Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pink and Blue? What's Up With That?

Last week I attended a very interesting author's talk given by Rosalind Barnett, a senior researcher at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, co-author (with journalist Caryl Rivers) of a new book, The Truth about Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children (http://thetruthaboutgirlsandboys.com).

As someone who regularly works with clients on issues of leadership communications, it was heartening to hear Dr. Barnett's conclusions. Her book explores solid science by respected reasearchers. It points to larger variations in natural skills and abilities within each gender group than between them. Boys are no more naturally inclined, as a group, to actively take charge and become leader than girls are (which is pretty obvious to anyone who has observed a group of preschoolers!) The pseudo-science that posits men and women are from different planets, or have evolved as quasi-separate species, has long rankled me. And yet this "conventional wisdom" persists! As the mother of a daughter and a son, I have observed that such understanding can do great damage to our children growing up, as they are pushed into socially acceptable roles by well-meaning teachers, parents, neighbors. Little girls are told to "sit still and be quiet," and work on fine motor skills. Boys are urged to run around, play with toys that move, and never, ever touch dolls. Dr. Barnett told us that girls have as much testosterone - sometime more - than boys, until puberty, so why should they have a "built-in" inclination from the start to be demure? To be more empathetic, more "relational" - all those things we are told come "naturally" to females? And Dr. Barnett reminds us that the brain is incredibly plastic, so that the concept of being "hard-wired" for certain behaviors is also so much "received wisdom" that doesn't stand up to science.

I could go on about this subject - indeed, ask friends and family, who will tell you I have! But, even when people are socialized over time to adhere to these strict gender roles and internalize them, science says they are not inevitable or immutable. So I say, we should strive to be ourselves, to be our best selves, and not be derailed by the noise of what we "should" be. Especially if we want to realize our full potential as leaders, we frst need to clear out that clutter to see who we are.

It takes lots of energy to fight against this and many other, falsely-perceived "truths" that shape how we function day to day. As Virginia Woolf wrote in August, 1940, "Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it. That current flows fast and furious. It issues in a spate of word from the loudspeakers and the politicians. . . . it is our business to puncture gas-bags and discover seeds of truth." I plan to keep looking for those seeds.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Giving Thanks

Writing a blog post the afternoon before Thanksgiving may seem to be an exercise in futility. Who will take the time to read it?  I decided, therefore, to skip it and make this a one-blog week instead of two. And yet. . . I have something to write about that may not be read, but that I feel compelled to communicate, nonetheless.

I want to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for all the friends I have around the world, and the connections and contacts I have who are friends-in-the-making.

Professionally, I depend a lot on friends. So, I give thanks for the friends who remembered the odd professional niche I fill and called me when "something came up." Thanks for the clients who referred me to their colleagues who needed me. Thanks for those I network with on a regular basis who give me support, help me brainstorm, and share their expertise. Thanks for my students who always manage to teach me a thing or two.

Thanks of course to my wonderful family and long-time friends who have been with me on this journey we call life, who have shared the ups and downs of my acting career and Communications Conditioning practice. And my husband and kids all deserve more thanks than I can possibly give them for living through hours of conversations about the subjects of the plays I have written. They know obscure facts about the founding of Jamestown and the life of John Calvin that serve only as proof of the powerful bond that hold us together. 

I am truly blessed with such rich relationships. I give thanks.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Catch your breath

It's mid-afternoon on a Friday in November.
I am about to go do some pre-Thanksgiving reconnaissance for a fresh turkey.
Tomorrow, I will do a workshop on effective presentation skills for dynamic speaking to a roomful of emergent leaders.
The clock is ticking; I am starting to feel a teensy bit tense!
I tell myself what I tell my clients:

Just breathe! Just do it. Deeply and often. Take a "breathing break" during that mid-afternoon slump to re-energize.

And it works!

As we embark on the winter holiday season, filled with so many good smells, notice how often you stop and take a deep breath. Not for the sake of getting breath into your body, but because you are surrounded by incredible smells. We inhale deeply, to experience the aromas of turkey and pie, cinnamon, pine boughs, cookies in the oven. This deep breathing consequently relaxes us. It keeps us saner, more on track, and less stressed than we would otherwise be during what can be a pretty frenetic time.

So -- take a deep breath. Take another. Ahh!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Embrace the Speed Bumps

My clients come to me for a variety of reasons. Some are content experts who do a lot of speaking, but are always seeking to improve. Others are running for office and engaging in high stakes, very public communication from dawn till well after dusk. Still others want to get ahead professionally, and know they need to step up their speaking in all situations - around the conference table, with clients, at networking events,  etc. They come to me for different reasons, but they express many of the same concerns.

One I hear most often is, "I want to be able to think on my feet" or "I need to learn how to speak off the cuff." Clients are a bit dismayed when I tell them I have no magic wand to immediately make them extemporaneous geniuses. I do have strategies that I share, which vary according to client and situation. But one general rule I tell everyone  - slow down! The benefit of this is two-fold: it gives you time to think about what you are saying before you say it (which, we can all agree, is a prerequisite for sounding intelligent), and it helps you avoid those filler words which at best are a minor annoyance to the listener, and at worst make you seem disorganized and unfocussed.

Try slowing down today; what have you got to lose? Just a few "um"s, " you know"s, and (cringe) "like"s that you and your listener will not miss at all!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Teachable Moment

This year's crowded Republican campaign trail is strewn with gifts that keep on giving! Rick Perry's debate gaffe last night illustrated the importance of #3 on my list of Five Things You Must Always Do When Speaking.

I don't believe in too many rules (see, only five!), but one thing I tell my clients is ''Organize your thoughts before you speak! This seems obvious, but be honest! How consistently do you do it? For each meeting you attend, every phone call you make, you often have an idea of what will be asked of you and said by others. Have your main talking points ready so you don't fumble."

So it seems absurd that the GOP would even consider nominating for president a man who can't take time to organize his thoughts and practice his talking points (also on my Top Five list). And he didn't even have it in his notes! Such a rookie mistake.  I would be very shocked if one of my clients revealed him/herself to be so unprepared for any speaking engagement, let alone such a highly visible, high-stakes one.

I suppose there must be a few leadership positions somewhere that do not require "excellent written and verbal communications skills." But Leader of the Free World is not one of them!

At least now I have a new watchword for my clients - don't pull a Perry! 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Are you listening?

I have been thinking a lot lately about listening.
Last week, working with my adult acting class, I reminded my students that listening is a physical activity. It takes mental and muscular power to focus on being still enough to absorb what someone else is saying, to mentally travel through his or her thought process, and to understand the message being sent. A scene based on conversation, contrary to some students' initial impressions, is not one in which "nothing happens." It can be the moment when life-changing truth is revealed, decisions are made, bonds are forged. This happens, onstage as in real life, even though a casual observer might perceive this important exchange as "just talking."

Listening, being part of an ongoing communication loop, is the only way to make true connection possible. Otherwise all that verbal output is just chatter, cluttering up our already noisy days. Sometimes it verges on assault. The "used car salesman" approach of highly energetic delivery coupled with a forced cheerfulness is a perversion of leadership technique that I have seen applied by many who should know better.  

If you do not make the space to listen to others, to answer their questions, address their concerns, clarify your position, maybe even modify it after they give you feedback, you are not really communicating. To really listen you need to be unafraid. Ask yourself: so what if I am challenged? Remember, your goal is not to win or to be right, your goal is to get the job done in the most economical/effective/elegant/
excellent/expeditious way possible (and that's just the "e" list).

Something to think about next time you catch yourself not really listening. Or being heard.