Thoughts on the effectiveness of communication in today’s workplace

Before we talk about the communication between two (or more) people, let’s take a brief look at the equipment used by them (the brain), because learning how to communicate better without understanding how brains work is like playing chess without knowing how the pieces move.

Although Neuroscientists are regularly discovering new information about how our brains work, much of the brain’s function currently remains a mystery.  What we understand is:

·         The brain weighs between 2-3% of our body weight

·         The brain uses 25% of all the energy our body generates

·         The brain has developed many ways to save energy

Daniel Kahnemann (Thinking Fast and Slow) suggested that the brain keeps some information ready to hand and easily accessible. For example: your route to work, simple maths, the Capital of France etc.  Other information requires some more brain power: what is 16 x 27? Or name as many African countries as you can, or how can we resolve the staff shortage situation caused by the wedding of 2 of our members of staff?  He called these parts of the brain System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast, but limited to simple ideas/thoughts/solutions, whereas System 2 is slow, energy draining and potentially creative, collaborative and clear.

System 1 contains our fight/flight/freeze response which is mainly interested in our survival, our emotions and social interactions which seem to be ‘triggered’ by external events. When driving someone does a dangerous manoeuvre and you have an instant angry reaction, or if your child is bullied you go into ‘protect’ mode.  These examples, and many others like them seem to happen automatically. There’s no conscious thought involved.  And when we are triggered we move to a state that is effective in one sense, it protects us, and allows us to operate at a certain level, but it makes the state of ‘us at our best’ elusive.  We cannot access the highest levels of our thoughtfulness, our consideration or our effectiveness.  

Our modern way of living produces ‘low level’ triggers in such large quantities that we don’t even notice them.  Every time you feel stressed, or have an emotional reaction (both positive and negative) recognise that you have been triggered.

Your System 2, or conscious brain, is a wonderful tool, allowing us to question and reach clarity, work with others collaboratively, and to spark creativity and find solutions to the most challenging situations. Unfortunately, for most of us, we don’t have access to it enough, either because the outside world (or our negative thoughts) is triggering our System 1 responses or because System 1 is jumping in and dealing with the situation to save effort and energy.

One tell-tale sign you could look out for is when you hear people say the phrase “You know what I mean”.  Notice if the words are accompanied by a nodding of the head.  It’s like they are trying to persuade you to say “yes”.  Almost certainly what they said before ‘You know what I mean (YKWIM)’ or it’s shortened form of ‘you know’ wasn’t 100% clear. (Or they wouldn’t need to add YKWIM) and their System 1 brain uses the phrase to shortcut the effort of explaining the situation with complete clarity.  And most of the time people respond ‘yes’ to YKWIM because their System 1 brain has created its own interpretation of what was said. For example, imagine someone you like saying to you: “Do you fancy doing something fun this weekend?”. Most likely your brain will come up with a thought or an image of what that ‘fun thing’ could be.  And it may be the same idea as the other person, or it may not.

Checking in on what the other person really means (If they are clear on what they mean) takes effort and time.  Sometimes we take that effort, and sometimes we just assume we know what they mean. It may not matter that much if we are discussing a fun weekend activity, but it may matter a lot if your boss (or a client) suggests that you ‘raise your game’ and you feel intimidated and unable to question the phrase and its implications.

Assumption is one of the key traps we can fall into with our communication.  And because it is performed by our System 1, we can be unconscious of the assumptions we are making.  It is not our view that assumption is always bad and inappropriate, indeed it saves a lot of time and effort, and it’s this positive benefit that makes it a trap.

Here are some suggested actions to take:

·         Listen out for assumptions in your conversations (both yours and theirs)

·         Flag up your assumptions, and check in with others if its correct

·         Some people don’t like their assumptions highlighted – ensure you have permission to challenge assumptions

·         There are ways to challenge that range from gentle to brutal – be appropriate

The quality of any relationship is correlated to the quality of the communication within that relationship. The communication is in service of the relationship, unfortunately many relationships are damaged by the communication within it. It does take effort and time to engage our conscious brains, and we can train our brains into better habits, leading to fewer misunderstandings, and greater effectiveness.

The Curse of Busyness

If you don’t have time to read this, you may have the most to gain by doing so…

For busyness is a blight on our lives. It gets in the way of us operating at our best. The rate of progress in the world is increasing rapidly, so that we need to improve just to stay still.  If you are not going forward, you are going backwards relative to others.

I appreciate that you have a lot on your plate, an ever-increasing to-do list, demands on your time from all quarters and people demanding an immediate response irrespective of the real urgency of the situation.

This can lead to a feeling of being dragged in different directions, or of being a puppet whose strings are being pulled by others, or a sense of not really being in charge of your life.

The solution may feel counter-intuitive. Many answers are.

You are probably aware of the phrase: “I need to stop and think”

Stop comes first, then think. 

It doesn’t mean you can’t think while you are busy doing, of course you can, but the quality of your thinking can improve immeasurably if you first stop, and then create the best conditions for creative thinking.

Different people need different conditions to thrive, but almost universally are the need to feel safe, comfortable with the people you are with, not judged or fearful.

What most people are unaware of is the impact that communication has in creating these positive conditions. Assumption, expectation and influence lead to negative feelings such as anxiety, concern and distrust. This leads to us ‘shutting down’ our creativity, not ‘opening it up’ to create possibilities and ideas.

Conscious Communication protocols can help you create these positive conditions.

Within these possibilities are ideas that can change the world, or at least change your world for the better.

Food for thought

I’m going on a diet.  I can’t stand the way I feel anymore. Dispirited, lethargic, and worried. It may be time to admit that I might be addicted. So, I’m going to stop consuming all this junk.  It’s having a negative effect on my health. The problem is, it’s not like smoking, where you can quit absolutely. I can’t shut myself away and consume nothing. 

For my addiction is the news. And I have come to realise the negative impact it is having on my well-being. Recently, the news is so overwhelmingly negative and fear inducing, and although any particular story may not affect me directly, I am beginning to recognise a constant low level anxiety, just below my conscious awareness.

In her excellent book, Neuroscience for Coaches, Amy Brann explains the impact of fear and anxiety on the amygdalae in our brains. (These are 2 almond shaped groups of nuclei within the limbic system). ‘The amygdala responds to environmental stimuli that may be picked up consciously or unconsciously. It is specifically involved in motivationally relevant stimuli such as fear and reward. And because fear is very significant, it gets processed ahead of other emotions.’

I am concerned that this negativity build up within me could impact on my creativity and my ability to empathise, collaborate and connect at the level necessary for the work I do. In evolutionary terms, I can understand why fear is more important, but in my life I want to have more creativity and collaboration, particularly as the threat is not a direct one. 

I recognise that the more negativity I consume, the stronger the neural circuits become.  Last week a colleague offered me some feedback.  When he said “Can I give you some feedback” I became aware that my body flooded with adrenaline, a sure sign that I was in ‘fight or flight’.  That is not the response I want, it doesn’t help me learn and improve, and it won’t help others because who wants to give feedback to someone and feel you are in a fight?

So I am going to focus on those things I can impact.  Not the latest doom laden Brexit news or the latest Trump headline.  It may be entertaining, but I am not prepared to pay the personal cost. If you have any thoughts on what we can all do to stay up to date with current affairs, managing some required level of detachment, without having to go into hibernation or denial I would be keen to hear your ideas. In the meantime, I am going to focus on improving my life, cutting out negativity and serving others with my work.

If you want to join me, you could share this post with a comment, and let’s see where it goes!

A wish for 2017

As we welcome in the unit of time we call 2017, my hope for our society is we begin to re-evaluate our relationship with time.

With the same amount of time available to everyone of us on a daily, weekly & monthly basis, there is a huge range of productivity and effectiveness that people produce. Surveys published in the last few months have shown the average British worker produces only 80% of the average German worker.

Is this down to an attitude that values ‘doing the job’ above preparation, planning and investment? For example, how much of your working time do you spend ‘doing the job’ versus preparing to do the job? My friend Jon is a semi-pro musician (in addition to his consulting job) who has a gig coming up supporting a youth group performing the musical Oliver! He practises between an hour and two hours per day, on his own to be ready to perform at the necessary standard. That’s approximately 50:1 ratio of time.

What’s your ratio? I would guess for most organisations it would be around 1:50, and I would suggest there is a correlation between this figure and how good a job we can do.

We each have a finite amount of time, and I notice that we seem to be getting busier, whilst also either wasting time or having time stolen from us by social media, television and irrelevant meetings. We need to take control back from the time stealers and consciously invest to bring out the best in ourselves and our people.

Looking into the future, the advent of Artificial Intelligence offers the opportunity to free ourselves of many mundane jobs (and most jobs are a mix of interesting and mundane parts). We have the opportunity to design our jobs and our lives so that we get the maximum value, interest and enjoyment we can.

This year, let’s work together to free ourselves from slavery to time and become the masters of our time.

Spinning Worlds and Superpowers

I recently had an episode of Labyrinthitis.  The symptoms included the world spinning really quickly every time I opened my eyes or moved from lying down on my left side. Because this was extremely unpleasant, I laid still and did my best not to move my head at all.  While in this prone position my entire focus was on remaining still, and I noticed things that were normally outside of my awareness.  I could feel blood (I assume) pumping around my head, smells became stronger, and most noticeably of all, my hearing improved dramatically.

The Doctor confirmed that this was normal. She called it hyper-sensitivity. To me it was like a superpower!  Like many people of my age, I am having to get used to an amount of hearing loss, but here I was, able to hear like a guard dog.

I couldn’t understand (I still don’t, to be honest) how my hearing could improve so much.  It was like speaker volume being turned up from its usual setting to something 30% higher.  Like a vehicle which can go at 100mph, but is limited to 65.

And that got me thinking.  (Later, when the world stopped spinning). How we have our ‘normal’ settings, and that we are unaware that we could be so much more effective. 

My specialism is communication.  And as you read that last sentence and this one, your brain will make connections to your existing knowledge of communication.  You may be reminded of things like open and closed questions, active listening techniques, body language, tone of voice, personality types, or something else you have learned in this field.

Because our minds automatically make connections to what we already know, what is quite unlikely is that your brain will be triggered into thinking of ‘what’s possible’ in the field of communication.

In sports, we can take a look at how they were played in the past, and compare to how they are played now and see that in many of them, massive improvements have taken place.  Look at gymnastics from 30 years ago, look at high jump before Dick Fosbury introduced his ‘flop’ or the skills that today’s footballers or cricketers have at their disposal.  Many of these were completely unimaginable only a few years ago by people at the top of their sport.

Sport is a useful comparison because is it observable and measurable. What happens inside our heads is less so.  But are you prepared to accept that there could be ways that we communicate, both with ourselves and others that could improve our performance?

Albert Einstein said: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere”

What’s possible in this field is really exciting. Neuroscience is expanding our knowledge of how the brain works, and it’s almost a full-time job to keep up with all the latest discoveries. An area that I am focusing on is how our communication can be a gateway for improvements in three key areas:

Clarity.  We see what we see. If you’ve ever had the experience not seeing something that was in plain sight, or only noticing something when you slow down and focus on what you are looking at, you will be aware that only a limited amount of what our eyes absorb do we consciously ‘see’.

When I ask a client a question like: What kind of work would you like to be doing in 2 year’s time, I normally get an answer, but it’s not specific. It’s vague, doesn’t have a lot of energy around it, and the words seem to tail off. If I ask a different question, like: What kind of relationship are you looking to create with your new partner, or what is the culture you want to create in your team? I get answers with a similar quality. 

Yet using different communication methods, we can access levels of clarity not experienced before.  It’s as if this information is just below the surface of our awareness, and is happy to show itself in the right conditions.  It leads to a rise in energy and positive emotions. 

In much the same way that we don’t notice certain things in plain view, most of us cannot see where we are not clear, but with the right tools you can discover a clarity within you, that you didn’t know you had.

This clarity can lead to two further improvements: creativity and collaboration.

As we see more, we can see connections between things that lead to new ideas, and we can work with others in a way not possible before. We create a culture, both within us, and around us, that fires our imagination in ways that didn’t seem possible previously.  We connect with people with respect, with curiosity, and with care that allows a collective increase in clarity and creativity. 

 

Clarity, creativity and collaboration – each enhancing each other.  Now that’s what I call a Superpower!

There’s ‘Out of the box’ thinking, and then there’s ‘Thinking about the box differently’ thinking!

There’s a story in the papers today about Dutch company Vanmoof who manufacture quite expensive electronic bikes (up to £2,000 each) and the innovative solution they created to a major problem.

They had a number of bikes damaged in transit.  I don’t know about you, but if I had spent £2,000 on a bike, I would be very excited to receive delivery, and I would find that excitement dissipate if the package, and most importantly, the bike was damaged, and that bike would be sent straight back.

They changed couriers a number of times and the problem persisted. The solution they came up with was to print a television on the side of their boxes and they discovered that the couriers treated the boxes better and it resulted in over 80% reduction in the number of bikes delivered damaged, with all the positive ramifications of delighted customers.

What I particularly liked about this story was how the solution was so clever and cost virtually nothing. It was ‘just’ a brilliant simple idea.

Except brilliant ideas are not always simple, not always welcome, not always cultivated.

We human beings are blessed with incredible creativity, yet many people do not consider themselves creative, and many organisations either consciously or unconsciously supress our ability to access our creativity. Our creativity needs certain conditions to flourish. When both internal and external conditions are in place, clarity, collaboration and creativity combine to produce amazing results.

The internal conditions are created though our communication. If a person feels threatened, manipulated, or undermined, they will unconsciously direct attention to survival, to protection, to avoidance of risk.

Unfortunately, much of the communication in our society is negative, with people having expectations and making assumptions because they are focused on their own agenda. This does not lead to an environment where people can come up with creative solutions which have the potential to make significant improvements.

A new service that I am offering is a ‘Communication Needs Analysis’ where we can look at the current communication in your organisation, and allow an outside view on the impact that the communication has, together with some recommendations, if appropriate, on how to change for the better.

I salute Vanmoof for creating a culture that supports creative thinking and solution finding, as well as amazing bicycles. Check them out if you are interested in cutting edge bike design, and check in with me if you are interested in making your team’s thinking cutting edge.

How to deal with uncertainty

Since the referendum vote, there has been market, economic and political uncertainty.

As it dawns on us that our politicians do not have a plan for how to leave the European Union, and the economists issue dire warnings, it’s no wonder that a number of Leave voters are now feeling ‘buyer’s remorse’. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of taking some action or making a decision, swiftly followed by that thought: “Oh what have I done?” as we realise that we have stepped into the unknown in some way.

The markets hate uncertainty, and so money flows to a safer haven.  The media love uncertainty because it increases viewership or readership, and increases their influence, so don’t expect to find an ally for calm there.

Speaking to friends and family over the last few days both in person and watching Social Media, there is a lot of upset, confusion, anger, and especially uncertainty. It seems to me that the uncertainty that we feel personally and the group uncertainty feed each other resulting in almost a frenzy of fear.

Fear is a basic human emotion.  It serves us by keeping us safe, and the safe survive. Those who survive pass on their genes, their traits and their habits to future generations while the brave and foolhardy got themselves killed.  So over thousands of years we have learnt that safety is ‘good’ and that risk taking is ‘bad’.  So we unconsciously crave safety and security, and when it is taken away, or the perception of it is taken away, we can get a strong negative reaction because we feel vulnerable and scared. Of course we do, because we are human.

However, I would argue that what we lost last Friday was not certainty but the illusion of certainty.  Because certainty with regard to the future doesn’t exist.  We like to think that it does, that the sun will rise tomorrow, that my savings will support me in my old age, that we will be able to live in relative peace.  Maybe we need to believe in some kind of positive future, to enable our society to function, but let’s be honest with ourselves and accept that it’s an illusion, a hope, a dream.

So if we can’t trust our vision of the future what can we trust, where can we place our hope? Firstly in the present.  Do I have everything I need to function now? Do I have sufficient air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat? Do I have people to love? Do I have work to do? Check your reality, and I trust you will find some certainty there.

Secondly, take a look at what matters to you.  What really matters to you. This world is amazing, and yet it has enormous unmet needs.  What are you passionate about?  What are the principles that are vital to you?  Which values drive you?  Here’s where you can place your trust.  Your thoughts are unreliable, your feelings change, people will come and go in your life, but your values are rock solid. Your values will never let you down. 

Whichever way you voted, however you feel about the merits of EU membership, there are now opportunities, new opportunities for you to demonstrate personal leadership, by moving your focus away from uncertainty and towards the here and now and your values.

You can be positive and make a difference right now, improving today and maybe all of our tomorrows.       

How relevant is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs Today?

In 1954 Abraham Maslow posited a Hierarchy of Human Needs based on two groupings: deficiency needs and growth needs. Within the deficiency needs, each lower need must be met before moving to the next higher level. Once each of these needs has been satisfied, if at some future time a deficiency is detected, the individual will act to remove the deficiency. The first four levels are:

1) Physiological: hunger, thirst, bodily comforts, etc.;

2) Safety/security: out of danger;

3) Belongingness and Love: affiliate with others, be accepted; and

4) Esteem: to achieve, be competent, gain approval and recognition.

When these first four levels are met, we are free to focus on the fifth which he called Self-Actualisation, which included appreciation for life and a focus on personal growth. In 1998 he differentiated this fifth level into four, but most people are only familiar with the original five levels as this is the widely distributed model.

I decided to utilise Maslow’s model because I thought it would make a great vessel of self-discovery in a workshop setting.  I imagine that most people can accept intellectually the concept that we need to have our deficiency needs met before we can progress, but I wonder if you have actually spent time investigating exactly how this shows up in your life?

Let’s take for example the issue of safety/security.  What exactly are your needs here? Some people need to live in a near fortress, while others can live without fear in a tent. Some people require hundreds of thousands in the bank, yet other people live quite happily in debt. The key point here, is not that we are all different, but to know consciously what your own needs are, and what happens when your needs are met, and what happens when they are not. It would also be interesting to know the impact on you if your partner has different needs, or your company is pursuing a risky growth strategy and you are risk averse, or vice versa.

Because most of our decisions and actions are unconscious, it’s likely that you haven’t considered these needs before, and if Maslow is correct; if these deficiency needs are not met, you will be unable to make progress on your personal growth.

If you do not grow as an individual, you are doomed to be stuck where you are.

If this is something you are interested in exploring, the workshop details are here, and if the dates/venue don’t work for you, you can either explore this with some coaching, or let me know and let’s see if a different time/place can be arranged.

Getting better all the time...

The story of human development has been inextricably linked with technological change.  According to Robert Gordon (Economics professor at Northwestern University) there have been three major industrial revolutions.  “When we had the invention of steam engines, steam ships, locomotives, factories making cotton fabrics, and then the telegraph. All of those things were invented in the century between 1770 and 1870. And they set the stage for the inventions that happened after 1870.

The Second Industrial Revolution included electricity, the internal combustion engine, chemicals, plastics, running water, the conquest of infectious diseases, the conquest of infant mortality, the development of processed food. Every dimension of human life, was affected by the Second Industrial Revolution, with the inventions mainly taking place between 1870 and the early 1900s

The Third Industrial Revolution started off around 1960, with the first mainframe computer. And went further into the mini computer, the personal computer in 1980, and then followed by the marriage of communications with computers that we call the Internet, and then into smart mobile phones in the last 10 to 15 years.” (Source: Freakonomics Radio)

Our lives and our personal productivity have been enhanced by these revolutions and by countless technological improvements, but we don't need to rely on the next tech marvel, or new app or breakthrough in artificial intelligence to further our human development, we can increase the utilisation of the incredible tool between our ears.

The brain compares and makes judgements at lightning speed which allows us to make decisions and improvements. Our brains unconsciously react not just to the present experience but to the combination of the present and past events. Instead of the best response to the present challenge, we often act to meet a previous challenge, leading to a sense that we are forever in catch up mode.

A solution is to train our brains so that we are able to respond to life's challenges more effectively.

A trained brain is open and curious, instead of comparing and judging. We see (visually and metaphorically) far more leading to better understanding.  We harness the power of our teams by learning to ask questions that clarify and open up possibilities instead of using our efforts to get others to agree with our point of view.

Our brains are incredible learning machines.  They take in enormous amounts of information from our five senses, and create meaning from experiences, and automatic behaviour from our past experiences without us using conscious effort.

If we do not consciously train our brain, it will unconsciously learn from its experience. Because experience is subjective and rarely able to see the whole picture sometimes the lessons learnt are not as useful to us as they could be, and sometimes the lesson we learn causes more problems than it solves.

Evolution has developed us to be most successful species with a capability beyond much of our comprehension.  We revere certain individuals for their abilities, Mozart for his music, Mother Theresa for her compassion, Leonardo Da Vinci for his creativity, Nelson Mandela for his capacity to forgive, and many more.  Each of us has the same capacity and capabilities that they had.

Instead of doubting, we can strengthen our determination. Replacing cynicism with creativity. Turning frustration into opportunities, hurt into compassion, and fear into love.  You can release your ability to create, to design new solutions or maybe to produce things of beauty.

Replacing reasons not to change, to develop and improve, we could be developing ourselves and our people with resultant benefits in improving communication, relationships, achievements and happiness.

Each of us is blessed with an unlimited amount of potential.  The same potential as the greats had.

ACCESSING AND REALISING THAT POTENTIAL IS THE GOAL OF DYNAMIC COACHING. 

Be More You

I attended a 'Celebration of Life' of one of my mentors yesterday, Ed Percival.

Ed was a lovely guy, and a quite brilliant coach. Ed had a number of little phrases he used to great effect, and one that was repeated many times by his eulogisers yesterday was 'Be more you'.

In honour and appreciation of Ed, I would like to expand on these three words.

Let me take you back to the time you were a teenager.  It's the time in our lives when our development accelerates, our worlds expand and we learn how to ‘be’ in the world of grown-ups.  At the same time it's so important to us to 'fit in'.  I remember how much effort I would put in to being accepted by 'the cool kids'. It may make me cringe a little now as I reminisce, but the feeling it engenders is still visceral. In those years when learning how to fit in I was also learning, albeit unconsciously, to ‘be less me’.

Fast forward to the present day and I am aware of how much corporate life is about ‘fitting in’. Being a team player.  Being onside. Being one of us. Different ways of saying: Supress your individuality, deny your uniqueness, manage your behaviours, do as we suggest and you’ll progress.

But what happens to us as individuals when we follow this path?  For me it feels like (to be melodramatic) a little bit of me dies inside.  It reinforces the idea that I’m not good enough, and I have to change. 

We may know this isn’t true and yet, because this is a continual message we get bombarded with, (much like the adverts for beauty products, but don’t let’s get diverted by those evil so and so’s) we need to work to reduce and reverse the message.  What on earth does it mean practically to ‘Be more you’?

I would love to know what you do to ‘Be more you’ in this culture we have created. Let’s have a conversation, let’s try out each other’s ideas and record the impact. 

Here’s one from me to kick us off: I find the language of ‘corporate speak’ baffling at times.  Often I will hear a sentence and just not understand what the person has said or meant.  In mentioning this to colleagues, they will also not understand, so I decided every time I hear this kind of gobbledegook I would ask for clarification.  It’s not been easy, I’ve had some looks I can tell you!  But it feels like the right thing for me to do (though maybe not at the time!) and it has gained me a reputation as the ‘Man who seeks clarity’.

What methods to you use? What have you tried and had success with?  Have you tried a technique and not succeeded?  We want to know that too!