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?

 

Mindfulness and … communications?

What, you say? Yoga mats in the office? Meditation?

Mindfulness is a big buzzword right now: why we should do it, how to do it, its application in different industries and the dangers that can happen when we multitask. Yet most of us in service-related businesses still multitask on a pretty regular basis.

So no, this isn’t about yoga in the office, it’s about why communications professionals are some of the biggest offenders of multitasking and how it’s actually sabotaging our creativity and therefore our client service.

My realization about the link between mindfulness and creativity and client service wasn’t so much a lightbulb moment; it was more a gradual nagging sense that the natural curiosity I always had about things was waning. It felt like my brain couldn’t possibly process any new information because I was always in a state of output. As a result I no longer sought out new material – I just let it flow around me, sometimes absorbing it and sometimes not. When you’re constantly producing material, reviewing someone else’s material, or meeting a deadline, how can you possibly explore, learn, integrate, practice and then deliver anything new?

As client service professionals I think we are hesitant to appear that we are wasting time, not delivering value or 100% focused on our clients. Yet, that lack of attention to ourselves is exactly what kills the creativity. And lack of creativity is an often-cited reason for clients looking elsewhere.

I’ve experienced situations in which it was clear the client or colleague expected I was to be available 24/7 and oh by the way, always immediately. Unfortunately the work product that often results from that scenario is reactive, standard fare lacking in uniqueness and creativity. I would rather be the person delivering proactive, creative and different ideas, that’s why I’ve forced myself to start taking a few hours each week to think and see where it takes me.

 

A diamond in the rough

Welcome back to Gem Strategic Communications, 18 months later. The title of this post says it all: it’s not quite polished, but something amazing to uncover.

A while back I wrote about authenticity. You know, the word we all use when we do media training.

It’s kind of hard to be completely authentic as a client service-focused person. By definition, you have to provide what your audience wants. So for years I’ve dutifully written about topics I thought were appropriate, or topics that every other PR professional was also blogging about. Guess what? I’m sure my pieces were well written, but I doubt any of them oozed authenticity.

Yesterday I found myself testing out my elevator speech again. I’ve been doing it for several months now. What came out was something this:

“I’m rebooting my solo practice because I realized after a year of being back in a large setting, there is a lot of entrepreneur in me. There are many topics I want to explore about creativity, mindfulness, and leadership that I wasn’t able to do because of time constraints or it just didn’t fit in the conservative industries I served. I’m focused on opportunities with mid-sized organizations where I can provide both internal and external communications. But I’m also excited to explore where this other conversation goes and how that might impact the way I position my offering and myself moving forward.”

I sometimes get raised eyebrows and skeptical looks. I’ve also gotten outright “womp womp womp” from a few people who think I need to have my story tighter. I sense that’s because I am networking in a new way with people I have known for a long time, and it probably is uncomfortable to them. But it’s authentic.

So you won’t always find me talking about the PR topics of the day. It’s less likely you’ll find me dissecting a CEO speech or discussing a new measurement tool and more likely, you’ll find me exploring employee engagement, leadership, resilience, work-life management, health and wellness, and how it all contributes to what the outside world sees about an organization.