Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Small talk vs. large talk

Autumn at Union College
This  past weekend I was sitting in my son's college dorm room (we were up for our first Family Weekend) when I heard two of his friends pass one another in the hall: "How was it?" "Awesome!" "That's great, dude!" Their tones of voice conveyed that they knew exactly what they were talking about, even though I hadn't a clue. Sounded like a casual conversation between buddies. But it was really a classic example of the glue of private conversation. And it is pretty much the only type of speech that is not public speaking.

Two weekends ago I was giving a talk to Fulbright scholars from abroad who are here in the U.S. for graduate and post-graduate research, teaching, and study. My focus was on public speaking and presenting. The sponsors of the event were concerned that I was spending too little time on "interpersonal communications;" they felt their visiting scholars might be having some cross-cultural communications problems with fellow students and faculty. Of course I had planned to cover this in my session. "Interpersonal communications" was, in fact, one of the bullet points on slide #2. But it was under the heading "Public Speaking" so I guess that threw them off. I am not a fan of PowerPoint, so only essential topics (and a few choice graphics) go up on my slides. And interpersonal communications was definitely on the agenda.

But I saw their point. Most people do not think of quick chats in a professor's office or study group meetings in the food court as public speaking. But they are! So are those quick exchanges with co-workers on your way to a meeting or conference calls with your best client.

Anytime you are not engaged in private conversation you are speaking publicly. You are representing whatever business/party/ethnic group/nationality you bring to the table. Be aware of that. Unless you are connected through kinship, or well-established bonds of trust (which can form relatively quickly when you are all in the same boat, as in a first year dorm), your words matter. Organized thought matters. Articulation and clarity of speech matters. People will judge you on what you say and how you say it. Even in--or maybe especially in--those small group and one-on-one encounters. So do not take these exchanges as casually as two good friends meeting in a dorm hall. Unless you know someone well enough to engage in the relationship-maintaining communication often derided as "small talk"--where non-verbals are so strong the words almost do not matter--you are speaking publicly. Breathe. Think. And speak accordingly.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Just calm down

Francisco Goya's "Folly of Fear," National Gallery of Art
I grew up in Northeastern Ohio (in fact went to the same high school as Amber Vinson) and now live in Arlington Virginia, not far from the Pentagon. So I was closely following news reports of events as they unfolded this past week. I was not in any danger, and I was amazed how many people felt they were. This brought to mind a statement I often make to my clients and students: you can't listen when you're in panic mode.

When I say this to them in a training session I am referring to situations when they are "put on the spot" in a meeting or during Q & A following a speech. You know that feeling--when all of a sudden your adrenaline kicks in, your palms sweat, your face flushes and your words stick in your throat. Not only are you rendered inarticulate,  you become functionally hard-of-hearing as well. Fear is a powerful blocker of both incoming and outgoing messages!

All the chatter about Ebola this past week reminded me of that state, that inability to listen because we are in too much of a panic mode to focus on what anyone is really saying. The truth of the matter is, of course, that Americans still have a far greater chance of dying from the flu this season than from Ebola, but that truth was hard to hear. It was being drowned out by the irresponsible media outlets who thrive on manufactured crises to increase their viewership/readership. And once people started to panic, they couldn't hear the voices of reason assuring them those "news" reports were bogus. Because when you stop breathing you stop listening. Think about it: have you ever really heard what someone is saying while holding your breath? I doubt it. You tense up in anticipation of BIG news (good or bad). You enter into a physiological state of altered awareness. Sometimes you hear part of the message, but not all of it, and not with all its nuance. You have doubtless noticed this when you try to deliver a message to someone who is in anticipatory panic mode. Your listener never hears the whole of what you have to say.

Yesterday's news about the quarantine in Dallas should have laid much of this fear to rest. But you know the fear-mongers will be back with another chapter. We must remember that they perform the same function as our inner voices of fear. They both stop us in our tracks when we panic. And they keep us from moving forward. Don't let that happen. Be clear-headed. Listen to what is really being said. See what is really there. And for all of our sakes--breathe!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Trust issues

One of my clients occupies a senior management position, is an expert in her field, and really knows her stuff. But she confided in me that she had trouble answering questions in meetings with her peers and those at the top of her organization.

She is not alone. Many people have difficulty when put "on the spot" around the conference table or in the boardroom. I call it the "hot seat effect" and it is one of the manifestations of being trapped in the Speaker's Bubble (see my explanation of that peculiar place here). I work with clients to climb out of that trap by practicing breathing to stay centered and focused. The insidious thing about the hot seat, though, is how unexpectedly you find yourself on it. You're not standing under lights at a podium in front of a group of thousands, for heaven's sake; you're doing something fairly routine. Sitting in a chair. Having a meeting. But when the stakes are high (i.e. Very Important People listening to your every word), the heat is on.

The way to turn it off is to slow your heart rate by breathing fully and deeply. By doing so, you re-energize while you decrease your level of nervousness. The added bonus is that you regain your focus, and with it, your confident posture and vocal tone. You have the tools to climb the mountain.

My client, however, was worried that, though she could regain her composure, she had lost her way. Her destination seemed oddly distant on her mental map. She "went off on a tangent" while answering questions. She did give definite answers, eventually. But she feared her roundabout way of arriving at them would diminish her in others' eyes. Her misgivings were well-founded: confusing or long-winded answers can make those around you question your authority.

I have worked with her for a while now, and knew exactly what the trouble was. I prescribed a simple mental shift: she needs to trust herself. Trust her knowledge. Trust her clear, simple answer. Because the people she is speaking to trust her. They regard her as the expert in her field. So her desire to explain her answers, to make a strong case for them, is simply unnecessary. Her straightforward opinion is all that is needed. I reiterated: "Trust yourself. Your peers respect your judgement, your expert opinion, your guidance. If they need you to back up your pronouncements, they will ask. . . "  But I doubt it. When she trusts herself and gives a clear answer, they will be more than satisfied.

Trust yourself: simple to say; hard to do. Get started!