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A House Divided

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I wonder what Abraham Lincoln, who borrowed this Biblical quote for his speech in 1858, would think of how divided his house become. Name the issue—mask wearing, distance learning, public gathering, businesses re-opening—and the civil discourse has lost its civility. Don’t even start a conversation about the presidential race, immigration, or reproductive rights. America has dealt with such issues before, but rather than divide us, they united us in a common cause. Of course, it was a lot easier to get people to make sacrifices when we face a shared enemy. Today, we lack a distinct them to make us us. Also, decades ago we didn’t have social media, broadcasting our every thought to the world. Things were a lot easier when you didn’t know who your co-worker voted for. You could go about your day assuming they were nice, intelligent people.

I have worked with organizations that tried to decrease tension in the workplace by instituted rules about which subjects were off-limits for discussion. This never works. That practice doesn’t teach people to play nice in the sandbox, it removes the sandbox; leaving behind resentment. Guiding teams through hot-button issues takes a leader who understands what triggers to avoid, and which practices foster respect.

The first thing to recognize is that people who have firmly held beliefs rarely change their minds. When confirmation bias sets in, we only accept evidence that supports our case. Don’t blame yourself for not getting through to the other person, or blame them for being stubborn. Just recognize this most human of frailties and move on. If confirmation bias has not set in, there may be a chance for productive dialogue. Let’s start with what to avoid:

Don’t Spout facts

When you trade statistics back and forth, you are essentially saying, “I am smarter than you.” This  only causes them to dig their heels in further.

Don’t Shame

The “Don’t you feel bad about yourself?” approach is all over social media. The fact is, if someone felt bad about an opinion or action, they would have changed their mind before talking to you. Trying to shame someone into coming to your side of the argument only results in greater distancing.

Don’t Circle the Wagons

Gathering like-minded people to support leads to feelings of satisfaction and victory, but only in the short term. Ultimately, this approach results in tribalism; a highly unproductive quality.

What to do instead

Do Find Common Values

To find common ground, tie your discussion into what you know the other person values. If someone says wearing a mask strips them of their rights and freedoms, don’t tell them they are wrong. Recognize that they are concerned about personal rights; and that’s a good thing. Talk about how wearing a mask could be seen as an expression of their rights, rather than the loss of them. In the end, people discover that their values are more aligned than they thought, they just choose to express their values differently.

Do Talk About Consequences

When people make decisions, it is because they are predicting an outcome. Rather than try to convince someone their facts are wrong, talk about the consequences of different actions. Avoid predicting world-ending consequences in an attempt to force someone’s hand. Keep the consequences grounded in reality. If someone’s actions are likely to result in a laundry list of bad outcomes, there is a greater chance that you can discuss different options.

Finally

Allow for Incubation

We all want other people to listen to our argument and say, “Wow! You’re right.” Good luck waiting for that to happen. Whenever the human brain gets a shock—a surprise, new information, a change of plan—it needs time to absorb it and process. That usually takes overnight, which is where Let’s sleep on it came from. While we sleep, we go over everything we experienced that day and we awake a new perspective. Don’t push people to admit to they are wrong. Give them time to incubate.

A good leader doesn’t pretend teams will work things out for themselves. Divisiveness leads to resentment, destroying cohesion, retention, and productivity. Lead team members toward cohesion, no matter what side of the fence they’re on.

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Be Creative, Debate

Now that the pandemic is settling in for a longer run than expected, many businesses are having to shift from let’s wait this out to what do we do now? Some organizations have the option of simply delivering their existing goods through different channels—drive-thru service or patio dining for restaurants—but if your company is more complicated than burgers and fries, it is time to get serious about creative options. That led me to dust off some old tips about brainstorming.

 

Most brainstorming sessions are at best, unproductive or, at worst, exercises in frustration and futility. The fault lies in following out-of-dates methods. Individuals have been shown to be every bit as capable as teams at developing creative, workable solutions. So, why have teams brainstorm in the first place? The answer is, groups can create a higher volume of ideas in the same period of time, and when a group creates a solution together, there is greater buy-in; the idea is implemented with more enthusiasm than if the solution is handed down from on high.

The goal of brainstorming is twofold; a high volume of ideas, and creative breadth. Creativity is measured by how far away from the norm an idea is. The best way to achieve both conditions might surprise you; debate. Most people have been taught that brainstorming is only possible if team members follow the rule that every idea is a good idea. This rule goes back decades. Alex Osborne, and advertising executive in the 1940s wanted to codify the methods used by his staff when developing creative advertising campaign. Upon observation, he noted that his team seemed to be more productive when they agreed with each other. So, he formed the every idea is a good idea rule, and we all believed the rule to be gospel truth. The problem is Osborne didn’t test his assumption. When the rule was researched recently, it turns out that Osborne was only partly right. The first obstacle to the rule is, it is impossible to treat every idea as a good one, because some ideas stink. To agree with a stinky idea is disingenuous, which destroys the trust of the team. Teams can’t create if they don’t trust each other. Second, agreeing with every idea shuts down the critical thinking centers of the brain. We have all been in meetings where the leader said, “Every idea is a good one. Who has one?” The very notion causes uncomfortable silence because it is saying, in a sense, “Leave your brain at the door.”

When groups were used to test the brainstorming process, a third of the teams were told to agree with every idea presented, another third was told to debate each idea on its merits and defects, while the final third (the control group) was told to employ no rules at all. The group that had the highest volume and most creative ideas was the debating group. The next most productive was the control group. Surprisingly, the least productive group was the one that agreed with everything.

Osborne was correct in recognizing that bluntly telling someone that their idea is stupid will shut down new ideas, inhibit group participation, and destroy productivity. So yes, we should avoid completely blasting someone’s idea. But respectful debate does the opposite. If I think someone’s idea is unworkable, and I say, “Charlene, I just don’t see how we can make that work. Tell me why you think it is a good idea,” it invites my team member to dig further into her idea. If my challenge is an invitation to mix it up, mentally, it sparks creative thinking; not only in Charlene’s brain, but in the rest of the team’s brains as well. The act of Charlene defending her idea causes greater brain activity in the group.

The only way for this to work is to recognize the difference between argument and debate. An argument is a back-and-forth It won’t work, Yes, it will test of wills. The winner is usually the one with more authority. For debate to be productive, it must be robust and respectful. During brainstorming, workplace hierarchy must be suspended. In fact, sometimes having more experience in a field prevents examining a issue creatively. It must be openly acknowledged that everyone must have an opinion, whether positive or negative. And, if Tim from the sales department is always shooting down others’ ideas, some people are just not wired to think up new ideas. However, if Tim is told that he can still be critical, but now must do it in a way that sparks healthy debate, you access Tim’s talents without sacrificing every else’s. A good leader guides the process and keeps debate productive. If a team member says, “That will never work,” the leader must ask why. Keep digging until the answer sparks even more debate. Now go do what hasn’t been done yet.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Leading Through Toxic Stress

When the pandemic first struck, I penned a column about leading during times of emergency. The style of leadership needed during a crisis is wholly different than during periods of stability and certainty. Now that the pandemic is months old, without a clear end in sight, business leaders must turn their focus from leading during a crisis to helping teams manage the damaging mental effects of stress. To do this, it is important to know exactly what stress is, what causes it, and how the brain best manages it.

 

Stress is measured by the severity and duration of an unpleasant experience. If the event is severe enough, and lasts long enough, stress can cause harm to the brain; this is called chronic or toxic stress. During an everyday stressful event, the body releases cortisol; a hormone that helps our body chemistry to return to normal once the event has passed. Cortisol also helps regulate blood sugar, and controls the hippocampus, where memories are processed and stored. If stress is prolonged, too much cortisol causes the hippocampus to go out of whack, inhibiting our memory. Stress also causes the prefrontal cortex—the thinking center of the brain—to shrink; causing loss of cognitive function. While the prefrontal cortex shrinks, the amygdala—the reactive part of the brain—grows; making us even more susceptible to stress.

The brain can take almost any situation and adjust to it as the new normal. What is stressful at the outset can, a few months later, be considered perfectly acceptable; with a notable exception. The brain cannot seem to deem acceptable situations that are unpredictable and/or uncontrolled. Tragic events are eventually managed by the brain because we have control over how we deal with them, and there is a certainty about the outcome. One of life’s everyday stressors has never been shown to be manageable by the human brain is rush-hour traffic. Because we cannot control the traffic, and our time of arrival is always uncertain, no matter what calming techniques we try, rush-hour traffic sucks.

Luckily, the damage caused by stress can be reversed. The brain can regrow neural pathways and re-form new ones; a process called neuroplasticity. The younger the brain, the greater the plasticity, but older brains can regain function and manage stress by engaging in healthy activities. This is where good leadership comes in. Too many leaders think that stress can be managed simply by keeping their staff focused. “If we just focus on the work, and put our shoulders against the wheel, we can push through this crisis.” Yes, having something to focus on keeps the brain from wandering into destructive thoughts, but that is only a small part of managing stress.

We have all heard that regular exercise is healthy for the brain; and exercise has been shown to markedly reduce stress. However, beyond encouraging staff to get out of the chair every now and then, there is little a leader can do to facilitate exercise. There are two other stress relievers that managers can manage; social interaction, and purpose. Social interaction has been long ignored for its impact on productivity. In fact, many leaders consider social conversations to be anathema to getting work done. Recently a client said to me that her greatest frustration about video-based meetings was that “too much time was spent on people catching up on personal stuff.” The fact is, personal stuff in conversations has a positive effect on work output. It is not an interruption to work, it facilitates it.

The second stress reliever is just as important; purpose. The brain hates uncertainty and unpredictability because those conditions prevent accomplishing something that has meaning. So, focusing on the good work being done is a great stress reliever. A good leader can manage the current situation by 1) encouraging social interaction, 2) focusing on what the group can control, instead of lamenting over what is out of reach, 3) keeping doomsday predictions out of the conversation, and 4) exalting every achievement. A accomplishment that would have been considered small in the past takes on new light in this time where every purposeful action can keep stress at bay. Toxic stress is not something people can just get over. Good leaders take steps to conquer it.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Camera, Camera, On the Wall

Now that the country is re-opening, a lot of companies—and employees—are considering making distance working a part of their operations. A CNBC poll discovered that 43% of Americans want to work at least partially from home. I have reservations about the disconnect distance working may cause in the workplace. Random interactions have proven to account for the majority of creative ideas, and not being in the physical presence of co-workers risks disengaging a workforce that has already been suffering from dismal engagement scores for years. But, since the trend is upon us, I offer a few suggestions to make one element of distance working better—video conferencing.

 

In the past few months of conducting my business via video, every client has complained about how frustrating it is to try to have meaningful and productive meetings using Zoom, GoToMeeting, or any of the other apps that I wish I held stock in before the pandemic hit. Here are some reasons why, and what to do about them.

Full attention. When you are in the physical presence of another person, your thoughts may wander now and then, but for the most part, you are focused on the speaker. During video conferences, however, far too many people fool themselves into thinking they can work on a side task during the meeting. After all, all you have to do is mute your microphone and nod your head every now and then. Truth one; you’re not fooling anyone. Truth two; multi-tasking is a myth. The cerebral cortex, where our thinking and processing occurs, is a sequential organism. It can only focus on one task at a time. The only time you can truly multi-task is when one of the tasks involves no thought. For instance, you can read a book while listening to music, but only if the music has no lyrics. During a video conference, focus on the meeting!

Emotion. If you think people are uncomfortable giving a speech in front of a group, try putting them in front of a camera. For the past few months, I have watched people on computer screens who look like they swallowed a bottle of Thorazine. The only thing moving was their mouth. No facial expression; no life. The human brain is tuned to read signals during interactions. It uses those signals to interpret meaning, and stores information based on that meaning.

The brain doesn’t listen to words, it interprets signals. Video conferencing must have more to it than just people talking. This is why in-person meetings are more productive; there is simply no way to duplicate the brain’s reaction to face-to-face interactions. If, however, you can’t be face-to-face, at least try to duplicate the experience. Be mindful of  facial expressions, bring your natural sense of humor to the conversation, vary your vocal pitch, and employ gestures while you speak. Even sitting up in your chair without resting against the backrest does wonders to add presence to your delivery.

Limit screen-sharing. If you hate watching someone flip through PowerPoint slides during a meeting, it isn’t any better during a video conference. The purpose of a meeting is not just to share information, it is to engage the group, foster agreement, and build momentum. This is done through talking, not reading a slide. The only slides that should be used are those that are absolutely necessary for the meeting to remain productive. All others should be sent in an e-mail for participants to review on their own. Respect the true purpose of a video conference; to engage the team.

Finally, remember what news anchors are taught; the camera is your audience. When someone is speaking during a video conference, you do have to look at their face on the screen, but when you speak, look directly into the camera. It is unnerving to watch someone speak who is looking down. If someone did this during a live conversation, you would say, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” The same holds true for video.

I have a few more tips, but I will save those for the video that accompanies this column. If you must communicate on-screen, make it as close to in-person as possible.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

You Know What I Heard?

As first published in the Business Journal Newspapers

May 2020

If there is one thing that I have learned during the COVID crisis, it is who to avoid. The people I have learned to tune out fall into two groups; the You know what I heard? group, and the I can top that group. Both groups have only one goal; get people excited, worried, or distracted. These groups are in constant battle with the other group; people who focus on facts. The challenge for people who focus on facts is that they are not as exciting to talk to. It is the same with news programs. Some of them just deliver facts, while others just want to keep you watching. If business don’t control the first two groups, there are long-term consequences.

The You know what I heard? group spreads whatever crazy theory they just heard from Facebook, Twitter, or their Great Uncle Chuck. Conversations start with, “You know what I heard? I heard that the Albanians created the virus in a secret lab because they want to steal Montana from the United States!” This group never has any good news to share because good news is boring. Also, psychologists and sociologists have discovered that people who spread bad news are actually viewed by peers as more socially powerful than people who share good news. It is a strange quirk of human behavior that explains why we give so much of our time to doom-sayers.

As soon as the You know what I heard? guy opens his mouth, the I can top that guy has to step in with even worse news; “Oh yeah? Well I read that we are going into another Great Depression that will last until the year 2032!” If sharing bad news gives a person power, then topping that news puts the next guy at the head of the pack.

If leaders don’t pay attention to these behaviors, the potential damage goes beyond people just getting worked up over a Zoom meeting. While disasters can sometimes be a kick in the pants; causing employees to focus and dig in; focus caused by emergencies is short-lived. A cheetah’s twitch muscles allow for lighting fast speed upon take-off, but cheetahs can only maintain that speed for a short distance; which is why the steady galloping gazelle gets away. Long-term dour predictions give employees an excuse to do the minimum needed to get by. A What’s the point? attitude is the biggest productivity killer of all.

Research has discovered that people who can best weather unpredictable situations—and avoid the accompanying long-term stress—all share a unique ability. The ability to determine the likely outcomes to situations on a percentage basis. Instead of letting the reactive part of the brain get all worked up, they use the mathematical part of the brain and ask themselves, “What percent chance does each possible outcome have of coming to fruition?” Once they determine that Outcome X has a 55% chance, Outcome Y has a 30% chance, and all the other outcomes follow, the reasonable person devises plans for each outcome.

However, there is an obstacle when trying to engage the mathematical side of the brain, and it isn’t what you might think. People sometimes avoid this exercise because they say, “You can’t predict with any accuracy the likelihood of any outcome, so what’s the point?” But the reason people avoid this reasoned approach isn’t because it lacks accuracy, it is because it isn’t satisfying. (Besides, the majority of percentage predictions are often quite accurate, because mathematical probabilities are based on data, not emotion.) But no one wants to have coffee with someone who spouts percentage probabilities. But, it is a leader’s responsibility to encourage just that kind of thinking in employees.

In my last column, Leading in a Time of COVID, was about how the Command and Control style of leadership is most effective during times of emergency. Now that the emergency has settled in, and long-term effects will start to show up in teams, leaders need to step in and quell the You know what I heard? and I can top that talk and help employees manage fear and stress by imagining all possible outcomes, and knowing how they will be a part of the solution for each of them.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Leading in the Time of COVID

It is one thing to keep employees focused and engaged when times are normal; try doing it during a global pandemic. Not only are people isolated—which cuts them off from the usual channels of stimulation and connection—but the uncertainty of the future takes a drastic toll on every employee. The current crisis calls for specific types of leadership, but not just one approach will work. Ironically, one style of leadership that has been under attack for years, is just the kind needed right now; Command and Control.

 

Also called Top Down Leadership; Command and Control was the predominant leadership style in place during the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. The belief was that, if the approach worked in the military, it should work for business. Since there was little research to refute this belief, the military-is-good-for-business philosophy flourished. It was later discovered that, not only are there over a dozen styles of leadership that are effective in business, even the military doesn’t adhere only to the top-down management style (they routinely employ consensus and team-think when needed). The truth is the type of leadership that works best depends on what kind of team you are leading, as well as the situation the team is facing.

The situation that most calls for Command and Control is an emergency. When the ship is sinking, there is no time to call for a vote. But it isn’t just expediency that demands a top-down approach, it is the psychological state of the team. I recall a scene in a movie where a young naval officer is thrust into the captain’s chair in a submarine after most of the crew is killed. When a sailor continually presses him for a plan of action, the new captain snaps and says, “I don’t know. I don’t have all the answers!” An older, wiser skipper takes the young captain aside and says, “Don’t ever say ‘I don’t know’ to your crew again. Those three words will kill a crew deader than a depth charge. You are the captain. You have to know.”

This is not to say that leaders should be barking orders and ignoring input; it is a reminder that the type of leader that is needed right now is one that knows; a leader that is decisive. Going in the wrong direction might be risky, but it is much less risky than not picking a direction at all.

Another critical lesson also comes from the military. It involves Distributed Teams; people who work in separate geographic locations. Some companies deal with this challenge as a matter of course, but most are facing it now for the first time. The military has researched how a leader can best  command troops  that are located thousands of miles away, often in a different country. The one action taken by successful leaders of distributed teams was communication that was frequent and spontaneous. The longer an employee goes without contact with the leader, and fellow employees, the worse the results. Also, regularly scheduled meetings are not spontaneous; so, they provide less benefit. Check in on your staff—one-on-one if you can—but make it often and make it a surprise.

Finally, the first casualty of crisis is humor, and prolonged periods without the healing power of laughter are dangerous for humans. One critical condition that must exist for people to laugh is permission. Before people laugh, they look around them to first see if laughter is considered acceptable. That is why people are sixteen times more likely to laugh at something if they witness it as a group, rather than seeing it alone. Prolonged crises, like we are experiencing with COVID-19, can seem to make the very act of levity a crime. Now is the time, as a leader, for you to include humor in communication. Let people know that they are not being insensitive to the situation by releasing tension through laughter. In fact, one of the greatest benefits of laughter is the release of tension, which help mitigate dangerous toxins that are fostered by prolonged stress.

The best way to relieve your own sadness is to force yourself to help someone relieve theirs. This is the most important job of leading in a time of COVID.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

The Hidden Dangers of Social Distancing

A colleague of mine recently talked about the need for people to experience group interactions by saying, “Every now and then, we all need to breathe the same air.” With the emergence of COVID-19, social distancing—the safe distance between people that inhibits the spread of the novel coronavirus—certainly challenges that need. Other practices—e-learning, telecommuting, and virtual meetings—all mean the same thing, don’t be around other people. While these measures are crucial to ensuring the health and safety of the community, business leaders should keep in mind the unspoken danger of physical distancing; emotional distancing.

 

Human beings are singularly wired to be social connected. As much as that seems obvious, there is more to it than simply our preference for the company of others. When I say singularly wired, I mean that no other mammal on the planet is built to socially connect the way that humans do. In fact, scientists have discovered that being able to think and react as a group, rather than just a gathering of individuals, is the one advantage that has kept humans alive; given that we are easily the weakest animal on the planet. The discovery of our unique ability to connect with other human brains around us has led to a new field of neuroscience; social neuroscience. Rather than study the workings of individual brains, social neuroscience studies how our brains are wired to connect with other brains to create mutually beneficial outcomes (the study of positive mob mentality).

Depending on how much social interaction a person has built into their daily lives, short-term social distancing will not likely cause harm. It is absence makes the heart grow fonder in action. But, long-term social distancing results in one of the most harmful states the brain can experience; isolation. Isolation causes changes of sleep patterns, which can affect cognition and overall mental health. The lack of brain stimulation inhibits problem-solving skills, and it diminishes the ability to interact effectively in the workplace. And don’t be fooled into thinking that this only applies to extreme cases, such as solitary confinement. Even the recent focus that certain generations have had on hand-held devices instead of face-to-face interaction has seen a dramatic impact on communication skills.

It has long been known that the lose of a spouse has greater detrimental effects on men than on women. It was only recently understood that this is because women tend to have broader social networks upon which to rely when their spouse is no longer in the picture. Basically, after the loss of a spouse, women gather, while men sit alone. So, isolation among employees will not only affect their cognitive abilities, but damage their long-term health as well. The need for interaction is so strong that many workplaces are reporting heightened feelings of isolation even among employees who work side by side. I visited one such office, where employees stared at their computers all day. They were so disconnected that it seemed foolish to have them come into the office.

During this time of necessary social distancing, I urge business leaders to create as many opportunities for safe interaction as possible. Sure, many aspects of your operations can be maintained by individuals sitting at home, and you won’t likely experience the downsides of this right away. In time, however, the effects will be felt; and you might not think to trace the problem back to an isolated workplace. And it is important that the social interaction occurs with those close to the work being done. It is good that a staff member has social interaction with family or friends outside of work, but that interaction will not always translate to better performance at work. It is crucial that consistent social interaction be maintained between staff members.

Even if it feels like more work, have regular conference calls and group video meetings. It might feel like a time waster, but even a brief conference call check-in—without a set agenda attached to the conversation—can help combat the effects of isolation. After all, most face-to-face interactions don’t come with an agenda either. Always having a check list to get through can add even more stress to the interaction, erasing any benefit of the experience.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

The Windows to the Soul

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” “Don’t you eyeball me!” Two phrases that demonstrate the dichotomy of eye contact. European cultures consider it rude not to look at the person who is speaking. However, many Asian cultures consider it intrusive and disrespectful to give too much direct eye contact. Add to the equation the brain’s unique way of processing input, and suddenly knowing where to focus your gaze during a conversation becomes a risky endeavor. One fact about the brain helps explain why eye contact is fraught with complexities. The fact is: one of the most challenging acts the brain can engage in is communicating with nonfamilial persons.

People who are not part of our immediate social group are almost always considered a threat by the brain. Unfamiliar people are difficult to communicate with because we don’t know how to read their vocal tone, body language, or facial expressions. Eye contact is tricky because humans are a product of both evolution, and socialization. DNA wires us to behave in accordance with how our ancestors evolved. However, the brain is a malleable organ, and will rewire itself according to social influences and personal experience.

When it comes to eye contact, many people unknowingly use it incorrectly. For example, say you want a colleague to open up about a sensitive issue. You sit down across from him so you are facing each other. To encourage conversation, you look directly at him and say, “Go ahead. Tell me what you think.” In this case, direct eye contact is detrimental. Throughout human evolution, people have spent their waking hours either walking side by side, working side by side, or eating side by side. Very few shared experiences involved sitting and facing each other. Directly facing another person signals either formality or familiarity. Formality certainly does not foster openness. Familiarity is a good for any relationship, but it is a tenuous feature in the workplace.

Parents are given the advice that, if they want their child to speak freely, engage in an activity that requires focus; so, you and the child aren’t sitting looking directly at each other. This might seem impossible in a work environment, but it can be done. Steve Jobs was well known for having walking meetings. Instead of sitting across from his desk, you and he would stroll around the grounds of Apple headquarters. Walking side by side eases tension, making communication easier and more productive.

I used this technique when I was asked to deal with a particularly challenging executive at a retail giant. This woman was known for her harsh demeanor; sometimes exploding at employees during meetings. When I arrived at her office, she said, “I’m glad you’re here. There is a lot of crap going on around here I want to discuss!” I said, “Great. I want to hear it. Let’s walk while we talk.” With that, I turned on my heels and strolled out of her office. If we had sat across from each other, the resulting constant eye contact would have increased the tension; risking bringing contention into the conversation. As we walked side by side around her building, she certainly didn’t become sunshine and roses, but she did mellow out enough that we could come to an agreement about how to proceed.

Other research has discovered that some companies have three people attend employee evaluations; the employee, the manager, plus the manager’s boss. The manager’s boss doesn’t sit next to the manager; with both of them staring down the hapless employee; he or she sits next to the employee. With the employee and big boss sitting side by side, the eye contact is directed back at the manager. This simple shifting of focus signals to the employee that this is a collegial meeting; meant to discuss goals and outcomes, not a meeting to put the employee under a heat lamp.

This is not meant to suggest that all eye contact is bad. Regular checking in with others in a conversation with glances and visual acknowledgement is crucial to effective communication. However, it is important to maintain awareness of whether the type of eye contact you are employing is generating the results you want. The eyes are called the windows to the soul. They are also windows to a good working relationship.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

I Can’t Stress This Enough

As published nationwide in the Business Journal Newspapers

When I am asked to work with a group of employees, I am often tasked with introducing a new set of behaviors that the company wants followed. Lately, the inevitable response from employees has been, “How am I supposed to do all this new stuff while trying to keep up with my current duties.” The problem is so pervasive that I am often warned by leaders ahead of time to be ready for this kind of push-back. This is a signal that leadership has a problem. They are aware enough of a problem that they warn me about it, but they haven’t fixed it. And the problem is stress.

The first step is to recognize the kind of stress your employees are feeling. Situational stress is the occasional sweat you feel when faced with a challenge. Adrenaline and cortisol flood your body; your muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, and all bodily systems are tuned up for a showdown. This kind of stress is actually beneficial. It helps us focus on a challenge rather than run from it. Situational stress is not the problem; chronic stress is.

The problem with the human brain is that it has trouble distinguishing between a physical threat and an emotional one; so, it treats all stress the same. And prolonged periods of physical stress lead to depression, anxiety, loss of sleep, memory loss, and cognitive impairment; not to mention physical ailments affecting weight, heart disease, and the autoimmune system. Any leader can see how chronic stress has become the biggest killer of workplace productivity since Facebook.

Here is the simplest way to understand stress, and why many leaders don’t effectively manage for it. Pick up a glass of water and hold it at arm’s length. How heavy is it? Probably not much. Now hold that glass of water for four hours. How heavy is it now? Stress is not the weight of an issue or a task, it is the cumulative effect of that weight over time. Many leaders determine likely stress levels on employees by evaluating individual tasks, without considering the cumulative effect of everything the employee must accomplish each day. Leaders also mistakenly believe that an occasional employee happy hour is enough to solve the problem. Yes, bustin’ out every now and then is a good way to blow off steam, but the brain responds better when we mitigate stressors rather than provide momentary excitors. In short, it is better to lower pain than heighten pleasure; mainly because pleasure doesn’t solve the problem, it only masks it.

Another challenge to leaders is figuring out why two people can have the same experience and only one experiences stress. The mistake is to think that one person can handle stress better than the other. It is true that some people are better equipped to handle long-term pressure without developing chronic stress, but it is not a measure of their fortitude, it is an outcome of several circumstances. One stress mitigator is a person’s overall outlook. Scientists have discovered that parents pass on their happiness quotient to their babies through DNA. The brain is not born as a blank slate, and DNA kicks off the way we view the world. Luckily, we can change this outlook throughout life through conscious effort.

Other stress mitigators include physical health, emotional control, and the level of knowledge and preparation one has concerning the task at hand. But, two other factors are equally important for leaders to manage: support network, and sense of control. The interesting thing about these factors is that perception is just as important as reality. If a person perceives that they have people in the wings ready to support them in times of need, they feel less stress; even if they never have to use those support folks.

Notice that sense of control mitigates stress just as much as actually having it. To humans, perception is reality (just look at politics, lately). If an employee feels more control over his or her situation, stress levels drop. This is great news for leaders who are already good at asking employees for input; and listening when they give it. If you are a leader who isn’t good at involving your staff, I would be stressed about it.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Get Used to Watching Yourself

If you never have to stand in front of an audience and deliver a presentation, you can stop reading. For the rest of you, I am often asked, “Should I bring notes on stage, or script my presentation word for word?” As with most of life, the answer is never simple. Before I get into the meat of the issue, let’s dispense with one question right off the bat. Unless you are giving a legal deposition, never script your presentation. The two most common reasons people script speeches are: they are too nervous to face the audience and talk, or they are worried about forgetting important points of information.

 

If you are uncomfortable facing and audience, reading off a script won’t make you appear any more comfortable. In fact, because you are trying to follow words on a page, you are more likely to stumble when you fall off script (which always happens). If you are worried about forgetting something, bring notes on stage. If you have key words to follow, your natural conversational tone will take over, and you will appear more genuine and authoritative; and the notes will make sure you tick off important points as you go.

There is another important reason not to script presentations. When we write, we use more words than when we speak; we also use different vocabulary. It is rare that someone can read a prepared speech and not sound canned. The result is a disconnect from the audience, and a loss of trust on the part of the listener.

So, if you can’t script a presentation, how do you improve your speaking skills? An effective tool comes from an unlikely source; stand-up comedy. Comedians have the same challenge as speakers, they must remember important points in their presentation, and yet they must appear to be speaking off the top of their head. Comedians use what is called a set list; a list of key words that take them from one piece of material (called a bit) to the next. The best comedians take honing their craft to the next level. They record their act, then afterwards they transcribe their set word for word; essentially creating a script after the fact. This allows them to examine their act on paper and look for better word choices, clear up unnecessary or meandering segments, and rearrange material for better flow.

Besides reviewing their act on paper, disciplined comedians also watch themselves on video. They look for distracting mannerisms. These are usually repetitive movements that people aren’t aware they are doing unless they see it on screen. They watch for movement and physicality that either supports or detracts from their message. Anyone who has seen themselves on video can attest that it can be very uncomfortable. Few people like the way they look or sound on tape, so good performers must develop an objectivity; the ability to look at themselves on screen as if they were an audience member. Gaining objectivity helps us improve our style without getting rid of the things that make us personable.

Years ago, I was acquainted with a successful news anchor. He reached the top of the #14 media market in the country, and was eventually hired in Los Angeles, the #2 market. I asked how he gained the skills to be a top-notch news anchor, and he said, “I review every single news broadcast I deliver. I evaluate my performance as if I were someone sitting in his or her living room and I ask myself, ‘Would I like watching this, or would I turn the channel?’” I thought about what my friend said, and I thought about the thousands of conferences I have attended over the years. I thought about how many speakers made me want to change the channel.

Few comedians, or news anchors, follow through with the discipline of transcribing their performance and reviewing themselves on tape; but the best ones do. I do it every so often, and every time I do, I am surprised at what I learn about my performance. Even if you can’t transcribe and review yourself after every presentation, do it as often as you can. It is the only way to make sure the audience doesn’t want to change the channel.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

One Thousand Punches a Day

This is a monumental year for my company; it is our 30th anniversary. I know, you see my photo or videos in the Business Journal and think, “Stevie, you don’t look a day over forty!” I stay out of the sun. When people find out about the big 3-0, they invariably ask how we kept our little enterprise going for three decades. This is especially pertinent given the statistics of business survival. According to the Small Business Administration, 30% of new businesses fail in the first year, 50% during the first five years, 66% during the first ten; with only 25% making it to the fifteen-year mark.

 

As a born talk, I try to come up with sage advice to others who ask about our longevity, but I always go back to the wisdom of previous generations. A lot of that wisdom comes from outside the world of business. I have been practicing martial arts for over forty years and I use the lessons of ancient martial arts to guide much of what I do in life. I say ancient martial arts to distinguish it from the trophy-hunting practice often seen today. I learned the most valuable lesson for business on my first day of karate training.

When I first walked into a karate dojo in 1977, my teacher, Mr. Okamura, was an older Japanese man. Like most young men, I was eager to learn the high-flying antics of movie stars like Bruce Lee. When I asked Okamura what I had to do to become an expert martial artist he said, “Practice one thousand punches every day.” I stared at him. How could practicing the simplest of techniques help me become a master? I asked, “When do I learn the flying kicks, the spinning kicks, or the secret death blows?” (Note: there is no such thing as a secret death touch.) Okamura sighed and said, “Someday, you will learn those, but they are worthless.”

Okamura explained, “It is unlikely that you will ever need to use your martial art to defend yourself; but if you do, it will be in a moment of fear or panic. If someone attacks you, you have no time to think; you must act. Fancy techniques require thinking. In a real situation, you will only have time for either a quick punch or simple kick. In that moment, you must deliver your technique with power and precision in a split second. If you practice a simple punch or kick one thousand times every day, the technique will be there when you need it. If you scatter your training across every technique available, you won’t master anything. Better to master one thing than be average at many things. He who chases two rabbits gets no dinner.”

I can’t say I have always heeded Okamura’s advice, but it has served as a guide when running my business. I even wrote a book, One Thousand Punches a Day. I identify simple acts that I think will grow my business, and I employ them every day. These simple acts could be five e-mails or calls to prospective clients, or follow-up contacts with previous clients; every single day. And, when I am tempted by some plan that promises to jump my business ten-fold, I treat it like a spinning jump kick; I may learn it some day, but I can’t rely on it when the chips are down. I also remembered when Okamura said to have a good teacher who would examine how well you punched; and make corrections if needed. There is no point in practicing something every day if it isn’t getting you anywhere.

There isn’t a business alive that doesn’t survive on simple acts performed every day. Focusing on simple acts is a challenge. It is tempting to shift our attention to a new and exciting technique, rather than continue plugging away at what works; but focus is the key to a successful business. It is also hard to keep one thousand punches a day in mind when we are surrounded by stories of billionaires who created mega-companies overnight with one cool new idea; but those people are like Bruce Lee. You can’t duplicate them, and they don’t come along very often. Better to have a simple punch that you can rely on.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Why We Argue

I like to keep my wits sharp. To do this, I often listen to debates on my computer while performing mundane tasks at work. The debates cover every issue you can imagine; immigration policy, foreign affairs, education, you name it. As you might expect, there are experts on both sides of the issue armed with reams of documents. As you also might expect, neither side gives an inch. No matter what either side says, the other team remains cemented to the notion that the opposing team is mis-informed, ill-intentioned, or outright evil.

 

This particular program polls the audience prior to the debate, and then again afterwards. The winner is not the team with the highest number of followers among the audience, but the team that changed the most minds. As in our two-party political system, there are people on both sides of each issue, and there is a percentage of undecided voters. In politics, most strategists acknowledge that there is little chance of converting a Republican to a Democrat, and vice versa; they focus on the independent voters. But, the teams in the debate program are hoping to change everyone’s minds. And indeed, when the results are displayed at the end of the debate, I am pleasantly surprised as to how many people began the debate voting for one side, yet changed their vote based on what they learned.

How does this relate to business? There isn’t a day that goes by in any company without some sort of debate. The problem is most debates bear little fruit. People typically come to the table with a point of view, and facts to defend their position. A lot of talking occurs, with very little listening. Most people are just waiting for the other side to stop talking so they can make their point. If one person makes a point, and the other person doesn’t agree, the strategy is to re-state the position; louder. We humans seem to think that the only reason other people don’t agree with us is that they didn’t hear us the first time. Then, when the other person says, “I heard you the first time,” we re-state our position, using different wording. (Perhaps they heard us, but just didn’t understand our version of English.)

I can’t think of a bigger waste of time for the American worker than debates during meetings (other than surfing Facebook to see photos of your friends on vacation). Bad debates can cause long term damage to working relationships. When people agree with us, we view them as smart and well-intentioned. When people disagree with us, we don’t trust them even if they are correct. This not only makes for poor teamwork, but poor decision making. Many times, decisions are made based on facts, but on which decision will cause the least amount of grief among the team.

If I were looking to hire people, I wouldn’t hire the experts who fervently present their case and stick to their guns, I would hire the people who either had the courage to admit that they were undecided in the first place, or those who had the ability to change their minds. These are the kinds of people who demonstrate respect for various points of view, and who keep their ego out of the equation.

Examining one’s ego is a crucial part of leadership; since our ego does more decision-making than our intellect. A neuroscientific study examined why people become so angry when their beliefs are challenged. It was discovered that, when a firmly held belief is challenged, the same parts of the brain activate as when we are threatened with physical harm. In short, the brain feels that a challenge to our beliefs is the same as a challenge to our very safety. It is no wonder that, when arguing an issue, people will scream, sweat, and pound the table. Their brains are preparing for a fight that goes beyond words.

How does a leader handle this? When a difficult issue is at hand, remind the group that they need to distance themselves from the issue. Treat ideas as facts, not a representation of the person discussing it. And remind the group that how they debate will carry into how they work together once the debate is over.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

The One Reason You Exist

I was on the phone with my web hosting company because I was having trouble setting up new e-mail service for my business. After weeks of working out the kinks, I was not able to sign on to my new service. The tech support guy confirmed that I wasn’t able to open my e-mail because I did not buy a special secure package. I said that I was never told about having to pay more just to use the service I already paid for, he said, “You know what I would do? I would cancel this other package you bought and install the secure package. You will save more money in the end.” By the time we were done, I was so happy about his service I had forgotten that previous reps at the company had sold me unnecessary packages. It got me to wondering about how that rep’s manager was able to instill in him the urge to go beyond the basics of his job and serve the needs of the customer.

This is a trend among businesses I work with lately. Leaders can’t seem to get employees to do more than just the bare minimum. The first scapegoat is employee motivation, but motivation is a delicate balance of internal and external factors. And a lack of motivation isn’t solved by an occasional pep talk. Motivation is not a goal; it is an outcome. An outcome of skills combined with empathy; the ability to feel what another person is feeling. When a customer is frustrated, simply solving their problem isn’t enough. Empathy empowers an employee to alleviate the stress and frustration the customer feels.

To foster empathy, you must first create a picture of why everyone’s work is important, but also important for the right reasons. If people understand how their work affects the big picture, they will always go above and beyond. I call this The One Reason You Exist.

The one reason you exist is a simple phrase that describes the one goal your organization strives to achieve with every interaction, with every customer. The one reason your company exists is not the mission statement, it is a simple phrase that every employee could repeat. The One Reason You Exist goes beyond tasks and functions; it speaks to what you bring to the world. It goes beyond what you do and examines what you do for others. During a workshop for a group of government employees, I asked each department to tell me why they existed. A group from Child Services started rattling off their mission statement; filled with “to provide” and “ensure” statements. I told them that, if they wouldn’t use the statement over coffee with friends, they couldn’t use it as the one reason they existed. I left the group to discuss and they came back with a great reason to exist; Feed the babies.

The reason having this clear, concise statement is important is that every decision a staff member makes must be measured against that goal. If a staff meeting gets bogged down over disagreements, one can simply ask, “Does your idea help us feed the babies?” If it doesn’t, out it goes. Many companies claim to give “superior customer service,” including the one that sold me e-mail packages I didn’t need. The trouble is, “superior” isn’t something you can feel; so, employees go through the motions and follow procedures. They figure that, if they didn’t piss anyone off that day, they did their job. That behavior isn’t superior.

Another company I worked with replaced “superior customer service” with the one reason they existed, We bring the wow. That statement might sound too slogan-y or cutesy to you, but it brings clarity to what is expected of everyone at the company. You have done your job when the customer says, “Wow!” Employees at that company are motivated to go beyond their job description. The goal of bringing the wow encourages them to empathize with the person they are serving. In fact, staff members will now hang up the phone and announce to the room, “I just brought the wow!”

Set aside your fancy mission statement and think about the one reason your company exists. Provide motivation for your employees that comes from within.

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

If You Want Creative Thinking, Stimulate

Here is how most companies conduct a brainstorming session. They take a bunch of staff members and pack them around a table in a conference room. The walls of the room are the same dull gray as the local penitentiary. The only artwork is a motivational poster from the ‘80s with a photo of people rowing a boat with word TEAMWORK at the bottom.  There is a fridge full of Snapple drinks and a basket of granola bars, plus some leftover Halloween candy someone brought in from home. The session kicks off when the leader stands up and asks, “Who has an idea?”

 

When this question is met with silent stares, the leader thinks, “I chose the wrong people.” This is one of many mistakes made by companies seeking innovative ideas. The first being the notion that there are creative people and normal people. Creative people are the ones with nose rings, facial tattoos, and clothing with colors from the outer ranges of the spectrum. They show up late, talk about their feelings, and give hugs instead of handshakes. You want creative people around for brainstorm sessions, but not for shareholder meetings.

The fact is, there is no such thing as a creative or non-creative brain. All brains have the same capacity for rational thought as well as free-wheeling noodling. Accountants are just as creative as artists. The reason some people are better at creative thinking is they have received the proper stimulation. Given the right stimulation, any brain and produce ground-breaking ideas. However, the stimulation needed must be both internal and external.

External stimulation is the engagement of the five senses. The brain is not a machine, it is an organism; an organism that responds to its environment. In order to stimulate the brain’s creative juices, the eyes must be dazzled with color and images, the ears must hear rhythm and tone, the hands must grasp objects, the nose must smell enticing aromas, and the tongue must savor flavors. Gray walls dull the senses. Silence tells the ears to tell the brain to stay quiet. Idle hands and sterile smells shut down thinking. And granola bars do not provide excitement (they hardly provide sustenance).

People spend more time selecting the right colors to paint their house than they do their office. We think, “If I am going to live in this room, it has to be just right.” But, the same is true of a workplace. Even if your company isn’t heavy on innovative ideas, adding visual stimulation keeps the brain from dulling down. One company I worked with forewent the standard headshots of employees. Instead, they filled the office with photos of employees engaged in their favorite hobbies. The CFO was swinging tennis racquet. The head of HR was reeling in a lake trout. And the shop foreman was in a karate uniform breaking a board with a kick. Not only are these images more stimulating than a blank wall, they help clients and co-workers see the people at the company as more than just a title and a suit.

Internal stimulation is a recognition that the brain is not a computer in which you can throw a switch labeled Create, and away it goes. When the brain is focused on completing a task, it is engaged in Cognitive Function. It closes parts of the brain not necessary for the task, thereby conserving energy. Cognitive Function is great for completing tasks, but horrible for creative output. To inspire creative thinking, you must shake off the cognitive shackles the brain has been wearing all day, and engage in Whole-Brain Function; in which the entire brain is awakened and connected. This is accomplished by one simple act; play. Play behavior differs from work behavior in that is has no stated outcome. Play is for its own sake. However, when people engage in play, certain chemicals are released in the brain, and they are better able to brainstorm immediately following the game.

Brainstorm companies will have participants grab nerf guns and have an all-out nerf battle just before the brainstorming begins. This play behavior engages whole-brain function, provides internal stimulation, and the ideas flow.

Creative thinking is not magic. It is the result of planning the right amount of internal and external stimulation.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

No Apologies Necessary

I am often asked, “If I, or my company, has made a mistake, how should we apologize?” I used to tell people that one apology at the start of the conversation, and one at the end, was sufficient; any more, and it seems like you are begging for forgiveness. However, new research conducted by Case Western Reserve University has discovered that apologies almost never have the desired effect we want. Surprisingly, angry customers report greater satisfaction when the employee skips the apology altogether; focusing instead on finding an immediate solution.

 

This advice might seem counterintuitive, until you examine the delicate psychology of familial vs. non-familial relationships. If we have a lunch date with a close friend, and she is twenty minutes late, we not only expect an apology, we will stew in our anger until we get a heartfelt atonement. That is because the basis of the relationship is emotional, not based on an outcome. However, if the scenario is you not having an item delivered to a client when promised, the client is not interested in a positive emotional experience, he just wants to know how the problem is going to be solved. In fact, the researchers at Case Western Reserve discovered that, in non-familial relationships, employees who tried to express empathy or contrition were viewed as even less trustworthy than those who focused solely on solving the problem.

Why the opposite reactions to an apology? Because the brain has a special place for people in our inner circle—familial relationships—and for people who aren’t—non-familial relationships. People in our inner circle rely on shared experiences to cement the relationship. If people outside the inner circle try the same approach, the brain deems it inauthentic. The outcome of an inauthentic approach is that even good solutions can be viewed with suspicion. Even professions that rely heavily on empathy must be careful not to tread too close to the familial relationship border. Take, for example, a visit to the emergency room. You would expect that nurses, being in an empathic profession, could utilize apologies to great effect. Not so. Let’s say you injured your leg and are waiting in an exam room at the ER. When a nurse pokes his head in to see how you are doing, you say, “My leg is really starting to hurt.” Which of the following responses would you want to hear from the nurse?

  • “Oh, I’m so sorry. You sure did bang your leg up pretty bad, and it must feel awful. I’m so sorry about the wait. We’re going to get to you as soon as we possibly can. We have some other patients, but I’ll be back when it’s your turn. Again, thanks so much for your patience.”
  • “Okay, then we need to get your pain under control as soon as possible. The doctor is with another patient, but I’m going to let her know about your situation and we’ll get you taken care of right away.”

In the two examples above, even if the length of time to solve the problem turns out to be the same, the second response is more effective because it displays a sense of urgency. In non-familial relationships, chit-chat is not only perceived as disingenuous, it wastes time. I experienced the wasting of time while trying to clear up an issue with a customer service rep on the phone. I was trying to gain access to an online account and my password wasn’t working. I was clearly dealing with a rep who was trained to follow a script (one of my biggest pet peeves in the customer service industry). Every time I stated a problem, she responded with, “We are very sorry you are experiencing this issue.” After at least a dozen, “We are very sorry” statements, I finally said, “At the risk of being rude, I need to ask you to stop apologizing. It is taking way too much time, and I need to resolve this quickly.” She paused and said, “I am very sorry for apologizing so much.”

There is an old saying, People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Demonstrating how you care is different, depending on whether the listener is in your inner circle. Skip the chit-chat, and solve the problem.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Talk, Don’t Text

I got a call from Charles the other day. Charles is the Vice President of Sales of a software company. He said, “I handle high-end client issues. By the time an issue reaches my desk, it means that things are serious. The first thing I do is check the e-mail thread between my staff and the client. Sometimes the e-mail thread is three to four weeks long, but my staff member never picked up the phone and talk over the issue with the client. When I review the e-mails, I see that, around the second or third exchange, a phone call would have easily resolved the problem.”

 

Charles added, “Instead of solving problems by calling clients, my staff continues to e-mail. I end up having to give refunds and discounts just to keep a client that is ready to walk. Our company spends months or years to woo new clients, only to almost lose them because a staff member would rather use his thumbs than his mouth.” I asked Charles why he didn’t just instruct his staff to pick up the phone instead of e-mail or text. He replied, “Would you put a jockey on the horse if he didn’t know how to ride it?”

I was surprised to discover that the problem was not that Charlie’s staff were millennials who grew up only communicating through cell phones; there were just as many Gen-X and Baby Boomers in the room. We began by examining the pros and cons of voice, text, and face-to-face communication. Too many people choose one form of communication over another without thinking. In a nutshell:

Text: the pros. Text is trackable, allowing for accountability and accuracy. Text can also be reviewed before sending, avoiding mis-statements. Text allows both sender and receiver to engage on their own time. Text can also be stored for later review. These pros make text appropriate for sending data that might be reviewed at a later date.

Text: the cons. Text usually takes more time to convey the same amount of information, making it a less efficient means of communication. Text also lacks the subtly of voice or face-to-face, increasing the risk of misunderstanding. This next point might seem trivial, but text isn’t fun. Communication is not meant solely to convey information. Even staid business relationships must have an element of human connection. Only the most skilled writer can make textual communication fun. With inboxes filled with dozens of messages every day, one more message adds stress for the receiver. No matter how necessary your text is, it is not a welcome part of someone’s day. Conversation is almost always more pleasant than reading. Most important, it is virtually impossible to influence behavior or resolve issues using text.

Voice: the pros. Reading is a relatively recent addition to the brain’s evolutionary abilities; and quickly tires of it. The brain prefers listening to a voice. Subtleties of pitch and tone make voice communication more effective at influencing behavior and developing a relationship. Voice also allows for more information in a shorter time. Voice enables humor; a powerful tool for communication.

Voice: the cons. If you aren’t adept at conversation, you can ruin it by interrupting or not delivering with smooth flow of information. Also, unless you take accurate notes, voice communication can be remembered differently by both parties, leading to problems later. Finally, it can be difficult to align schedules that allow both parties to be available to talk at the same time.

Face-to-Face: the pros. As much as the brain loves to listen instead of read; it loves to look at visuals even more. The combination of face and voice are what our brains are most attuned to. Every benefit listed in the voice section belongs here, but with slightly less risk of misinterpreting signals.

Face-to-Face: the cons. Besides scheduling conflicts, there aren’t many other cons for face-to-face communication, unless you are socially challenged.

Now that the pros and cons are out of the way, I’ll bet you were expecting a tutorial on the best techniques and voice and face communication. If only life were that easy. If you want to sharpen these skills, you have to practice. Have your staff call you to make practice runs. Train your jockeys before putting them on a horse.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Chase One Rabbit

“What is it you want your people to do better?” I pose this question to every client as I prepare for a workshop. This time, I was speaking to, Hank, an executive at 3M. He was driving an initiative to improve innovative thinking and shorten the time between idea and implementation. Hank didn’t hesitate to answer, “Focus! In order to work together and create new ideas, we have to get all of our minds centered on an issue, but I can’t get them to stop looking at their blasted laptops or phones. Everyone is so distracted, we can’t get anything done.” When I first started hearing about this problem from clients a number of years ago, the solution seemed easy; just make a rule that all digital devices must be turned off during meetings. But, even with such rules in place, the ability to focus among modern humans has diminished to the point where our mental productivity is tragically hampered.

Too many people have fooled themselves into thinking that they can multi-task and still be effective; effective listeners, effective thinkers, and effective problem solvers. The truth is, multi-tasking is a myth; and neuroscience proves it. The part of the brain that conducts our high-level thinkin’—the cerebral cortex—is a sequential organism. It can only handle one task at a time. Yes, it can switch from one thought to another quickly, depending on the individual, but it cannot effectively hold two thoughts at once. To attempt to do so is a self-defeating exercise. And, in order to be at our mental best, we need complete focus. We need what the Japanese call kime (“kee-may”), or focus. As in many Asian disciplines, the ability to focus on a single task is paramount. The tuning out of all distractions allows for mastery of one’s discipline. An old martial arts saying is, “He who chases two rabbits, gets no dinner.” The lesson is often illustrated in the following story.

Kiyohisa, a martial arts master in Japan, once took one of his students to attend a Noh Theatre performance. Noh is a form of classical musical drama that began in 14th century Japan. As in many Asian disciplines, Noh has masters and apprentices. Since Kiyohisa was a master in his discipline, he was eager to see Hideto, a well-known master of Noh Theatre, employ his craft. During the performance, while Kiyohisa’s young student was entertained by the play, Kiyohisa kept his eyes rivetted on Hideto. He marveled at the intensity of Hideto’s performance. When the performance ended, the young student asked his master what he thought of the play. Kiyohisa responded, “It was excellent. Hideto had superb kime; he only lost it once. I believe he was distracted by a gentleman in the front row.” Since Kiyohisa was well known, he and his student were invited backstage to meet Hideto. Kiyohisa said, “Your performance was a pleasure to watch!” Hideto responded, “I was mostly satisfied with it as well. I only broke kime once. I was distracted by a man in the front row. I must work to keep better focus next time.” Being students of different arts did not change how each valued focus, and its importance in mastery.

It is easy to see how a lack of focus can be dangerous in disciplines that may cause injury. Even a single second of distraction can be hazardous. But, the dangers of a lack of focus extend beyond getting punched during a sparring match. Examine those who are the best at what they do, and you will discover that they all share a common approach; to do their best work, they create environments in which all distractions are removed. From artists and writers, to accountants and mechanics; focus marks the difference between average and excellent. Dalton Trumbo, one of the most celebrated writers in US history, would lock himself in the bathroom and sit in a tub of water while writing. Some considered his demand for absolute solitude selfish or eccentric, but those people didn’t write Roman Holiday or Spartacus.

My profession, improvisation, also values focus. One of the classic Eight Rules of Improvisation is Listen, Watch, and Concentrate. This rule demands that all members of a team pay as much attention to the action as they would want on their own behalf. This may sound like a simple rule, but it goes beyond just telling people to pay attention to what is going on. Working together effectively isn’t simply a matter of taking turns, it is realizing that the other person cannot do his or her best work without the complete focus of the team. Anyone knows this who has given a presentation to a roomful of people who are mentally elsewhere. Theatre professionals are taught, If you break focus during a performance, every other actor onstage is forced to break focus until you get back into character.

Sadly, Americans’ ability to focus is getting worse by the day. I watch meetings where people glance at their phones every other minute. Some people have laptops open and are scanning multiple pages at once during a presentation. The onslaught of social media has fooled our brains into thinking we are receiving input, when all we are really getting is neural stimulation. And the need for constant stimulation has destroyed our ability to focus on a single conversation, line or thought, or workplace issue, for more than a few minutes. As a result, we check texts and e-mail at times when our focus should be elsewhere. We justify our lack of focus by telling ourselves that we must remain connected so as not to miss important calls. Yes, some clients need to hear from us right away, but the majority of time spent scanning screens and clicking phones is not only unnecessary, it is counter-productive. You know how you blame other drivers for dangerous habits on the road, when you pull the same stunts? People do the same with distractions. They hate it when people don’t pay attention when they are speaking at a meeting, but allow themselves those same distractions by labeling them necessary.

How hard is it to keep focus? In the course of writing this column, I switched to the e-mail screen four times, silenced a cell phone calendar alert, ran to the living room to see what the dogs were barking at, and called a company member to discuss an upcoming workshop. (Physician, heal thyself.) To my credit, however, when I am speaking with a client, I physically turn away from the computer. I sometimes go so far as to close my eyes so there are no visual distractions that could break my kime.

The next time you think you can multi-task, remind yourself that your brain can’t do it any better than the other 7.7 billion brains on the planet. And, your lack of focus hurts more than just you, it forces everyone else out of character. Chase one rabbit, and you’ll get dinner.

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Don’t “Fill ‘er Up”, Stevie Ray’s February 2019 nationally syndicated column in the Business Journal newspapers

I was sitting in the back of a conference room last week waiting to deliver a presentation. Speaking before me was, Barbara, a staff member talking about a new company policy. Soon after she began, I noticed she used what linguists call hesitation forms; more commonly known as fillers. Fillers are words or phrases a person injects into his or her speech in order to fill a pause or hesitation. Common fillers include um, ah, you know, okay, and my favorite, like. Barbara’s particular filler was the phrase “All right?”. Her presentation went like this:

You should always check with central division before sending out a repair order. All right? Because, if you don’t, we could double-bill the client, and that would cause problems. All right? So, if you don’t get approval from central division, hold onto the repair order and wait for approval. If it takes more that twenty four hours—all right?—call me and I’ll make sure that the correct person is assigned to the order. All right?

I started counting the number of all rights in her presentation. I stopped counting at 218. If fillers are limited to a few every now then throughout your speaking pattern, it is no big deal. However, if fillers become a regular part of your delivery, the impact is devastating. A quick look around the conference room and I could immediately see the impact of Barbara’s all rights on her audience. The audience, who—at the beginning of her speech—were giving her their full attention, were now looking down at their phones, their notes, their laps; anywhere but at Barbara. When people are uncomfortable, the first victim is eye contact. We simply can’t look at someone who is speaking poorly. Sadly, the less eye contact Barbara got from her audience, the more uncomfortable she became, so the more all rights she used. Even though Barbara was knowledgeable about her subject, she came off looking weak and unsure. The applause at the end of her speech was more of gratitude for the ending, than appreciation for the outcome.

Filler words have a specific cause. Humans grow up learning to communicate in a singular fashion; casual conversation. First with family, then with friends, then at school, verbal communication is always two-directional. During casual, two-way conversation, the listener is not passive. Listeners play an active role in furthering the dialogue. They nod their heads, show emotion with facial expressions, and keep the conversation going by interjecting phrases like, “What happened next?” or “Really, what did the other guy say?” These cues help the speaker deliver a smooth and continuous thought or story. The challenge in speaking to a group is, none of these cues occur. In fact, they are frowned upon because they can interrupt the flow. The lack of these cues can be disconcerting for a speaker who is not accustomed to one-way communication. This discomfort causes not only filler words to be used, but the tendency for speakers to pause after each thought; scanning the audience for a nodding head or accepting smile.

Speakers need to remember that, if communication is one-directional, they will not receive the cues they would during casual conversation. Given that the listener can think faster than you can speak, it is important to keep the delivery constant and uninterrupted. Waiting for signs that the audience understands or agrees with you will cause their minds to wander; making regaining their attention almost impossible. It isn’t that the audience is uninterested in your topic; they just don’t trust that you will be worth the effort of listening.

Here is the rub. You can’t simply say to yourself, “Don’t use fillers!” The rule of the brain is, if you tell someone not to think about something, they will think about it even more. Instead, recognize when you are expecting conversational cues during a speech, and power through the speech without them. Next, instead of avoiding fillers, replace them. Usually, the best replacement is to move onto the next point you intend to make in your presentation. Another good replacement for a filler word is a short pause. Taking a quick breath before moving on allows what you have said to sink in to the listener’s brain. It also gives you a quick stop to mentally move onto the next thought. Each point you make during a presentation should have its own space; its own beginning, middle, and end. Fillers drag one thought into the next; creating an endless drone of words and sounds. Pretty sound, the whole speech has a single tone; lacking the ebb and flow of an engaging presentation.

The first step to solving any problem is to recognize that there is one. To that end, either have a colleague observe your next presentation, or record it yourself to review later. Once you’ve counted all the filler words or phrases you use, you might see the need to tighten up your delivery. Do yourself a favor and make replacing fillers with more powerful delivery part of your every day practice. Rather than setting aside time every day to practice speaking, keep fillers top-of-mind during everyday conversation. Killing two birds with one stone; you become a better conversationalist and a better speaker. Good luck and…ah…you know…like…whatever.

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

Small Document, Big Impact

It wasn’t that long ago that companies realized that rewarding healthy behavior among their employees paid off in big ways. Healthier eating and exercise meant fewer sick days, increased longevity, and higher productivity. So, companies instituted perks and bonuses for employees who took better care of themselves; this, in turn, took better care of the company. This long-view of employee health and behavior can now be applied to a part of life that few companies talk about; the end of life. It may surprise you to learn that how an employee prepares for death can have far-reaching implications for your business. I am not talking about after a person dies, I am talking about the months or weeks leading up to death. I will explain by way of example, then I will end with a few steps you, and your company. can take to better prepare.

The story comes from the small town of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Just shy of 52,000 people, La Crosse spends less on end-of-life care than any other city in the United States. Why? Largely because of the work of Bud Hammes, Medical Ethicist with La Crosse’s Gunderson Health System. Part of Bud’s job is to help patients and families deal with end-of-life issues; and a big part of that process is making sure that the patient’s wishes for meeting the end are honored. The way to do this is to make sure the patient has an Advance Care Directive, also called a Health Care Directive.

Most people think that all they need regarding their death is a last will and testament. Wills dictate what happens after a person dies, but what if you have an accident that leaves you unable to speak for yourself? Now your family must decide about issues like life support, pain management, and emergency resuscitation. With different views about personal, spiritual, or religious beliefs, these issues can be difficult to resolve among family members. In fact, more families have been torn apart by not have a Health Care Directive than by not having a will. If you die without a will, the state will step in and mediate the process. Without a Health Care Directive, there is no right answer to “How long do we maintain life support?”

Having a Health Care Directive includes choosing a Health Care Agent. This is the person who makes sure your end-of-life wishes are followed. Most people assume the best person for this role is a spouse or partner, but that isn’t always best. When tragedy strikes, emotions run high, and burdening a spouse with making life-and-death decisions might be too much to ask. The best person for the job is someone who can navigate family members who might disagree, as well as work with health care professionals about your care.

Bud Hammes knew this, so he trained other health care professionals to make conversations about end-of-life planning more comfortable. The momentum grew to include the entire community. Now, it isn’t uncommon in La Crosse to hear people chatting over coffee and asking, “Got your HCD done?” The result is, while the national average for Health Care Directive participation is about 30%, La Crosse has a 96% participation rate. The outcome is that La Crosse also spends less money on end-of-life care than any city in the country. Hammes didn’t begin his campaign with cost savings in mind, but doctors do report that a good deal of health care spending is done in the final year of life; and a good deal of that spending is during the patient’s final days. Sadly, much of that spending is against the patient’s wishes. Without a Health Care Directive, physicians must make decisions on the spot, with no input from the patient. I spoke to an ER doctor who said it wasn’t uncommon for him to resuscitate a patient, only to have the patient be angry to be brought back. Those who know the end is coming would like to meet it on their terms.

And, it is easy for younger employees to think this is only an issue for older folks, but anyone can be in a car accident and be left unable to speak for themselves. In fact, a 24-year-old member of my company completed a Health Care Directive as part of our initiative. A few days later, he was coaching a youth hockey game and tripped on the ice. He was rushed to the emergency room to check for a concussion, and the first thing the admitting nurse asked was whether he had a Health Care Directive. None of us will get out of this life alive, and everyone should meet the end on his or her own terms.

How does this affect your business? Just like employees engaging in healthy behavior affects the company’s long-term bottom line, so does planning for end of life. Of course, it is easy to see how eliminating the cost of unwanted procedures, medications, and hospital care would affect a company’s cost for employee benefits, but it goes further. Studies have shown that when employees deal with the end-of-life of a family member, if a Health Care Directive is not in place, the employee’s work life is greatly affected. Lost hours, and loss of productivity at work are all the result of not having one simple document.

The good news is, Health Care Directives are free, and easy to complete. Unlike a will, attorneys are not needed to complete an HCD. You can download the form online, fill it out, and hand it to your doctor. It then becomes part of your medical record, so your wishes can be honored if you can’t speak for yourself. Here is what I encourage you to do: 1) Assign someone in your company to be the Advance Care Director. Many hospitals have this role; someone in your company should champion the process. 2) Make having a Health Care/Advance Care Directive an expectation of employment. While you can’t, and shouldn’t, force someone to take part, people do respond favorably to a culture of expectation (as they learned in La Crosse). 3) Make the HCD a living document. Don’t just stick it in a drawer and forget about it. Discuss it with loved ones so they know about your wishes, but also review your HCD every now and then to see if your feelings and wishes might have changed.

Americans are not alone in avoiding conversations about death, but we are adept at it. Take the simple steps to get your employees ready, and comfortable, with the end. You may not see the financial benefits right away, but they are there. And, you will see immediate benefits that go much deeper.

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

I Am In Sales, Not Service

If I am in the right mood, listening to easy-listening jazz is fine. If I have been on hold for fifty-seven minutes waiting for customer service, easy-listening isn’t easy to listen to. It struck me that, when I first called Big Behemoth Communications to help my aging parents switch their internet and cable service, my call was answered tout de suite (or, as we Americans mispronounce it, “toot sweet”). That was because I was buying their service. Now, however, I was calling to report a problem, and the response was trés lent (no, I don’t speak French). But the problem with the call wasn’t the speed of response, it was the response itself.

When I first called Big Behemoth, they were anxious to get my parents to agree to a two-year service plan; so much so that they offered a free computer tablet if we signed up that day. The agreement was signed, the equipment was installed, and my parents were back to watching Shark Tank and e-mailing the grandkids. A few days later, they received an e-mail that stated that, in order to receive the free tablet, they had to go the Big Behemoth website and enter a ten-digit account number. Their account number was only nine digits. I was positive that a quick phone call would solve the problem, but I was quickly informed that, in order to receive the free tablet, we needed to add cell phone service to the package. When I explained that I was told that the service we purchased included the tablet, the guy said, “I am in sales, not customer service.” I was quickly forwarded to customer service.

I explained the problem to the young lady in customer service and she said she was very sorry about the mix-up. (Ever notice that you don’t feel any better after a customer service rep apologizes for the inconvenience. It is because you would rather they used the time spent apologizing to fix the problem.) She informed me that the free-tablet program had concluded months earlier, and that the first salesperson I worked with should have never promised the gift. I informed her that it wasn’t my concern as to the dates of their promotion; I was told something by a representative of their organization, and they either needed to honor the agreement or make some kind of compensation. “I’m sorry sir,” she said. “There is nothing more we can do.” I said, “You know, if you buy a car and give the dealership a check, you expect to either get the car, or to get your money back. You are telling me that I am not getting either.” “I’m sorry sir,” she said. “There is nothing more we can do.” I informed her that the company’s revenue for 2017 topped $160 billion. That’s billion, with a “B.” They can get a deal on a computer tablet for around $100.

When I asked to speak to her supervisor, she said that she was the manager, and there was no one else I could talk to. I assured her that, unless she owned Big Behemoth Communications, she did indeed have someone above her. After an extended back-and-forth over whether there was indeed someone who signed her checks, and who might care about honoring the company’s offer, I was transferred to the Customer Experience Department. I didn’t ask about the difference between the customer service and customer experience departments, I was just happy to speak to someone else.

When the customer experience rep heard my story, she was appalled. She promised to get to the bottom of it. She was going to review the tapes of all my phone calls with them. Remember those “this call may be recorded for training and quality assurance purposes” messages you hear? Maybe, for once, those tapes would come in handy. I was told to wait ten working days for a response. That was over a month ago.

I didn’t tell you this story to get a “woe is you” response. If you haven’t had a phone call like this yourself, you live in Antarctica. I relate the story because of one statement throughout the interactions that stuck with me; when the employee said, “I am in sales, not customer service.” I have hundreds of business leaders tell their staff, “No matter what you do for the company, we are all in the business of customer service,” but I almost never hear the leader say, “You are each empowered to take whatever steps necessary to solve the problem.” What good is it to admonish staff to all consider themselves customer service professionals if the only thing they can do is shuffle the customer to someone else?

Successful companies train their employees to treat the rule book as a guide, not a set of handcuffs. Well trained employees are taught to be creative, not reactive; to use their brains, not the policy book. And, if employees are trusted to safeguard the assets of the company, they know to start with sensible solutions that won’t break the bank, but will still please the customer. In every instance where employees refuse to budge from the rules, you can trace the problem back to a situation where they landed in hot water for thinking and acting for themselves. In the end, the problem can usually be traced to bad leadership. It starts with taking a long look at exactly what each employee can do to solve a problem without relying on the customer experience department. Frankly, if a customer needs to speak to the Customer Experience Department, it’s too late.

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.