In the 2016 movie, “The Martian,” staring Matt Damon our hero figures out how to communicate from Mars to Earth using ASCII code, a camera, and paper plates. This kind of thinking – exploring different creative solutions until finding one that works – is called divergent thinking and it’s a process we can all benefit from.
Divergent thinking is an excellent way to escape that box we’re always trying to think our way out of.
The office provides all kinds of problems that can benefit from a divergent thinking approach.
Ellen’s experience, optimism and work ethic are an essential part of the team, but she’s leaving the company in two weeks. You don’t have the resources to rehire. How do you approach the transfer of responsibilities?
You could give it all to the next person in line. Or, you could ask Ellen who she recommends, maybe it’s someone not even in her department? Who has expressed an interest in her focus area or shown an aptitude for her skills? Are there pieces of the job that can be automated, removed, pared down, or expanded into a more comprehensive approach involving more people, but fewer steps?
Many years ago the Boston Children’s Museum had the problematic honor of receiving a retired fire truck as a gift from the city. What should we do with it? Since we were situated on Boston Harbor I suggested pumping water from the ocean and spraying it back into the harbor, turning the truck into a fountain.
"Can’t do that,” says one colleague. “It’s salt water and will corrode the pumps.” Someone suggested we leave it parked and let kids climb on it. That was the end of the conversation.
I thought it could have been the beginning of the conversation. Finding innovative solutions requires creativity – divergent thinking – momentarily accepting unorthodox concepts and then exploring possibilities.
During office-communication workshops I often lead an exercise where one person writes down an object, like a shoe, and a different person is assigned a problem, like “the dishwasher is broken.” Their task is to fix the problem with the object.
How can you use a shoe to fix a dishwasher? Think for a second. (Seriously, take a second.)
(Did you think about it?)
There are many possible solutions. Here are a few...
Remember the infamous scene in Tom Hank’s “Apollo 13”? To decrease dangerous levels of CO2 in the Apollo cabin a NASA engineer on earth challenged his team, “We’ve got to find a way to fit this, into the hole for this, using nothing but that,” pointing to a table full of space parts.
Divergent thinking allows you to consider resources in new and productive ways. Sometimes all you have is a shoe. If Matt Damon can communicate with Earth using a paper plate, you can certainly find a creative use for a fire engine.
Communicators are always going on about saying “yes.” Agree first and evaluate later. You can say yes to almost anything even if it doesn't initally make sense. “I think we should take all of our employees for a ride on Space Mountain!” Yes, that is an interesting idea. I wonder if that is what's best for the company.”
But there is a step before saying "yes" which doesn't get a lot of focus. First, don't say "no." Saying no is often a knee jerk reactions, especially of there is ego involved, like having an idea or asking for help. But, anyone who has ever been on a date or interview knows a negative response can cut things short pretty quickly.
“Hi! Do you like music?” “No.”
“Good morning. Do you like our new company logo?” “No.”
It’s not about squelching your true feelings, it’s about not leading with contradiction.
Ron Shaich, founder and CEO of Panera Bread had an idea to give their food away for free. In 2010 they opened up a Panera Cares Community Cafe in St. Louis Misourri. Their experimental pay-what-you-can model not only connected them more meaningfully to the neighborhood, but turned out to be cost effective, as well. This innovative idea was a major part in giving Panera Bread “the best-performing restaurant stock over the last decade.”
Someone in that inevitiably awkward conversation didn't say no.
It just makes sense. More ideas are generated, more confidence is given, fewer egos bruised. As every parent everywhere has said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all."
philosopher and 80s rocker Billy Squier said it best...
We live in confusion times
My world is a vice
Nobody gets out alive
But you can break through the ice
Don't say no...
Most of us are taught “friendly phrases” at a young age. Asking for ice cream needs a “please.” Getting it requires a “thank you.” But, you can bet five year old David doesn’t mean it. He’s just following the rules to get what he wants.
Growing up we had to ask permission to leave the dinner table. It was a form of respect, acknowledging that dinnertime was family time. And, for the briefest of moments my siblings and I found a work around. However, “MayIpleasebeexcusedyesImaythankyou,” didn’t cut it. You needed to show respect…with respect.
Saying “please” even if you just really want the ice cream still demonstrates gratitude. Everyone wants to be made to feel good! The sentiment may not be authentic, but the joy of receiving praise is, and creates a sense of simple decency.
“Hey mom, may I please be excused?”
“Yes, you may.”
Married couples sometimes fall into the trap of allowing familiarity to erode common niceties. She knows I care, what’s the diff? But, a 2015 Georgia University studyfound “spousal expression of gratitude was the most consistent predictor of marital quality.” They discovered “when couples are engaged in negative conflict pattern[s]…expressions of gratitude and appreciation can counteract” the adverse effects of that...behavior."
Common courtesies even in the midst of social breakdown help to maintain assurance and comfort.
In “The Shawshank Redemption,” one of the most gratifying prison break movies of all time, Andy Dufrane finds a spark during during the darkest moment of his life. Against the warden’s wishes he amplifies soaring Italian opera into the courtyard, and as Morgan Freeman proclaimed, “for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”
Civility in the face of adversity is a powerful tool. It lends affability to customer service. It helps law enforcement deescalate volatile situations.
Friendly phrases aren’t a protest march. They aren’t a petition. They won’t stabilize a fractured society. But they are a simple and elegant reminder of a positive influence we can wield.
Thank you for reading.
Including a personal experience in any kind of public engagement is a proven method of grabbing and keeping audience attention.
I recently directed a show called, “The Improvised Life of a Man Named Jack.” It was a kind of cross between “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Jack was the star, hero and narrator of his own life story.
With the exception of deciding in advance which actor was going to play Jack, all of the characters, dialogue and relationships were created in the moment to tell the evolving story of one man.
As with most improv shows, scenes were inspired by audience suggestions. The cast broke the fourth wall – the most dramatic of all walls! – and asked the audience things like “What’s her name?” or “How do they know each other?” But, we quickly discovered the most compelling scenes came from deeper, more personal questions.
The inspiration that came from the audience member's reply fueled a rich and dynamic scene that propelled the story forward in a way everyone could connect to. When you hear someone confide, “I left my family behind to come to America,” our emotions stir at a visceral level. Suggestions like "Her name is Rachel!” or “You met on the playground!” give information, but they don’t provide any emotional context.
Drawing on personal experience to brighten up otherwise mundane topics is common in all kinds of media. Planet Money, the NPR podcast which often explores curious money-based concepts regularly uses this approach. At the beginning of a recent episode discussing the national interest rate, two friends dug through a bin of bank receipts asking each other how they felt about the amount of money in other people’s accounts. What did it mean to them, and by extension, what does it mean to you?
Nondini Naqui, founder of Society of Grownups and a recipient of the “Ten Outstanding Young Leaders of Boston” award spoke to a crowd at the "Delight 2016" annual conference about financial literacy – a topic notoriously inaccessible. She could have simply listed facts and pointed at bar charts, but what kept the audience engaged was reference to her feelings, her family and her fears. (Got 19 minutes?)
Adding a personal experience to your presentation is the mark of a great speaker, and true of almost any TED Talk you can pull up.
So when you are writing notes to deliver your research, keynote speech or actuarial tables, ask yourself what is the emotional connection to your work? What does it mean to you? What can it mean to your audience?
In the words of John Stewart Mill, "There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home."
Everyone has heard of an “elevator pitch.” It’s the 30 second speech you use to convince Bruce Willis you’re not trying to take over Nakatomi Towers. Also, that you are smart, capable and have something to offer.
You might use an elevator pitch when you are looking for a job. But, you can also use it when you are already employed and selling your product or services. Yippee-kiyay.
There can be a lot riding on it, (or you could just be going to the 35th floor) but writing a power thesis about what you do best is actually a great exercise even if you aren't searching for clients or fighting Alan Rickman. It gives you a chance to cement what’s important to you, what you want and what separates you from the competition.
There’s plenty of good advice out there:
When it comes to wordsmithing, “keep it simple.” Use this template to craft a short and elegant elevator pitch.
Here’s an example of an elevator pitch (from a highly successful business man!) using the formula above. He tailors it to any situation, depending on what angle he is working with the potential client.
This is what I do
"Hi, My name is David Marino, I’d like to introduce myself. I design and lead interpersonal communications workshops for team building, customer service, presentation, professional development and anywhere you need a really strong human to human connection. I’m also a professional actor and director."
This is what we do
"At DLM we use the same communication principles actors use – vocalization, physicality, and passion and apply them to communicating with your clients, customers or peers."
This is why we're different
"It’s a really engaging and unique approach that allows people to learn universal principles that apply in every situation where ever clear communication is required. Every workshop is designed to give practical real-world tools to the participants, so they can start using what they learned right away."
This is why we’re awesome
"Because I’ve got 20 plus years of theater experience and have worked with all kinds of for profit and non-profit organizations, I’ve been able to help a huge range of companies improve their communications skills and connect more with their audiences. I’ve worked with Fortune 500 companies like The Universal Bank of Switzerland, museums like Chicago Children’s Museum, and other large non-profits like the Boston Public Library.
What kind of presentation or customer service does your company do? I’d love to set up a time to talk and see what I might be able to do for you."
Make sure it sounds like you. Say it out loud and work it until it sounds casual, but deliberate and authentic.
You can think of an elevator pitch as what gets you in the door. You don’t need to make a sale right then and there. You just need to be authentic and compelling enough to get the attention of that potential client.
“Welcome to the party, pal.” – John McClane
Not the best motivational poster, right?
How many times have you told yourself, “I can’t do that”? If you want to make yourself a more valuable employee (and a “can-do” human!), it’s worth looking at what “can’t” might actually mean.
I Don’t Want To…
You say: “I can’t go to the meeting on Wankel Rotary Engines, I have work to do.”
But, you really mean: "I don't want to..."
Be honest with yourself. More often than not you really can go to the meeting if you budget your time differently. You just really, really, really don’t want to. But, as no one ever said about monkey bread and cinnamon rolls, it’s not the same thing.
Why make this distinction? Because finding a way to make you want to go to the meeting can make everything better! Imagine signing up a different speaker every week instead of listening to Mr. Monotone all the time. (Contact DLM Consulting to fix that. I know a guy.) You could infuse a little optimism into the agenda by everyone sharing a “good thing that happened this week.” Keep people engaged by making sure everyone contributes to the agenda. Keep the meetings short. Have them in the park. Serve drinks.
Saying “I can’t” implies the presence of an immovable barrier. Saying “I don’t want to” is an opportunity for improvement.
I Don’t Know How…
You say: “I can’t make a Wankel Rotary Engine!”
But, you really mean: "I don't know how..."
The solution is simple: learn! But, if you’ve ever worked in a wankel rotatory engine factory, or had any job anywhere ever, you’re already thinking about the tradeoff. On the one hand, if not having that knowledge is negatively effecting your job, it’s probably in your best interest to learn it. The more you know, the more you can do and the more valuable you are to your boss. And you’ve added a new skill to your resume. "Wankeling!”
But on the other hand, you lose the right to say you “can’t,” and you’ll probably end up doing more work. On the other other hand, think of it this way. Would you rather learn a new skill that helps you, or knowingly miss an opportunity to make yourself more valuable as an employee?
I don’t believe I can…
You say: "I can’t change the color of the Wankel Rotary Engine!”
But, you really mean: "I don't believe I can..."
You want to change the color because Wankel Gray is boring, but no one said you could. This is not a case of “do it first and ask forgiveness later.” Save that for eating someone else’s monkey bread. This is when you empower yourself to ask the right questions and clarify your range of influence. Maybe you can’t, or maybe you can. Maybe you can create a system whereby suggestions are made to the color-making people and you get your voice heard anyway, even if you don't have a final say in the matter.
Do you want to improve the company and make yourself a more valuable employee? Look at why you think things can’t happen and restate the situation. I can’t think of a better way!
As part of Third Sector New England’s Better Nonprofit Management Training Series, this October DLM is proud to be leading a workshop entitled, “Become A Power Presenter.”
One of my favorite topics as a communications leader is learning how to be authentic. It seems like a contradiction. How can you force yourself to be more natural? It’s often a challenge, but not impossible.
Amy Cuddy, Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, is known through her TED Talk of coining the phrase, “Don’t fake it until you make it, fake it until you become it.” Her point is anyone committed to being a better public speaker can do the simple things like stand straight and speak up. But, it’s the uncommon thing – engraining those behaviors into who you are – when things really start to get interesting.
Your message should always be about who is doing the speaking, not just how it’s being said. How can you draw on your passion? What values do you cherish? And as Cuddy suggests, how can you be the most compelling version of yourself (fake it) while staying true to who you are (until you become it)?
It doesn’t matter if you are presenting your life’s work at a TED Talk or listing quarterly earnings, the really good speakers – the ones who lead meetings you like going to – make you feel their interest and passion through the energy they give off.
They can do this because they found an authentic connection with the material and are sharing that enthusiasm. This is the kind of speaker we should all strive to be.
This idea is reflected is the words of Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.
“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
Registration will open soon. I hope to see you there!
A director of mine once said, “If a friend is in a terrible show, you can always tell him you liked the costumes.”
No one wants to hurt people’s feelings. One way to get around that is to praise something you actually liked to draw attention away from things you didn’t. The costumes in my shows are always impeccable.
There’s a more constructive technique for giving feedback used in personnel management which is called "PIP," or “Positive, Improvement, Positive." You start with the good, then the thing you want to change, then another good.
That goes something like this:
“Alien Bob, I really love the new space ship. All the lights look amazing; it’s going to drive the earthlings crazy.”
“I’d love to see the hyperdrive a little more hyper. We need to get out of there fast if someone grabs a camera!
“Great job. The Overlord is going to love it!”
Sometimes this is called “the compliment sandwich.” I prefer to call it “the compliment cake.” For one thing, alliteration is much more memorable. For another, who doesn’t want a piece of cake!
But, there’s a second piece to this approach that is almost always overlooked. How should the recipient respond to this criticism mashed between two compliments? I’ve worked so hard! I know it’s perfect just the way it is!
Luckily, the solution is three more layers of cake. A second PIP: "Professional, Informative, Productive."
To be open to change and a different point of view Alien Bob might respond to the criticism about his spaceship like this:
“Thanks Alien Joe. I was thinking the hyperdrive was hyper enough, but you make a good point."
“Should I make it so fast the Earthlings only get blurry photos, or just enough to scare farmers?"
“I’ll check the specs on the F-15 jet fighter and see if they could catch us. You can tell the Overlord we’ll be ready to attack on Tuesday, as scheduled.”
Giving constructive feedback can be challenging. Accepting it gracefully even more so. But with this feedback and response technique, you can have your cake and eat it, too!
PIP PIP HOORAY!
In the movie “Back to the Future” Marty McFly jumps to the past and has dinner with his girlfriend/prom-date/mother (it takes two more movies to sort that out). The family watched TV while they ate. I remember thinking at the time there was no way my family would watch TV while we were eating; family time was together time. But my best friend watched TV during dinner almost every night. Every family has its own cultures and traditions.
Outside the home there are national and regional cultures, as well. When you interact with a large and diverse set of traditions and expectations, differences in cultural context can have great potential for miscommunication.
I once had to speak to a staff member who was getting complaints for being rude and aggressive towards visitors and colleagues. During our conversation I pointed out her current behavior as an example. She stopped with a look of surprise and said, “Oh, I was just explaining what I thought. We talk like that all the time in my house.” What most of us took as an affront was standard communication to her.
Once, I had a Native American colleague who was late for an event because he was “watching the otters play.” He was literally watching the otters play in the stream near his house. But it wasn’t willful disregard for his work. The Wampanoag perception of time is based on the present – something to appreciate, not a race against the future as in most western cultures.
From an HR perspective, it doesn’t mean that infractions coming from an opposing culture shouldn’t be addressed. It means corrective measures should acknowledge an ingrained generational behavior, rather than assume laziness or apathy towards the job.
Improving communication through cultural context can be tricky because no one wants to cause offense or make assumptions. In addition, it can often take a while to realize conflicting behaviors even come from cultural traditions and not some other superficial source. It’s important to realize some people might very well see our culture as the one incompatible to theirs. A heavy dose of empathy and open conversation is the cure for that.
Your environment affects how you think and feel. Do you have to squint or shield your eyes? Cup your hand behind your ear? Move away from a smell? This is known as "environmental context" and something you should keep in mind when choosing a location to deliver an important message, whether it's for a large audience, a board meeting or a one-on-one. It's simply more pleasant...to be in a pleasant place.
In fact, humans respond to their environment so much, there is a whole category of improv theater called “environment work,” or "object work." Playing broken furniture, making loud noises, miming heat or cold, or otherwise creating an air of environmental hijinks can have a huge impact on the direction of the scene. That’s because people can relate to being distracted, confused or simply unable to process the incoming stimuli. Therein lies the funny!
In this modern comedy gem watch Niles Crane, of the TV show "Frasier," get pushed, pulled and waylaid by his increasingly chaotic surroundings.
And of course, in the workplace any extreme or even mildly annoying environment can quickly lead to frustration, confusion or lack of productivity.
The idea that your surroundings affect your sense of calm is not new. Feng shui, the Chinese philosophy of “harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment” originated over 4000 years ago. A less spiritual westernized version became popular in the US in the early 2000's and with many people it continues to influence everything from the design of new buildings to backyard gardens.
Although there is little evidence to suggest there are lines of energy flowing through your living room, it’s easy to understand that the addition of a few plants can provide a more welcoming feel, or too many chairs might make you feel cramped. Feng shui translates literally to “wind-water,” both elements known to produce a calming, contemplative effect. That’s an excellent principle to adopt when trying to communicate effectively.
Environmental context is a fancy term for "pay attention to what’s around you." There may be a more conducive place to have a thoughtful conversation.
As we showed last month, ducks and Monty Python are a good illustration of how important psychological and relational context is to comedy – and communication! Another factor to consider is "situational" context.
This is psycho-social, as in, what is the larger meaning about where I am and how do I feel about it? (As opposed to "environmental" which is about external things, like lighting and temperature.) People propose marriage on a Ferris wheel because it's a romantic location. Someone who asks for a loan instead is kind of wasting the ambiance.
A good amount of comedy is based on this juxtaposition between location and content. One of Monty Python’s most memorable sketches capitalizes on this brilliantly.
The location of your conversation can have a huge impact on how your message is received. Remember that nauseous feeling you had when you reported to the principal’s office? I don’t, of course, I was the model student. But, for others, you wouldn’t get that feeling if you were sent to Build-a-Bear instead.
Some supervisors use location to demonstrate their approach to staff management. One CEO at a global financial company chose a standard office cube for her home base. Talking to the boss "down in the trenches” feels very different than in a corner office. This approach helps create a more relaxed mindset in her employees and makes her more approachable.
Similarly, I have a former supervisor who was hired at a health services organization to improve client care. He was so troubled by how the staff had been previously mistreated, he wanted them to retain as much dignity as possible. So, instead of making people move around to accommodate him, he set up shop in the only space that was not currently occupied: the boiler room in the basement.
Sometimes it can be a challenge to determine what location best sets the tone for the message you want to send. Many museums hire college-age employees and for some it can be the first job of their careers. It’s commonly required to remind them of basic workplace expectations like showing up on time or storing their coats and bags out sight. Often a simple conversation off to the side is appropriate. But when issues become critical, it’s often more effective to meet in the supervisor’s office. Talking about work performance in the boss’s domain gives the conversation a greater sense of urgency.
If every reminder took place in a formal location it would overstate the importance of each little infraction and become less meaningful. Likewise, meeting in an informal space, like the lobby, to discuss how current choices may impact their future is sending a very mixed message.
Managing the situational context by considering an appropriate location is within our control. The next step is to consider not just the social aspect, but how the environment itself affects the conversation.
How do you get down from an elephant? You don’t, you get down from a duck!
I don’t remember when I first heard that joke, but I still love it. First of all, the word “duck” is just funny. (Science has proven, “if you’re going to tell a joke about an animal, make it a duck!”) Second, switching context is a classic comic technique, as when Henny Youngman coined the decidedly non-feminist one-liner, “Take my wife, please!” referring to her both as an example of something, and also a plea.
Like jokes with a twist, communication is all about context. Tone, intention and bias all influence the probability of an effective conversation. “I’ll take care of it!” means one thing in a restaurant, and quite another when talking to the local crime boss.
There are essentially five forms of context that can influence interpersonal communication.
That is, nothing you say happens in a vacuum. You are not alone on an island where your words only affect yourself. You are surrounded by natives who want to know your intentions.
Psychological context is all about who you are and what you bring to the conversation. Most people aren't troubled with day to day interactions, and there’s no way to alter your innate personality anyway. But, even on the best of days we are often required to temper our real thoughts and phrase things to be more palatable to the listener. We might be feeling a little grumpy, but we also know it’s easier to catch flies with honey than demand they fly into the bug zapper.
That’s when you need to be aware of how you might be affecting other people and alter your approach accordingly. Debbie Downer, the classic buzz killer character on Saturday Night Live, is an example of someone who DOESN’T recognize the negative effect she has on people. And of course, as anyone who brings home remnants of a stressful work life can tell you, it can sometimes be a real challenge.
I saw a sign in the office of a high school guidance counselor, posted as a reminder to students whose youth and hormones sometimes play havoc with their better judgment: “Check yourself, before you wreck yourself!”
There are a few layers here and it’s no wonder communication can get so complicated. Effective relational context depends on an agreement of who you think YOU are, who THEY think you are, who THEY think they are, who YOU think they are.
Thus, it is about your reaction to other people. A comment from a stranger might lead you to be defensive, whereas the same comment from a friend you might take as informed advice.
Another way to think about relational context is how you perceive each other's social status – given your relationship, what are your mutual expectations. On the improv stage we use this idea all the time as a shortcut to character creation. If I come in as the king, the best way to support that idea is for you to come in as a peasant. That relative social status is universally recognized. Then we can get to the comedy!
When the owner of a company is stopped at security and says, “Do you have any idea who I am?”, until that point the real relational context was unknown. Now the situation requires a quick rejiggering of expectations, something often difficult to do on the fly.
You obey your boss because, traditionally, she has a higher social status. Whereas, at home with your partner, hopefully, there might be some discussion. This is the concept that allows us to know the best supervisors are the ones who create a greater sense of partnership by fostering a more equal status.
There's a lot more going on in conversations than people generally acknowledge. So, on the one hand it can make things incredibly complicated. But, on the other, almost all of it is under our control. We'll look at the remaining factors – and more Monty Python clips – next month!
My last post looked at a study by social psychologist Amy Cuddy who discovered that “warmth and competence” are the two traits we most desire to see in other people. If you look at the Fancy Chart below you can see Pity and Envy are two emotions we often feel when faced with the spectrum of those two factors. The other two are Contempt and Admiration.
Contempt – the intersection between “cold and incompetent” – is one of those feelings we usually reserve for people who we feel have wronged us with seemingly no remorse. They have acted, or chosen not to act, selfishly and with complete disregard for consequences.
It's a pretty fair guess that the most despised person in America as of this writing is pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli. He was publicly branded a pariah after it was announced he had raised the price of a life-saving drug from $13.50 per pill, to $750.00 per pill, overnight. News commentators wore out their thesaurus looking for synonyms for "contempt." It's a natural instinct when you hear something so seemingly callous, justified or not.
Cuddy found low-income or state-supported populations often fall into this category. If you are suspicious that poor people aren't doing enough to get themselves out of poverty and perhaps taking advantage of the system, you will likely have little empathy for them. And as Cuddy points out, this is a normal emotional reaction.
But, as we all know from our rocky office and romantic relationships, acting purely on emotion usually doesn't end well. It's pretty clear regularly feeling contempt is an unhealthy way to view the world. You can't stop forming a first impression – humans after are all emotional creatures – but you can give the benefit of the doubt. When a client tells me how angry they get at stupid managerial decisions, I advise them to take a breath and not assume incompetence. Few people are deliberately inept and out to get us. Likewise, think about the last time your feelings were hurt and after talking it out you admitted, “Oh, that’s not what I thought you meant.”
Tom Hanks is often referred to as “the nicest guy in Hollywood.” He's won multiple Golden Globes, Emmys, Oscars and a whole bunch of other awards for his undeniable talent. As an actor myself I think: that guy is super nice and super talented! I want to be that! When I get my first Emmy I'll let you know how it's going.
Sticking with the Star Trek theme from the previous post, Captain Picard is considered one of the most admired diplomats in the galaxy! His command of language and alien societies combined with warmth and agreeability are undeniable. And Vulcans aren't the only one who thinks so! I recommend an excellent book by Wess Roberts, called “Star Trek: Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Take two minutes to see the master at work.
Do you remember your favorite mentor or teacher? Chances are he or she was both smart and made you feel good about yourself. I think of Mr. Quirk, my high school Advanced Composition teacher. He knew writing better than anyone and got people excited about it. And he always had time for a chat when we ran into each other in the library. I admired him. That experience informs how I interact with my students today.
Amy Cuddy’s study shows us what first impressions we make on people. The good news is since we know what qualities affect that perception – warmth and competence – we have an opportunity to make sure we stay nice and cozy in the “Admiration” quadrant by monitoring our behavior and increasing those qualities. Practice your presentation or interview, show a genuine interest in other people. Take command of your starship!
Not everyone can come across as a lovable 'ole teddy bear. But, we do have the ability to change how people perceive us and focus on the most positive aspects. In a previous post I considered the social and professional value of attempting to “be the type of person you would like to meet.” This is about perception.
According to social psychologist Amy Cuddy, “warmth and competence” are the two positive traits we most desire to see in our fellow humans. And they are not insignificant. She states these first impressions account for “80 percent of our overall evaluation of people.”
When we meet someone for the first time we are unconsciously asking, “Do I like this person or not?” We answer by making a snap judgment based on those two factors, the relative strength of which informs how we feel about that person.
The four basic responses are contempt, pity, envy, and admiration. Can you guess which first impression would be the most advantageous? Let’s look at two of them and see how they play out in the real world.
Cuddy explains “pity” best in a summary article of her research in Harvard Magazine:
“The warm/incompetent quadrant…evokes an ambivalent emotion: pity, which fuses compassion and sadness. People are more likely to help groups in this cluster, like the elderly, but also much more likely to ignore and neglect them, says Cuddy. Furthermore, the more strongly one subscribes to the warm/incompetent stereotype, the more likely one is to both help and ignore such people. “It depends on the situation,” she says. “If you’re at a backyard barbecue, you’re more likely to help the elderly person. In the office, you’ll probably neglect them.”
That is a fascinating observation which can have direct consequences in the workplace. Obviously, intentionally or unintentionally avoiding anyone in an environment where collaboration and communication is valued can have a negative impact on your work and others. Or, at the very least create unwanted anxiety in either party. But, with a little self-awareness and motivation, one can take positive action – the opposite of neglect – and improve your interactions with those marginalized parties. Recognize your feelings and behaviors and go out of your way to be more inclusive. Remember that birthday party in the 6th grade you weren’t invited to?
At the other end of the warmth and competence spectrum “…groups seen as cold/competent evoke envy…it involves both respect and resentment.”
Let’s look at the Star Trek universe, one of the best of all universes. Commander Data, the silver-skinned android on board the starship Enterprise has many times saved the crew from imminent disaster by completing complex tasks much more efficiently than his humanoid counterparts. Many times his companions expressed a desire to have his exceptional skill sets. And yet, in the earlier episodes, he was utterly unable to understand simple concepts such as friendship or loss which sometimes estranged him from members of the crew.
Seeing the value of emoting warmer connections, he eventually created an “emotion chip” that allowed him to achieve a much greater level of human empathy.
During a particularly harrowing adventure, Data turns the chip off so as not to be distracted by his new feelings. Play this 28 second clip to hear Captain Picard's response.
Unfortunately, not being made of gyroscopes and circuitry you and I do not have that luxury. At the same time, our empathy does allow us to recognize how we are perceived by others, to “change our minds” and our actions to demonstrate a greater warmth. This is something that can be taught. Inexperienced managers, brusk CEOs and emotionally detached presidential candidates – think Al Gore and Hillary Clinton – see the value of this and are often coached to show more compassion and humor.
If we are aware of how we come across we have the tools to change people’s perceptions. Next month we’ll dig into the factors surrounding “admiration” and “contempt.” No spoilers, but it will have something to do with mermaids and the most despised man in America!
Crazy rabbit, Trix are for kids!
But, there are no tricks here. Researchers at Cornell University found that adults felt almost a 30% increase in brand trust when selecting a box of cereal with the rabbit looking out instead of away. Making eye-contact with even a two-dimensional fictitious character can have quite an impact. Imagine what happens when you look into the eyes of someone important to you!
New parents learn quickly that sometimes prefacing their instructions with “Look at me!” is the only way to get their rambunctious son to stop throwing sand at the beach. The ear has 30,000 nerve fibers. The eye, 1,000,000. That increases the chances of capturing proper attention by nearly two orders of magnitude!
The eyes carry a wealth of information that dramatically informs the conversation. It helps you determine mood, honesty, intention, comfort and a wealth of other vital indicators. Good and honest eye contact is just a basic part of clear communication.
Actors generally don’t like performing with their face covered for this very reason. Miranda Otto, who played the nazgul-slaying heroine in "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," requested a helmet redesign because she felt the narrow eye slits, perhaps more practical from a combat standpoint, nonetheless created a barrier between the audience and her most powerful dramatic tool. Unveiling her eyes helped broadcast to the audience the heroic grit and tenacity she wielded to help save Middle-Earth!
Even eyes disassociated from any semblance of a living thing can have a significant impact on our behavior. A 2006 study from the Netherlands discovered a mechanism they call the “cues of being watched.” University students were asked to pay whatever they wanted for coffee and tea in the common room. One box was labeled with images of flowers, another with images of eyes. The box with the eyes convinced people to pay almost three times as much than that of the flowers.
Similarly, a study by the International Journal for Behavioral Biology placed googly eyes on one of two donation buckets. The bucket with the eyes led to a 50% increase in donations!
It’s been said, “Looking into someone’s eyes changes the entire conversation.” It’s hard not to be effected. Eyes are our primary source of information about the outside world. So, the next time you are talking to a peer, client, boss or room full of stranger, look them in the eye and let them know they have your complete attention!