inadequate. Like, really inadequate.

Jack was one of my first C-Suite 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 Llstening involves a heck of a lot more insight 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 good listening boils down to doing three things:

These are the skills you’re likely to learn in a corporate communication skills class. As I was flipping through an old 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 cistening behaviors simply 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.

4 Cornerstones of Mature ACTIVE LISTENING

Good listening is much 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 comprehended 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 openly. 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 and that 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, he 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 conversation.

One in which you listen, of course.

ACTIVELY.

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.