communication

Why Conversation is Crucial for Learning

I recently attended a fabulous two-day summit with a global team of consultants in San Francisco hosted by Actionable Conversations, the methodology that brings us together. There’s nothing quite like a room full of dynamic, like-minded folks - all skilled facilitators in their own right - engaged in learning and growth themselves.

The running joke in the room was that even if the slide deck was only 10 minutes, the feedback would be there wasn’t enough networking and connection time. Looking back, this felt more than true, which reinforced AGAIN the power of human connection at work and beyond.

The Social Science of Human Connection

Conversation and social learning supports change because it taps into our neurological systems, triggering different areas of the brain which helps our retention, problem-solving, sense-making and creativity.

Before technology, telephones or even pen and paper, face-to-face story telling is what kept communities functioning, led to invention and co-operation, and propelled social and political change. Author and researcher Yuval Noah Harari suggests that even gossip was part of our cognitive revolution and a powerful force in the building of ancient empires. Today we see the tremendous impact of social media gossip in our political, social and business lives.

Technology impacts human connection for both better and worse, but it also allows us to measure and understand how human connection works in the brain. We’re learning that brains engaged in social activity (i.e. conversation) release chemicals associated with positive emotional states (oxytocin) and feelings of belonging. Social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman suggests our human brain has evolved with a default system specifically focused on connection, continuously scanning and analyzing the environment for social information like facial expressions, conversation cues and emotional data. This brain activity is present at birth, developing and strengthening as we interact through our lives.

In her book Reclaiming Conversation, Psychologist and media scholar Sherry Turkle argues that technology interferes with our ability to connect on several levels, impairing the conversations we have with ourselves, with our friends and family, and in our larger groups in society. We are losing the skills to know and understand ourselves, to read emotional information, build empathy with others, and to engage in crucial, constructive dialogue that meets our basic human needs and solves big issues.

The Link to Learning

While technology offers many advantages and tools to support learning, it’s clear that face-to-face conversation should be a component of any learning process. During my summit event, I absorbed and clarified more ideas through 15-minute conversations with my peers than I had in months of working on it or reading about it on my own. In the same way that writing something down with a pen and paper can increase retention, face-to-face conversation engages more of the body, uses more areas of the brain and helps us not only digest and process complex information, but also helps us explore new thinking with others.

Research from the American Society of Training and Development suggests that when we talk about our goals or change commitments with others our likelihood to achieve them is 65%. If we commit to reporting back on how we did, it’s as high as 95%. We know that humans need social connection, and we are discovering that our social brain is connected to other brain functions and is more powerful than we realize. The value of human connection for learning is clear and we’re building conversation into the design and measurement of our programs here at Vibrant Work so teams and leaders learn vital connection skills, reinforce new habits outside the classroom, and create real, lasting change.

What conversations are helping you learn lately?

   

Sources:

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, we 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 what she was doing, what the issue or how busy she was. It stood out to me then and still does today. Centered leaders are able to listen deeply to take in more 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 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 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 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.

The Curse of Compliance

"What do I have to do to be legally compliant?"

This is a question I’ve heard often over the years and it's becoming clear to me that it isn't simple. It seems easy to post a cookie cutter policy on the wall, tick a couple checklists and feel the job is done. But compliance as the ultimate goal seems like a low bar. And we're starting to see the results of this compliance focused approach as the headlines and social media feeds uncover deeply rooted workplace stories, secrets and shame.

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There are vital principles behind all legislation and this is truly important. But, while complying with legislation should certainly be an outcome of policies and practices in your workplace, a compliance mindset is limiting and potentially damaging to your long-term business goals and workplace well-being.

Workplace connections, employment relationships, trust, behavior change and legal commitments are still at risk if we don’t anticipate and challenge these 5 curses that come with a culture of compliance:

Curse # 1: Compliance treats humans as RISKS

In many organizations, HR Management has become synonymous with “Human Risk” Management. We are in an era of litigation and our governments are compelled to intervene and become the brokers of our employment relationships. Businesses continuously scan for threats and focus on minimum standards hoping to avoid lawsuits, costs and disruptions. The employment relationship starts off with doubt, with repetitive sign-offs on a laundry list of policies, and we need lawyers to craft and understand what should be standard conditions of employment.  This obligation to start a vital relationship with threats (sign or else) and mistrust (we assume you don’t know how to behave), sets an ominous tone which takes significant effort to alter.

Curse #2: Compliance stifles collaboration and dialogue

Being told what to do – with top down, standardized policies – and to comply “or else” ends all discussion before it begins. If discussion does take place, it's limited to training focused on how to avoid repercussions or meet the checklist, rather than changing beliefs and habits to eliminate the need for the policy in the first place. And instead of turning to the people affected by policy decisions to generate shared accountability, dialogue and awareness, we rely on lawyers and legislators to tell us what is fair and reasonable (a.k.a defensible), which is unlikely to address or respond  to our unique businesses, employee and workplace needs.

Curse #3: Compliance abdicates accountability

We've all head it, or used it: "HR is making us do this" or "it's policy." because it's required "by law".  Or when questioned on a decision, we say "we are meeting the legal standard", or worse when organizations fail, we demand "where was HR?". What message does this send to employees? To leaders? Would we rather let legislators or the courts direct critical leadership relationships? Is it really up to only ONE department to be responsible for how grown, educated, professional people behave? (check out Jane Watson's @JsarahwatsHR fabulous video on this). With a compliance mindset, leaders, and even HR,  risk sending the message that they don’t really care about people.  We keep trying to patronize and police instead of engaging in deeper dialogue and we rely on outside forces rather than holding each other accountable to vital principles and behaviours in our work relationships.

Curse #4: Compliance focuses on policy management vs. people leadership

Even the most robust policies can be disconnected from what happens in real life. No document will capture every possibility and yet we want to rely on static documents to make decisions and solve complex issues.  HR teams and business owners end up playing a disheartening game of whack-a-mole trying to keep policies up to date with the next nuance from the latest case law or news story. We rely on paper policies as a cop-out or cure-all when we are afraid to have hard conversations directly with individuals, and we can spend more time and effort on formatting documents than on actions that will integrate our principles into our organization habits, decisions and performance measures. 

 Curse #5: Compliance creates complacency.  

I’ll be first to admit this is a trap I’ve fallen into myself. We assume that once we’ve ticked the checklist, done the training or filed the report, we have done our “due diligence.”  Perhaps we go through the motions of annual policy review, we rubber stamp and carry on.  We often fail to think critically or to challenge ourselves with the difficult questions about actual practices, measures, how successful a policy is at actually addressing the issues it targets, or if it has solved actual business or people concerns at all. We strive to be great rule followers, while failing to ask and understand why we have the rules in the first place. 

This is an ongoing challenge in our workplaces today and for the #futureofwork. In Ontario, we have several legislated Acts, Codes, and Standards that dictate policies for safety, employment, sex/gender, discrimination, and harassment in the workplace, and yet, the headlines are clear that our compliance cultures have failed to address systemic issues and entrenched beliefs. And when we identify these failures, the most common response is unanimously: "More policies." Huh.

Even with all the legislation and corporate compliance,  H&S fatality rates have not fallen in Canada or the U.S in last 20 years, 43% of women in Canada still experience sexual harassment at work and some estimates indicate that every three and a half minutes an unfair dismissal claim is made against an employer.

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There is nothing compelling about a compliance mind-set. Changing our focus to human-centered principles (vs. policies) requires us to commit to more vibrant conversations and collaboration, where power is shared and success is built with fairness, equity, diversity and inclusion as part of the process instead of a rule to follow.  Clear commitment, authentic conversations and daily habits will beat compliance mindset every time. It's driven by a connection to people instead of policy and if we start to view our workplace and people through the lens of connection and compassion, we create greater opportunity for better root cause analysis, creative problem solving and broader strategies that build relationships and trust (which incidentally is more likely to reduce risk).

So, my current answer to the question “What do I have to do to be legally compliant?”

Build a culture of conversation instead.

How do you challenge the curse of compliance and embrace a vibrant work mindset? Feel free to share below! Looking for ways to build a culture of conversation? Reach out to us to start a conversation together.

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!