EQ

On Planning and Being Present

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With January marching forward and kids back to school, the holiday frenzy feels far behind and a nice contrast to the those days leading up to Christmas, driven by a dozens lists with next year’s business plans, year-end deadlines, shopping strategies and that last-minute online order you hope gets delivered on time. And then there’s the wrapping, food prep and toilet cleaning protocol in time for guest arrivals.

One of many strategies this year was a food prep power session the day before Christmas, so I could “relax” in the days to come. Before my kitchen lock-down, I zipped out for a dog walk to get some fresh air and “clear my head”. I set out with Rosie (our wee Boston) taking my mental lists, business plans, oven temperatures and cleaning deadlines along for the ride. I also chewed on a couple of last week’s stressors and next month’s worries for good measure.  Here’s the thing - it’s hard to focus on what’s around you when you are living up in your mental lists.  You miss the path under your feet, and you can slip and fall.  Hard.  

Suddenly, I was painfully present.

I was on the ground and I couldn’t figure out how I got there. By not connecting with my surroundings, I failed to notice the strip of ice that had me on my backside waving a broken ankle in the air, then a nauseating hop home, hours lost in the ER, a fridge full of unprepared food and a new-found hatred of stairs.

As leaders, professionals, parents, community members and more, most of us manage several to-do lists, project plans and strategic goals while cultivating the motivation, vision and strategies to get these lists done. Finding the right balance between the structure (and comfort) of planning with focused attention on the action, task or person in front of us is challenging yet crucial because when we fail to be present we miss out on critical details, awareness and emotional data that can lead to better decisions and results. Research (and recent experience) is telling us that the ability to be present might be vital to our well-being and leadership effectiveness too.

In a recent study of 2000 employees, Bain and Company found that centeredness - “the state of greater mindfulness, achieved by engaging all parts of the mind to be fully present”- was the most important attribute for inspirational leadership. Being centered was instrumental to using other leadership strengths effectively. I’ve seen this in action with one of the most inspirational and successful leaders in my early career who has the uncanny ability to shift her focus and wholeheartedly listen to you no matter she was doing, what the issue or how busy she was. (she was the busiest person in the department by far). It stood out to me then and still does today. Centered leaders are able to listen deeply to take in more ideas, information, viewpoints and emotional signals which guides their strategy, decision making and execution.

Research in areas of emotional intelligence and attention shows a link between mindfulness (actively practicing being present) and improved working memory, stress responses and cognitive functioning all of which can impact decision making, coping skills and general well-being. Mindfulness, often developed by meditation practice, has scientifically proven benefits for mental health by reducing anxiety, distraction and improving mental functioning, which has significant implications for leaders, individuals and workplaces.

Planning and organizing is still critical for successful execution. When I was benched and elevating my ankle at holiday time, my detailed (ok, excessive) planning made it easy to delegate to my very helpful family and our holidays were still happy as heck. But focusing on planning when I should have focused on my own two feet was a serious distraction leading to suffering and stress.

Letting our attention be controlled externally instead of actively choosing where to focus can increase anxiety, lower productivity and potentially lead to burnout. There are many social, technological and systemic factors that contribute to attention overload and coincidentally, while drafting this post I found this an eerily common theme in social media this month (check out Talent Vanguard’s post “Drowning in the Daily Grind” and Anne Helen Peterson’s valuable commentary on Millennial Burnout).  While I agree that there are substantive societal and system changes needed to address our collective distraction (more on this in future posts), I also believe it can’t hurt to take some responsibility for a few different choices or habits too. Humans are adaptable creatures after all.

As a compulsive planner and organizer and also continuous daydreamer, I spend a lot of time in my head and it will admittedly take some work to build new habits. I’m going to keep it simple by focusing on 3 habits to start:

Stop and ask, “what’s important right now? Consciously checking in on what I’m focused on, to make sure it’s intentional and the best thing to be doing in the moment. Also, setting specific time each day and week for “planning” work and “doing” work and noticing when planning starts interfering with other activities.

Stop to breath deeply, more often. Noticing your breath seems to be where many meditation practitioners (or top apps) start and when I’ve tried it, it does help me feel less like things are careening out of control. It also gives some much needed oxygen to my busy brain. So when I stop to make coffee, change activities or prepare for a meeting, I will add a couple extra deep breathing moments too.

More Eye Contact. Conversations and connections count for more than we think and can help keep us centered. Being intentional to find opportunities for simple eye contact with family members, colleagues, clients and strangers is something I will practice, whether it is embracing video meetings more often, taking a break from monitoring my phone or foregoing the note-taking to really listen in a meeting.

My ankle crisis created some chaos, but it provided some unexpected clarity as well. It’s helped me identify a real need to be more present in some key areas of my life and be conscious of situations where multi-tasking is actually destructive to my goals.  

Neuroscience suggests that focusing on building habits can be more effective than setting goals or making resolutions and I’m approaching my new year with the intention of practicing a few new habits. We’ve also embedded habit building and practice into all of our emotional intelligence and communication learning programs here at Vibrant Work, because most learning and change happens outside the classroom one conversation and experience at a time.

I’m looking forward to exploring ways to be more present this year and to sharing and learning from others for greater clarity, focus and connection in 2019.

10 Ways to Boost Your Email EQ

We’ve all received them, and I dare say we’ve all sent a few too.  Those emails or texts that didn’t consider the real person at the other end of the inbox.  When we get these messages, even if we assume the best intent, our emotions still kick into gear sucking up precious energy. And if we don’t assume the best, it can wreck our day, or even our relationship. 

Whether it's email, text or social media, none of us will escape electronic communication and we'll all have a message misfire from time to time. Keeping our humanity in focus while embracing technology means putting our emotional intelligence skills to work, and the best leaders and communicators use key principles to ensure their e-messages are received accurately and get the results they're targeting. 

Email has been with us for a couple decades, but we're still adapting how to use it best as humans and I've shared some of my favorite email tips below.

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10 Tips to Boost your Email EQ

While most of these tips tend to apply to work, they're also useful for any message to increase clarity, effectiveness and to support better human connections.

1. The WHAT and the WHY

Be clear on why you are sending the message and identify your intent:

  • Is this the best way to convey the information you need to share? 
  • What questions, actions, changes or response do you expect? Will this method enable us to convey that and to achieve these goals?
  • What's the subject line? Will it signal the what and why of the message? 
  • How will you be clear on the intent of our message?

2. Ponder and Personalize

Consider who is receiving the message and frame your communication accordingly:

  • Are they direct reports? A colleague? Your boss? How do they like to communicate? Consider what you know about them and in what context they will be reading the email.
  • Imagine what details will be important to them - and which details might not. Think about the message from both head and heart perspective (i.e. content and feeling). What emotions do you want to elicit? What emotions might you trigger unintentionally?
  • Ask yourself if you would say this if you were speaking directly, or are you taking a stance by email instead of raising your opinion in your last meeting? Will they be surprised, overwhelmed? This is again where WHAT and WHY are important for creating context.

3.  Greetings and Gratitude

When speaking in person, we have vocal or physical ways of greeting and connecting (a nod, a smile) which creates interest and openness to receiving information. With electronic communication, we have to re-create this connection with words alone. Skipping this may save time, but it might skip the humanity too.

  • Unless you have shared and clear agreement to do otherwise, e.g., your team has agreed that project updates use a standardized email format, at minimum, your messages should include a “Hi” or “Hello” and/or the person's name. Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) advises that the greatest sound to a person is their own name, and I’d wager that seeing it in print is the next best thing.
  • Don’t hold back on acknowledgement or appreciation of the person at the start or end of your message. E.g. "Thanks for your attention to this" or "Appreciate your thoughts." 

4.  Control Capitalization & Power Down Punctuation

In print, without the help of verbal or facial cues, punctuation and capitalization can convey a serious amount of emotion and requires more interpretation.  It’s hard to distinguish if your words mean you are frustrated or you're just trying to be funny. 

  • E.g. Consider the following two messages: 

Why are YOU doing THIS now?!?!?!”  

vs.

“Why are you doing this now?” 

How would you interpret the first? And the second? Different right?

  • If you want to convey an emotion – name it. Literally. Spell it out with words. Skip the extra punctuation and state, “I’m confused.”  “I’m worried” or “I need more information.”
  • Be cautious when using bold or underline to to emphasize details – stick to the details that are important for retention and recall - i.e. deadlines, action items or reference documents and not words related to opinion, emotion, context or connection. 
  • If you find yourself starting a statement with an apology - reconsider.  Apologizing in advance doesn't excuse us for saying something crappy, and if we are stating something respectfully, directly and openly, there is no need to apologize.  Advanced apologies are a false front for courtesy and care.  They actually signal the opposite.  For example - an email with "I'm sorry if this is harsh but this is COMPLETELY UNACCEPTABLE!!"  seems like we are looking for permission to be intentionally harsh. Capitalization, especially with punctuation, can be the equivalent of yelling. We know yelling has never improved communication and if we know enough to apologize, we probably know there's a better way to say it. So, skip the apology and re-frame the message so it's respectful, direct and open. Or ask yourself if it needs to be sent at all. 
  • If you receive a message with overpowered punctuation, don’t be afraid to respond with a question (courteously) to clarify the sender’s intent.  E.g. “I'm reading the emphasis in this message as anger or frustration - is that accurate?” Or better yet, pick up the phone and have a conversation instead. Clarifying intent is critical for connected communication.

5.  Less is More

We need to be considerate and realistic. Human brains can only process so much information at once and ours isn't the only message our recipient will read today. 

  • We read messages on smart phones, tablets and on the fly.  Even the most eloquent paragraphs get scanned quickly and key details can be missed. If you have more than 3 paragraphs (or 1 desktop window)  consider a) redrafting the message (see next tip); b) booking a meeting/phone call; or c) both!
  • Be direct, open, and concise. Placing the most important details at the beginning or the end of a message will help with recall (i.e. primacy and recency effect).
  • Don't be afraid to use spaces strategically, especially to distinguish parts of the message that help build connection or frame the context. 

6. Bullet Points are a Blessing

Human brains like to categorize and chunk information and bullets help us process information in smaller batches, which means it's more likely to to be understood and retained.

  • Unless we are sending a formal letter, most information can be captured professionally and succinctly with bullet points.  Drop unnecessary words, stick to critical information – especially if an email is related to a past or upcoming meeting where there's opportunity to elaborate. 
  • Invite questions and then follow up with details on demand instead of trying to anticipate everything and including it all in a single message.

7. Express what you Expect

If we are ambiguous about what we expect someone to do with our message, people may not respond or act in the way we need which can lead to frustration and inaccurate perceptions (e.g. interpreting a lack of reply as "they don't care"). 

  • Are you looking for an email reply? An opinion? An approval?
  • Is there a timeframe and context that is associated with your expectation?
  • Clearly state this either at the beginning or the end of the message (or both!).  Use the subject line strategically. Your receiver should never have to wonder “why the heck am I getting this message?”

8. If Emotions are High, Email is a No-Go

Sometimes email feels like a safer method to communicate because we have a chance to draft, and craft a message to find just the right words. And by sending remotely it creates a barrier so we don't have the live discomfort of another person's emotions in response. But this lack of face to face connection can lead to lack of understanding, misinterpretations, and low trust and can exacerbate a situation where emotions are high. 

  • If you need to share information that is personal, includes feedback or correction, or a difficult message – speak directly to the person. These are not usually conversations to have electronically. 
  • Avoid having any deep conversation with electronics, no matter what the topic.  True conversation requires dialogue, deep listening, body language and mutual trust which is challenging to convey via email, and necessary for meaningful understanding.
  • If you are the recipient of an email that feels emotional – don’t be afraid to step back and pick up the phone, or respond by inviting the person to speak directly instead of using email. 
Photo by  Brandon Mowinkel  on  Unsplash

9. Go with your 3rd

We’ve all received an email, whether from a colleague, customer or that particular family member that gets us riled up, and felt compelled to get something off our chest because "who do they think they are?" after all.  And sometimes we like to copy a few other people just to bolster our position. Caution: When you notice an emotional response to an email, (or social media post or anything electronic) and feel the need to blast a message back in return - STOP - and go with your 3rd Draft. 

Consider:

The 1st Draft – We React – we reply with all our raw emotion, triggered based on our initial interpretation (which might be inaccurate) and our feelings (which are valid, but might be based on inaccurate interpretation).

The 2nd Draft – We might Redact – we might take a moment to read our message before sending, and decide against the profanity, cut back on an exclamation mark or 2, but essentially our reply has the same goal and is still more about our emotional reaction than reality.

By the 3rd Draft- We can Respond – after a few deep breaths, and ideally a few hours, our reply is more likely to incorporate our EQ and connection skills – we recognize we’ve had an emotional response. We can identify why and what it's related to in the message (or in ourself). We can seek to clarify the sender’s intent and expectations either via email or even better, with that invite to chat by phone or in person.

Photo by  Elijah O'Donell  on  Unsplash

10. The Front Page Factor

I tend to follow my Globe and Mail Rule for any electronic message be it social media, text or email. (substitute your own national paper of course). Again, this rule is pretty important when you're at work, but I encourage you to think about it with any message whether it’s to your sister, your cable company or your BFF. While I don’t like to pander to paranoia, the reality is that we have no control of information once it leaves our outbox. None.  So...before you hit SEND:

  • Ask yourself: "Am I OK with this message being on the front page of the paper?" If the answer is yes - you may also want to....
  • Be mindful if using email to share information or opinions about others. Spreading gossip is always harmful and humour or inside jokes, even if mutually welcome between you and your chum, could be viewed very differently if read out of context. And even worse if it's in context. 
  • Unless you are currently -or soon to be- famous, your emails may not make it to the national news, but it could end up in the wrong inbox or printer. It only takes a split second reaction, a slip of the finger, a forward or a failed setting and your private message is out in the universe and can have serious results. Facebook posts persist for decades and emails get hacked. Just ask any political candidate. 

These are just a few considerations and of course there are always exceptions, so use the tips that make sense for you to maintain positive and productive communication in your own life, relationships and workplaces. Email is such a powerful tool, but we owe it to ourselves and others to use it with our humanity at the helm.

Do you have more tips for keeping human connection healthy when emails abound? Please share below!