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Mindful Connections

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Anxious to get through a meeting, complete negotiations, or deliver bad news? Connecting subjects too quickly can create a threatening situation that will delay or prevent decision making. Learn which 3-letter words can derail any meeting.

Sometimes it is the small things that make the big difference: a pause in the conversation, a reassuring smile, the turn of a phrase. In this article we will look at how three-letter words cast big shadows, often preventing the effective exchange of ideas, hindering decision making and possibly creating adversarial relationships.
Corporate leaders often find themselves in stressful adversarial situations from contract negotiations to selling situations. Two common discussions that require an immense investment of time are PERFORMANCE REVIEWS and IDEA GENERATION. Often described as constructive guidance and brainstorming, these activities are embedded in our management development processes. What can be done to reduce the angst created and maximize the value of the time invested in these conversations? Perhaps applying a meditative approach will enable us to develop communication skills that convey the mindfulness and agility necessary for leadership and thus team success.
Michael Carroll, in his article MEDITATING YOUR WAY TO MORE EFFECTIVE LEADERSHIP addresses the power of mindfulness:
For example, lawyers who practice mindfulness meditation speak to an ability to more readily drop adversarial mindsets, better comprehend the intent of a challenge, and self-regulate emotions during conflict. As Professor Leonard Riskin observes in his seminal study of practicing attorneys:

“Mindfulness can play a role in helping the lawyers… observe — without attachment — the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that typically make up and support (contrasting) mindsets. Consequently, the lawyer can adopt an attitude of curiosity, consider other options and make a discerning decision. Mindfulness can help the lawyer simply notice the manifestations of the feelings of being threatened…and decide to let them go and maybe learn from them.”

This lawyerly agility that Professor Riskin is observing here free from fixed mindsets is the very same agileness that thousands of business leaders are discovering through mindfulness awareness meditation: a poised yet flexible confidence that is ready to learn, reassess, and adapt in the face of novel problems, dissonant voices, and unforeseen opportunities.

FEELINGS THREATENED

Riskin’s point to “adopt an attitude of curiosity, consider other options, and make a discerning decision” contains a wealth of advice for us. When faced with a difficult conversation, we may attempt conflicting actions: reaching out to present the topic from our perspective, while at the same time installing conversational barriers to protect us from assault. We want to quickly move through the difficult part, make our statement and move on. Ignoring or minimizing the thoughts of others at this juncture blocks our ability to build a connection with the listener.

I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and
kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers. Khalil Gibran

Maintaining a one-way discourse, not giving the other person time to reply and speaking without regard for a shared perspective does give you the airtime to express your thoughts. The question is: are you being heard and will you achieve your goal during the time invested? Most often, ‘talking at’ someone only delays the full discussion to a future event when the listener becomes the speaker.
In any powerful interaction with one person or a as part of a group, you will benefit by being mindful of your use of the most common three-letter conjunctions, “and” and “but”….

(1) Connecting unrelated subjects with an ‘and’. You may not have all the facts or the information you have could be biased or outdated. A one-sided dialogue is stilted and lacks engagement. It is likely that you will be asked to revisit topics to hear opposite views or defend opinions, extending the amount of time before reaching a conclusion.
(2) The acknowledging/challenging “yes, but” statement. Agreeing to something someone said then offering a counterpoint minimizes the first point to emphasize the second. This discounting of what is deemed important results in the “manifestations of the feelings of being threatened” or assuming an adversarial position — as in “I acknowledge that you have that fact, now listen to how I interpret it”.
(3) Dramatically stating a positive to be overcome by a negative using ‘but’ or ‘and’. This well-abused technique briefly refers to a positive action before focusing in-depth on a negative event.

Mislabeled as ‘feedback’, listeners quickly learn to become alert when hearing false or weak praise and will tense for the expected punch. The commonly-used example is “Your work has been good, but it does not meet the required standards”. The speaker has created a threatening situation devoid of trust or mutual respect.
These three-letter words, and other conjunctions of various length, may seem to be a quick way to get the message out. As with any skill, abuse of the process can have a negative effect. You may have created a communication bad habit that distracts and adds irrelevant words that circle the issue rather than convey a message. When you combine disparate thoughts into one sentence, particularly both a positive and a negative message, you will derail your focus and confuse the listener.

AGILE LEADERSHIP

Let’s apply Riskin’s approach to ‘mindfulness’ to the way you express yourself and your ideas. Start by envisioning a trail in the wilderness. You are confidently walking along the path, speaking your advice as you lead the listener to safety by dropping a trail of bread crumbs.
The spacing between the crumbs becomes important – too far apart and the listener may turn away, too close together and the listener may become confused by which to examine first. Seeking to move more quickly you connect two thoughts with an ‘and’ or ‘but’, creating a small pile of bread crumbs. The listener must now decide how to proceed: should the top layer be digested first or go to the bottom to examine the initial concept now buried in the pile?
You and the listener are not communicating until you both address the same topic. For the listener, too much content in one sentence is a pile of bread crumbs. Everyone’s mind is busy and distracted. Typically body language becomes stiff as the listener becomes defensive, guarded, uncertain of where you are leading, and what options are open to them.
You do not know which element of your message was received until you obtain feedback. As you fill the air with your thoughts and perspective, the receiver’s mind is absorbing, refuting or ignoring the messages delivered both verbally and nonverbally. Each phrase and gesture is evaluated for content, then assorted for relevance before being discarded, filed away for later attention, or selected as a subject for immediate response. Most often the ‘short cut’ of connecting subjects by inserting a small three-letter conjunction evolves into a multi-stage repartee lengthening the time required to achieve resolution or consensus.
To build rapport, take a moment to empathize by reflecting on how the information could be interpreted by the listener. Contemplate your motivations as well as the possible outcomes of the conversation.
As a leader and role model, continue to challenge yourself by asking yourself and the listener(s):

  • What is the purpose and value of the discussion?
  • What are my intentions in this moment?
  • What outcome do I seek for the long-term?

Grant yourself the freedom to be agile, to respond honestly and with good will as you seek to create an environment of trust for an open exchange of information.

AN ATTITUDE OF CURIOSITY

Trained negotiators understand the importance of creating ‘dead air’: a pause in the conversation for the listener to absorb the message and evaluate alternatives. You can apply this technique by replacing a comma and inserting a period at the end of each phrase. The pause created in the conversation allows the listener time to think about the specific subject and possibly respond with information of value to the speaker.
Whatever was said before the ‘and’ or ‘but’ is ignored: the listener is focused on the action statement that follows. Take a moment to test this approach, to give power to each concept, and to maximize the impact of each thought by following these three steps:

a) Recall a sentence incorporating a ‘but’ and write it down.
b) Edit the sentence by deleting the ‘but’. Replace the comma with a period after the first phrase. Capitalize the first word of the second phrase, forming two sentences.
c) After each sentence insert a probing question that is relevant and significant to the individual. You have now expanded the initial concepts into separate paragraphs.

PERFORMANCE REVIEWS. You can use this technique when you in a performance review by introducing your perception of positive and negative actions in two separate paragraphs. First, state successful actions that should continue, then invite the listener to become the speaker and share additional noteworthy actions. At the close of that discussion, provide a summation. Pause for a moment before informing the listener that you will change tracks by moving the conversation to a discussion of issues that require improvement. Begin the second discussion by clearly stating each issue that requires change separately, providing and asking for examples to each. Invite comment and identify action steps before moving to a different issue or closing the discussion. During an open exchange you will gain relevant information to make a better decision. The interaction creates a supportive coaching opportunity to offer effective guidance.
IDEA GENERATION. Share in-the-moment reactions to a new idea while remaining open to other speakers. Removing distractions gives your message impact: eliminating unnecessary placating phrases before the ‘and’ or ‘but’ emphasizes the content of your message. Use the time you have to speak to provide greater descriptive depth of your concept. Evaluate the reaction you have inspired to identify and employ selected concepts, terminology, and approaches of others into your presentation. Your ability to be both mindful and agile in your response will enhance your communication effectiveness.

A CONTEMPLATIVE CONVERSATION

When you ask questions in the role of listener, you are displaying curiosity to learn the origins of the other person’s response. Exchanging roles of speaker and listener during the interaction creates a connection, a collaboration, as each person learns what is important to the other. You are developing trust, building rapport and showing empathy.
Being mindful and agile by listening and engaging will enable you to connect with others, to initiate collaborative discussion, to seek a mutually beneficial conclusion. Consider how you can guide potentially stressful adversarial situations to become productive sharing and learning experiences that conclude in a compatible outcome.

SIDEBAR:

Listeners quickly learn to become alert when hearing false or weak praise and will tense for the expected punch. The commonly-used example is “Your work has been good, but it does not meet the required standards”. The speaker has created a threatening situation devoid of trust or mutual respect.

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About the Author:

Dr. Lucille Maddalena coaches C-suite leaders globally, and as Master Coach has developed coaching models and local expertise for her clients to provide on-site Leadership Coaching at offices across the US. In addition to serving her global clients she has taught at several US Universities and has served for 10 years on the Board of Directors of the NJ Organization Development Learning Community.