The company you keep

Have you ever noticed how much your communication style is influenced by those in your immediate surroundings? Think about how easy it is to get sucked into toxic conversations at work when it’s all around you, at your cube, at the water cooler, getting coffee. Suddenly you start to drag, or slouch, or gripe. In contrast, you spend lunch with someone who’s positive and upbeat and suddenly you feel great about the whole afternoon.

I noticed this influence recently while trying to be productive at the end of our holiday weekend. I was trying to get ahead of a few things for the workweek while listening to my daughter in the background: “I’m bored, I want school to start.”

After a few hours and a few times hearing that same phrase where did I find myself? Staring at a blank word doc, next to a pile of receipts that hadn’t yet been made into an expense report, while wearing workout clothes though the gym had already closed and I missed the window of opportunity. Later I heard myself say to a friend: “I don’t know what happened to me, I was motivated this morning and planned to get ahead of a few things and yet I did exactly nothing today.”

Well, guess what? I do know what happened.

I listened to all the background noise in my house. I heard the words “bored” and “want school to start” then I became bored, and I too wanted school to start! Yes this is a minor, non-toxic example of the power of others’ words to influence our own. But wow did it prove to me that those closest to us really do influence behavior and thus, word choices and body language!

Travis Bradberry is a workplace culture and emotional intelligence expert whose articles I read often. Earlier this year, he discussed research done at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany that shows how spending time with negative people can provoke the same fight-or-flight biological stress response that any other stressor would. That stress response can cause us to make bad decisions, cloud our thinking, and change our posture and a number of other things.

Once I realized I’d been influenced by the “I’m bored” phrase, I took a few moments to self-reflect and there it was: bad posture, irritability, cloudy thinking and suddenly every challenge facing me in the next month was an insurmountable hurdle not just a learning opportunity. Once I realized it, I was able to quickly snap out of it. But it made me realize how easy it is to be influenced by those closest to you whether those are cube-mates, friends or family.

So … the company you keep is important not just for the way you’re perceived by others, but the way you perceive yourself and your current situation. This insight is important: if you perceive yourself as competent, successful and engaged in the work you do, the words that you use will likely reflect that as will your body language. If you perceive your situation to be impossible, uninspiring or boring it’s highly likely that your words and actions will reflect that, too.

Next time you approach the water cooler, or pick up the phone, or join a group for drinks after work … think about how you are feeling about your present situation, and choose to use words and body language that reflect that state you’re in, not the one occupied by the person next to you.

Put your shoulders back!

Photo by Becca Matimba on Unsplash

It’s a common refrain many of us heard throughout our childhoods: “Stop slouching.” “Put your shoulders back and sit up!” Slouching is even more common today with all of us hunched over our phones from early ages.

I really never gave much thought to how posture influenced the rest of my life until I arrived at the doorstep of my gym looking for a personal trainer. After a few decades of desk-sitting, stroller-pushing and screen-watching, to my surprise and dismay I couldn’t do much of anything with my upper body when we first started working together. All that slouching left my shoulders and upper back locked. “We need to open you up!” were her first words after my initial fitness evaluation. While I started a new workout regime as a stress-reducer and vanity project, what it resulted in was a huge impact to my presentation skills. Posture is something that truly affects our entire being.

The amazing byproduct of my fitness reboot was that I realized not only had I been letting this “work posture” dictate my fitness level, but that same work posture was holding me back from feeling confident, assured, and most likely communicated to the people in the room that I was not open to the ideas or the dialog. Which couldn’t be farther from what I was trying to convey!

Try this yourself: envision yourself pitching an idea to someone. Sit up tall, place your hands comfortably on the table, with your shoulders back. You will likely find this posture promotes even breathing and a more relaxed and open demeanor. It’s easier to engage someone in a dialog and feel more passionate about the material you are presenting. Sitting upright, you almost have to make eye contact. Now, assume what I call “phone posture”. Grab your phone and sit naturally as you would scrolling through your social feeds at your desk but then put the phone on the table leaving your body in the exact same place. What happens? It’s likely your shoulders are rounded, you take up less space visually and you appear introspective and closed off. Even our breathing can be different when we are slouching vs. sitting upright. Basically, we are not very energized while sitting this way so think of what we must be conveying to the outside world. And I think we do this a lot more than we are willing to admit!

At least once or twice during a meeting I find myself completely aware of my posture, breathing and overall body language. It’s very easy to slip back into bad habits, I know. The key is being aware of what you are doing and when. That hyper-awareness for me always results in a slight shift in my posture, shoulders back, a good deep breath and an overall opening of my upper body. As a result what the other people see is a relaxed and confident woman who is receptive to listening and absorbing all that is going on in the room. I get a lot more out of meetings when I do that.

This awareness is such a vital tool for me. It helps me move from dependable participant to engaging thought leader. Who doesn’t want that? And it’s the easiest thing to do: no extra research, no prepping meeting notes and no rehearsal needed! Next time you find yourself in a room full of people, notice how you are sitting and interacting with your surroundings. You might be surprised what self-awareness and a few small adjustments can do to your performance!

Keri Mantie is the genius fitness coach whose smart advice and common-sense approach helped me get back into great shape after years of lackluster workouts. My renewed commitment to fitness led me here to entrepreneurship: it’s all connected. If you’re interested in her POV check out her blog. And, for additional proof that body language can influence how you feel, check out the TED talk by social scientist Amy Cuddy.

Crush it at the podium

Credit: @kanereitholdsen on Unsplash.com

Crush it at the podium

Despite our preference for more relaxed business environments, there will still be times in our careers (particularly in corporate jobs or large groups) when we’ll need to get behind a podium to introduce a speaker or give a presentation of our own.

I find the speaker introduction the most difficult to master although it is the shortest in length. Why? This role is generally a byproduct of a sponsorship or some other paid/official reason. You stand between the official host/convener of the event and the main (read: most interesting) speaker. We’ve all probably sat through five minutes of cringe-worthy introductions and likewise we’ve also probably witnessed a graceful two-minute introduction from someone who is comfortable in her own skin and who has mastered the art of the intro. (Envious.)

For me, evolving from awkward moments to polished presenter involved a few small tweaks to my style and a greater awareness of the substance (and noise) behind it.

My cringe-worthy moment
In 2011 I had just accepted a role in a new organization. The company was in the throes of transition and my boss left less than a month after I arrived. I was offered his job, and accepted. Both an exhilarating and chaotic time, I juggled the good with the bad. As part of our organization’s sponsorship of a women’s business advisory board and as the newly-installed office leader, I was offered a spot in the group. As a perk of sponsorship I was allowed introduce the main speaker at three events per year. Unfortunately my first time up at the podium was preceded by two weeks of general office meltdown: four employees leaving, a portfolio of clients on the warpath and a general haze of negativity surrounding our company.

I took all that negativity, internalized it, and skulked up to the podium. I had spent all my mental energy just getting there and being okay with the public-facing role that I had neglected to do enough research on the speaker. I didn’t have an interesting tidbit beyond her bio, a personal connection or a link to a current trend. Unwittingly and by not stepping outside my own thoughts, I made it all about my company and our crisis. I didn’t have enough conviction to deliver a crisp one-liner about our organization’s commitment to women leaders and the local business community, either.

It’s hard enough to be dazzling in this awkwardly-placed role, but this was a disaster: not only had I missed an opportunity to represent the organization well but I had neglected to represent myself well. I’m sure I was apologetic, flat and generally uninspiring. While I’m sure no one saw it as an epic fail, no one was admiring me either.

And then I crushed it

A year later, after the initial turmoil had settled and we had even dealt with a big merger in the meantime, I had my next opportunity to introduce a guest speaker. This time I happened to know the speaker as we were tangentially connected in my previous job. From memory, my intro went something like this:

“Thank you all for joining us today. It’s great to see you all out on this gorgeous morning. I’m Meghan Gross with [insert company and descriptor] and today I have the absolute pleasure of introducing a true leader in the Boston business community. I have a personal anecdote connected to today’s speaker, because I had the opportunity to meet her waiting for the elevator at [last job]. While we hadn’t been formally introduced, I took it upon myself to make a connection and we chatted until our respective stops. I returned to my desk feeling more accomplished, empowered and inspired by being in her presence. Making her acquaintance I felt like I had finally arrived and had become part of our business community. So it gives me great pleasure today to introduce [speaker and her bio … ].”

So how do I know I crushed it? Most importantly, I felt it.

Then: she opened her remarks by talking a bit about that interaction and the importance of strong business connections. She incorporated my introduction to her opening. Boom.

The evolution of it all

What was different?

Getting there wasn’t all about my stress, my insecurity or my clients: it was about connecting with the audience and what they needed at that moment.

I dropped the “I’m getting this opportunity because we paid” attitude and replaced it with “This is a moment to connect and share an experience with the most high-powered women in our city.”

While it wasn’t about me, I still shared something personal. There’s a big difference.

I let some feeling flow into the delivery: pride, humor, vulnerability.

I stood more erect and had better eye contact. I’m sure there was another crisis du jour happening but I didn’t let it affect me: I stayed in the moment.

It’s funny how delivering a few lines can be experienced so differently depending on where you are in your career and your life. The secret to success is to get outside of your own head, drop the fears, insecurity and noise and be in the moment with your audience.

Have you faced a similar situation? I’d love to hear!

Kaboom!

Unfortunately we all face a potentially volatile conversation at some point in our lives. I recall a few times earlier in my career when I lost sleep worrying about how a conversation would play out. One time I even had myself convinced that I had lost all credibility at work and my career was over … that from one dreaded conversation!

As humans, we always bring bias to a conversation, so the potential for misunderstanding will never completely vanish regardless of how well we prepare what we say. And, there will always be people who are not satisfied or angry with outcomes. We can’t create a foolproof solution. What we can do is diffuse or at least mitigate them. Developing the skills to navigate tough conversations is an often overlooked part of our professional training and it’s something I wish I had done earlier in my career.

When someone verbally pounces, it’s tempting (and I know this from personal experience) to try and make a point and push back just as hard. That rarely, if ever, worked in my favor. As I grew professionally, became more self-aware and learned how to listen, potentially explosive conversations became much easier to navigate and eventually diffuse. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about navigating tough conversations.

Zip it. Yes, it’s common to have a knee-jerk emotional reaction when we learn someone is angry. We want to defend our position. But it’s important stop talking and just listen to the other person. What are they actually angry about – the outcome, the product, or the way you handled the communications? If you truly listen, you may find the root cause is relatively minor and the anger is a result of lack of understanding of process or big picture. You may also learn that there was extreme tension in the meeting immediately prior and the person is dealing with the residual effects of that. Just listen and get as much clarity as possible as to why the person is angry. Clarity results in better solutions.

Toss it. (The big chip on your shoulder.) Let’s face it; we are all human. When we aren’t feeling our best (stressed, bored at work, unhappy with our life direction) we tend to be very skeptical, unforgiving and critical of others. When we bring that mindset to a conversation our word choice and even body language reflects it. Yet, when we’re crushing it at work and filling our off-hours with fun and worthy pursuits, life is full, life is good and we tend to give even the most challenging personalities the benefit of the doubt. Recognize and be aware of where you are in your own life as you respond to others. If you do, you’ll find that more often than not, you can reach the middle much more easily.

Accept it. One of the best ways to disarm a potentially volatile conversation is to acknowledge the other person’s reaction to the situation and his/her emotions about it.  When we lead with “I know you’re dissatisfied/unhappy/angry with me… let’s talk so I can learn more and then together we can figure out how to fix it …” it is much harder for the other person to continue ranting and raving. Doing this does not mean you are admitting the other person is right. You are only acknowledging the other party’s feelings and reaction. It is a much more positive and solid place to start a conversation.

Reframe it. It’s rare that two people cannot find any common ground. Generally in a work situation and often in personal situations you’re both invested in the same positive outcome, you’re just reaching the destination from a different approach. So reframe the conversation, and ask solution-oriented questions that force you to figure out how to do something proactive rather than dwell on why something happened.

Following this approach feels awkward and difficult at first. I used to think if I didn’t “stand my ground” or advocate for myself people would view me as less credible, ineffective, maybe not tough enough to succeed. Later, I realized that by listening more, being aware of my own bias and forging strong connections I became a more skilled negotiator, better relationship manager, more successful salesperson and a more compassionate friend and colleague.

Here’s hoping all your summer fireworks take place in conjunction with backyard barbecues only. Happy Fourth!

How to show up ready, even when you’re not feeling it

It’s June and that means two more weeks for companies and organizations to squeeze in events before people start heading out on vacation. Weeks are full. I’m an avid networker and I love being out with people, but add busy weekends, family responsibilities, duties around the house, taking care of pets and suddenly that Thursday evening cocktail event doesn’t seem as fun as it once did. And don’t get me started if it happens to rain on a day when I signed up for something.

 

So how do I show up ready even when I don’t feel like it? I have a three-part “pregame” strategy that I use before I walk into a room. It involves a phone call, a bottle of water and an eye-catching accessory. Confused yet? Read on …

 

Phone a friend: I’ve written in the past about my introverted tendencies. When I get really busy, sometimes the networking can feel like a chore. Then I have moments of self-doubt and the narrative in my head goes like this: “Everyone in the room is smarter/older/younger/more accomplished/titled than me. This is not worth the time. I’d rather catch up on my e-mails and go to bed early.” When I’m not feeling it, I call one of my trusted sources. We’ve worked together or known each other for years, they’ve seen me shine in professional situations and they’re always available for a quick text or phone pep talk. Really take the time to figure out who makes you feel good about your work and seek out positive people. They’ll make you feel confident walking into a crowded room.

 

Hydrate and power up: if you’re in a service-based business, you’ve likely got stacked up conference calls, client meetings and staff meetings over lunch. I used to return calls or read e-mails right up to walking into an event. You can’t be a good conversationalist if you’re hungry, dehydrated and haven’t had time to decompress. Easy solution: stash a bottle of water in your desk and keep some healthy, protein-based snacks on hand. (This helps us avoid the sugar-and-caffeine trap which is not a good foundation on which to layer a glass of wine!) This also forces you to slow down and take a few minutes to get your head in the game. I even hold myself accountable for eight glasses of water a day using my Fitbit app. I am rarely tired before walking into an event, even on my busiest of days. It works!

 

Wear a conversation piece: it can be hard to start a conversation if it’s a new group, or you’re older/younger than a lot of the attendees. Sometimes conversation just doesn’t flow as easily. While I’m usually a big proponent of having a few classic, timeless outfits for big events or new business pitches, sometimes if I’m just not feeling it, I find the biggest, bling-iest accessory in my closet and wear it. It provokes questions and often draws other people into the conversation. Suddenly, you’re not talking accessories you’re just … talking.

 

Last night, I attended the PRSA New Jersey Chapter Pyramid Awards which was a terrific night honoring the best PR campaigns of the year. This, after having house guests for five days, enduring 90-degree temperatures and driving more than an hour to attend. Using the three-step pregame strategy I came away with two potential lunches, connected one friend with a new business opportunity and may speak at an undergraduate class in the fall. Networking isn’t rocket science. Mostly, it’s about feeling really good about your authentic self before you walk into a room.

 

Happy networking!

Just take the call already …

I’ve been here too many times to count: around 3pm of an already long day, serving clients for most of it (some happy, some not-so-happy). Everyone needs a piece of me; the boss, direct reports, clients, kids, and even the family dog. I’d start my next “shift” at 5pm being mom, doing the sports shuttle and still trying to juggle incoming work calls. That kind of a day would make anyone want to bury their head in the sand. (And I’d bet most of us do have more than one of those days per month.)

So what would I do when the LAST thing I wanted to do was talk to yet another person? Well, of course I’d silently thank the universe for inventing texting and e-mailing and fire up the iPhone! What an easy way to transact business and avoid all the potentially messy stuff that comes from people calling and wanting something that I may not be able to give them at that precise moment.

Guess what that does? It deprives you of an opportunity to build a better connection with someone. It doesn’t matter who, or what they want, but trying to fulfill a request or evaluate an inquiry or do anything beyond a simple yes/no answer by text or e-mail robs you of valuable opportunities to practice being a good communicator. How do I know this? From personal experience.

I know this because in my PR days, one of the agencies for which I worked was in danger of losing a client. While it had to do with many factors, it was a client with whom I’d relied upon a lot of e-mail transactions. There was plenty of good face time sure; but when I did the Monday-morning quarterbacking about the relationship I realized several times I had avoided picking up the phone when the client didn’t answer an e-mail. I was trying to be polite, assuming they were busy. But I should have called more than I did.

Would that have saved the relationship? Who knows. But, what it did was taught me a valuable lesson about talking with people. (Again, here I was advising on communications …. hmmmm.)

Here are a few observations I’ve made about actual phone conversations:

  1. There is no need to fear immediacy. Yes, our attention spans are shorter and yes, people (especially in work/client service situations) do expect immediacy. But just like it’s okay to say to a reporter “I don’t have that right now but let me find someone who does and get back to you,” it’s OKAY to just take a call and not actually finish the conversation. At least hearing your voice and starting a dialog lets the other person trust that you are paying attention.
  2. Technically, two people share responsibility for steering a conversation. Just because you pick up a call doesn’t mean you need to listen to a whole 30 minutes. Again: it is OKAY to tell another person regardless of who it is, that you have X minutes to chat. Just do it politely, before the call gets underway.
  3. If you’re screening because you are worried that someone on the other end is unhappy well, chances are they might be. Our instincts are usually right. Avoidance is NOT a good strategy! It only makes the next encounter more difficult and sometimes doing this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have a great strategy for diffusing potentially tough conversations, and if you’d like to learn more about it, let me know here or by e-mail and I can include it in a future post.

Bottom line: we are all about convenience and that’s okay, we’ve got a lot to do and we wear so many hats, technology can be a great help. If we rely on it too much it can also hinder our ability to connect, which is so important as we learn how to build teams, gain influence, persuade and motivate people around us.

Stuck in a rut?

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. We might hang onto an old hairstyle because it worked (when we were 20…) Or we might stay working in a particular industry because that’s where someone wanted us way back when, until we realize lawn fertilizer or tax prep software or athletic socks are just not our jam. It takes a lot of self-discipline to examine your life to figure out what’s working for you.

I really struggled with this during my mid- to late-30s. I felt awkwardly caught between being that young, eager go-getter in the office vs. the seasoned, competent professional woman who could dole out sage advice. Our 30’s tend to be busy years; we could be making really big strides in our careers, buying real estate, forming significant relationships and perhaps starting a family. Often, we accumulate these roles without properly integrating them into our lives and changing the way we show up.

In my case, because I had gained a better title with my new job, I had gotten married and was looking for a house suddenly I felt like I had to be more serious. I ditched all my natural mannerisms especially the ones that make me unique. Guess what? It didn’t work. The disconnect between who I really was and who I was trying to be was so strong, it started interfering with my ability to build relationships with my internal clients. And it really started to interfere with my communication style: the more I felt I needed to be serious, the more I shut down. I rarely joked in meetings, never let anyone know about my personal interests, and only talked business. You can imagine how much fun I was.

Eventually I realized I was doing myself more harm than good. If my natural self wasn’t accepted in this workplace, then long-term, I would probably be happier elsewhere. Letting loose a bit would probably have even improved my work product. I’m pretty sure they would have still liked me if I talked about my weekend plans and my pets once in a while!

Are you in a rut with your communication style? Are you still showing up as your 22-year-old intern self as a 32-year-old rising leader? Or perhaps like me, prematurely aging yourself to be a wise old sage at 36? Think about how you show up. For a fun exercise, try asking 10 people to list three things that come to mind when they think of you. You might be surprised to see what comes back.

Psst: I’ve got a secret. I’m an introvert.

I’ve got a big secret that most of my colleagues from the last 20 years don’t know: I’m actually an introvert. I remember the first time I was administered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I had just taken a very challenging job, one that had no precedent in the organization so I was breaking new ground. Additionally, I was newly married and trying to figure out what it meant to be part of a couple. There was a lot of change in my life and a lot of new roles I was trying out.

You can probably imagine, the achiever in me, the self-identified “people person” anxiously awaited the test results, sure that I’d land squarely in the E-for-extrovert zone. Imagine my shock/confusion/dismay when I landed in the I-zone: introvert. Almost immediately I thought, “What?! I’m not a person who spends her day buried in spreadsheets. I’m a relater, a convener, a people person!”

Then it was explained to me, the introvert-extrovert scale measures how a person gets their energy (from being in large groups vs. having quiet reflective time) and it’s not a measure of their shyness or their capacity for public speaking. Later, after a few other tests, I learned that I am what some psychologists call “ambivert” meaning people like me hover in the center of the E/I continuum and lean to either side depending on what is going on in our lives. While I’m not one for labels, that made perfect sense to me.

Over time I learned to appreciate this bit about my personality as it helped me show up ready and gauge my own receptivity for certain situations. For example, I found myself uncharacteristically laboring over my elevator speech before an event and I knew it was likely to be a more challenging night because I’d also had a lot of other interpersonal challenges going on at work. I was tired from dealing with interpersonal conflicts, and not likely to be a sparkling conversationalist. Cue the self-care rituals: get to the gym, add an extra hour of quiet time before bed, eat healthy if I was to show up ready the rest of the week.

Knowing yourself and your style is one of the most important first steps in setting good communication habits. What cues do you use to figure out yours?

The pitfalls of “always on”

As someone who’s done crisis communications, I know more often than not, our jobs are not 9-to-5. In fact, since our smartphones became our constant companions it’s more like 24/7. Surely there have been many times that it’s been important and necessary for colleagues to reach me late at night or early morning. Working for a utility company during Hurricane Sandy in 2012? Necessary. Working for a new client during an unannounced, unforeseen CEO transition? Necessary. I’m pretty sure I took calls around the clock and had to, just to keep business moving and meet other deadlines.
But then there are the other times, when “always on” is just a habit of our lives and it leaves me wondering if that “always on” is really necessary.
Consider the following: during any given eight-hour workday, we are subject to dozens of tense situations: a traffic jam on our commute, stalled train, angry client, late meeting, the list goes on. If we aren’t careful, our “fight or flight” response – the mechanism in the body that enables humans and animals to mobilize a lot of energy rapidly in order to cope with threats to survival – activates each time these common irritants bombard us.

 

According to Psychology World, the fight or flight response triggers increased heart rate, constricted blood vessels, and tightened muscles. If that’s what potentially happens to us several times on a daily basis how can we show up to conversations relaxed, collaborative, and open? It seems counter-intuitive to me that most people want their employees/vendors/advisors available to them 24/7 yet, they also want uniquely creative, strategic and insightful solutions. I don’t think it’s possible to have both.

 

I’m in favor of ditching the 24/7 mentality. After years of being always on, now I set boundaries and expectations and think twice before I respond to a new person off hours or on the weekend. What kind of message does that send about you as a communicator? How will you guard against fight/flight when it hits?