Thursday, October 31, 2013

Step away from the screen and nobody gets hurt!

I have been eagerly following NPR's fascinating series of stories on how the technology that permeates our lives effects individuals' intellectual and social development. The story of young men at a rehab center outside Seattle trying to kick their internet addictions was particularly chilling. This week's story referenced recent American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations of limiting passive screen time for infants and children under two.

When I heard this I wondered if I wasn't experiencing déja vu. My kids were little decades ago, and I recall hearing similar warnings then. We didn't have tablets or iPhones, and YouTube's founders were still in high school. So it was mostly TV we were being warned against. And we listened. My husband and I were counter-cultural in our decision to strictly limit TV viewing (and of course there were exceptions to our rules-- the World Series and the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, to name two) but we stuck with it.

On Fridays and Saturdays we watched old movies from the library. "The African Queen," "The Thin Man" series, and Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals were favorites. These movies were fun, and presented a historical reference point to my 21st-century children. They saw how a 1940's wall phone worked ("Operator! Operator! Get me the police!"), and how people dressed in a less casual world (hat and gloves, anyone?). But also they had to listen closely to that snappy dialogue and wait for the action to unfold. Movies were much more aural back then, far less visual. My kids are both verbally expressive. Is there a link? Maybe. We did have fun, and I got to share with them my love of classic movies.

Today, screens are everywhere. At all times. They have become the great pacifiers for kids of all ages. Pediatricians worry that too much passive screen time will inhibit language development, thus impairing social interaction. In the NPR story, Dr. Ari Brown, lead author on the AAP policy statement, said "The concern for risk is that some kids who watch a lot of media actually have poor language skills, so there's a deficit in their language development. We also have concerns about other developmental issues because they're basically missing out on other developmentally appropriate activities."

I worry about that, too. As a communications coach who deals with leadership training, I know that the ability to communicate effectively is key to professional and personal success. Not just saying what you think and what you want to happen, but listening to others, empathizing, being able to make that imaginative leap to understand what someone else might be thinking. All these things may be effected by too much spoon-fed screen action at a young age. We don't know yet, but isn't it better to err on the side of caution? What happens in early brain development is so very important, why take that chance?

I am not a scientist, nor a health professional (though I have played one on TV!) but my experience in the communications field tells me these docs are right. For our kids' sake--and maybe for our own future brain health-- we must all be cut down on our passive screen consumption. So next time you feel like "vegging" home alone in front of the screen, get out of that chair and go take a walk. Or just DO something!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Leadership language

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
The New York Times has a very interesting feature in the Friday and Sunday Business sections called Corner Office. For this past Sunday's installment Corner Office's guiding light Adam Bryant followed up with some of the leaders he had previously interviewed--leaders who happen to be women. For round two, he decided to ask each women new questions regarding how perceptions of gender had affected her ascent to leadership. The result is a fascinating read, largely because Bryant stays away from discussion of work/life balance, feeling those issues had been "fully voiced" (see Sandberg and Slaughter, among others). But, he wondered, what additional specific advice/insight could these women give that addresses the way women lead in business? And what could they share with other women who are navigating their way up the corporate leadership path?

These leaders all have terriffic insights, and I urge you to read the article for yourselves. What jumped out at me was the prevalence of discussion about communication, and in particular, the repetition of the word "voice." These leaders reinforce the message that in order to succeed, a woman needs to find her own voice and make herself heard. Easier said than done, though, in a male-dominated workplace. Many women over-compensate, trying to be aggressive in ways that may not be natural. Or as Amy Schulman, General Counsel of Pfizer, puts it, "in an effort to do precisely as they've been told they sometimes will over-occupy the space." One of these woman found claiming her rightful place hard--at first. Lisa Price, Founder and President of Carol's Daughter, originally did not sit at the head of the table because she felt she did not have all the answers.  But eventually she did, realizing that is what her company--and her people--needed. She says she still does not know everything, but " I do know this brand better than anybody else. And that's the authority that I have, that's the voice that I have to be, and that's who they need me to be."

Women face internal and external conflicts about communicating their leadership. How do we fix that? I think Schulman puts it quite well: "What we have to do is teach strategies, because here's the thing about unwritten languages, whoever owns the language wins the conversation. We need to teach women the difference between a native tongue and a language." I love this: it is the perfect way to put it. For women as well as for men, by the way. But men may not have such a difficult time embodying "authentic" and "leader" at the same time as women do. (And that is a discussion for another time...)

All you emergent, aspiring, or even acting leaders should be aware of this. Your leadership language may be quite another language entirely from the one that comes naturally. Nonetheless, you need to learn to speak it fluently if you are going to successfully communicate with those you want to lead. It is not their native language either. But it is the one they are expecting you to use. Think of it as workplace lingua franca. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Fiction is good for you

In the spring of 2012 a study by two Canadian psychologists demonstrated how reading fiction can help sharpen interpersonal skills. I blogged about this study that April--it seemed like the perfect justification for getting lost in a good book! So when I heard about another study released last week that also covered the existence of the fiction/empathy connection, I shrugged it off as "Old News."

When I did look into it I found, via Scientific American, that this latest research defines the relative benefits of reading different kinds of fiction. The study, published online by Science on October 3rd, is the work of two social psychologists, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, from The New School in New York City. They were interested in discovering the mechanisms that foster development of empathy. "Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults." To address this research gap Kidd and Castano ran several studies. Their results show "that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art." (Italics mine).

Value of the "beach read"?
While reading the latest Danielle Steele or Tom Clancy may help you navigate the social complexities of life slightly more than reading non-fiction (or not reading at all), those benefits are small compared to ones gained by reading truly literary work. Why might that be? Since I prefer literary fiction to scientific papers, I have not read the entire study myself. But Scientific American reporter did read it, and says the study offers this explanation: Popular fiction is more formulaic, more plot-focused than character-focused, and "the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader's expectations of others. . . . Literary fiction, by contrast, focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships. . . the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes."

Using this insight
As an actor, I know that it is the unexpected things characters do that are key to what is really going on in their inner lives. As an acting teacher, I have to remind my students to be on the lookout for these hidden hints, to see them as clues to telling personality traits, and not be in such a hurry to put every character in a neat little box.

And as a communications consultant who works with clients on issues of leadership, I know the value of empathy. Of thinking beyond yourself. Of not limiting options by your own failure of imagination. Getting outside of yourself and taking a mental vacation by reading a book has intrinsic value. But when it can teach you to accept the flaws of others and to navigate the tensions inherent in everyday living, you have tools that enable you to connect more fully. Some of my clients can do that more easily than others. I wonder what's on their shelves?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Be still

Still waters at QianHai, Beijing
Have you ever wondered how some people can command the room when they speak, whether they are behind the podium, at an interview desk, or just standing in front of a room full of people balancing wine glasses and cocktail plates? They look confident. They have presence. There is a perception that such ability to "own the room" comes with the territory once you are in a position of power. And yet, there are many who should (by that definition) have it but don't.  This quality -- this presence -- comes from being physically at ease, centered, still. No fidgets, no wiggles, no shifting. No pushing the message at people, but rather, drawing them in. These leaders are not still as in "stiff"; they are still as in "grounded." It's a simple concept, but a hard one to master.

I was teaching a course, Political Skills Building, for American University's Department of Government this past weekend and we looked at clips of leaders in various speech situations. We also put our students on tape for their short leadership speeches. They found it was challenging to stand still, not wiggle or shuffle or fidget, but just stand in front of the camera and the people and be -- be in the moment, be confident in your message. And they're right; it is.

I shared with them some acting exercises for breathing and posture, very similar to ones yoga practitioners do to attain "centeredness." (In fact, if you Google "power of stillness" you can find all sorts of meditation references and resources.) My students were quick learners, and soon they were on their way to finding and keeping their own stillness. But it takes some time to undo years of self-consciousness and noisy inner-criticism. It takes months of practice. And it takes trust that when you are put to the test (the next time you have to stand up and speak) your body will remember how to keep the wiggles out and the stillness in. 

Sometime clients tell me, "Well, I don't want to be stiff and look unnatural." And I reiterate that we are not aiming for statue-like immobility. We are seeking a calm that is not passive, but actively rooted in maintaining physical control in the face of a scary situation. By claiming leadership you have singled yourself out from the crowd, yet you cannot give in to fear. Your body needs to have practiced this inner calm enough to be able to say "no" very quickly to your natural fight or flight instinct.

The hardest part may come as you try to maintain that presence when you begin to speak. That is because speaking is, after all, a physical activity. But the activity of speaking has to do with breathing and vocal production, not shuffling feet, wiggling shoulders, shifting weight from one hip to the other or aimlessly gesticulating. These all signal the opposite of what you might think ("I am moving around to look casual so they think I am comfortable"). They signal that you want to run, or hide, and are not at ease enough to stand still, to be open and vulnerable.

Master the leader's stance. Be still in a room full of noise and movement and you will command attention, even before you say a word.