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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

April 2019

The Loops of Feedback 

I help my clients develop successful workplace communication skills. And usually that work is fun, positive, upbeat: people want to give exciting presentations, learn to effectively express their thoughts, demonstrate leadership through active listening. It helps them achieve their company's/team's/division's goals. But when talk turns to giving and/or receiving feedback, it's as if a cloud has suddenly passed over the sun and threatens to stay there. . . forever.

I have experienced that visceral dread. But it has taught me some interesting things, which I think will resonate with anyone who has ever found herself stuck in the Feedback Loop of Doom. As a playwright I have felt a chill during audience talkback sessions, a feeling that comes from the fear that my work will be judged and found wanting. Because often, it is. After hearing a play at an early public reading, people give all sorts of "suggestions." Many of these boil down to: "Well, that's not how would have written this play!" Anyone who has been given such unfocused criticism partway through a project or process knows that this is not helpful. In fact, it slows down the playwright's or employee's momentum, or stops it altogether. 

The best talkbacks happen within a supportive relationship, under a framework of stated rules of engagement. The audience is asked to answer the playwright's specific questions: What moment resonated with you? What overall image did the play leave you with? Which character made the strongest impression? We don't want prescriptions on how to "improve" our work, nor do we want proscriptions.  Give us answers to our burning questions and trust that we'll take it from there.

A playwright, like anyone engaged with a project, wants to know what's working and what isn't. But we don’t trust those who diagnose what's wrong and how to fix it after hearing the piece only once. When audiences (or supervisors or colleagues) offer non-constructive criticism, they put barriers in our way. When they tell us how they would do it better, they undercut our confidence, initiative, creative thinking. And on the flip side, when blanket praise is given--along with a command to do it 'just like that again!"--confusion reigns.

In their excellent article "The Feedback Fallacy"  in the most recent  Harvard Business ReviewMarcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall explore what the latest research tells us about the best way to give feedback. When I read it I immediately recognized the strategies they advocate. Because their preferred method is very like what good talkback facilitators ask audiences to do. "We humans," Buckingham and Goodall advise, "do not do well when someone whose intentions are unclear tells us where we stand, how good we "really" are, and what we must do to fix ourselves. We excel only when people who know us and care about us tell us what they experience and what they feel, and in particular when they see something within us that really works."

I think they're on to something!


Mindful unwinding

I'm back from a lovely trip to Terre-du-Haut on the îles des Saintes archipelago in Guadeloupe. Ah--a warm beach vacation! Just the antidote to my first New York winter. And it's always fun to get away: traveling gives me a chance to get out of myself, to experience new things, to see the world through a different lens.

If you live in a tourist destination, it's useful to view things from that different perspective from time to time. Tourist season never really ends in NYC and I must admit that some days I find it exasperating getting from point A to point B, wending my way through a crowd of strolling sightseers. But my recent experience of communicating haltingly in French and showing up late to grocery stores that close at noon reminded me how challenging it can be to venture outside my everyday world. Which is something I conveniently forget, until I step off the boat and arrive on foreign shores for a week or so. Then I need to get up to speed, stat!

It's also instructive to see how different people handle this transition. Many tourists I saw on our little island were doing basic Box-Ticking Travel, going where their guides or guidebooks led them. They seemed to be having a wonderful time taking pictures of themselves in these exotic surroundings, but I wondered if they were experiencing anything, or just recording future memories. Now, as readers of my newsletter know,  I believe in the importance of being in the moment. Always. Even on vacation. Last time I went to the Caribbean that lesson was reinforced by a long climb up a mountain. This time I was positively luxuriating in the moment on every beach we visited in Les Saintes!

On the plane home, though, I got to thinking about how heedlessly I sometimes go through daily life. I've been in Brooklyn seven months now, so I'm getting used to my neighborhood, my routine. But New York is a pretty happenin' place; I'm not sure I could ever get too comfortable. Still, I need to remind myself to find something new to savor each day, wonderful or grotesque. I need to seek these out if I want to keep filling my creative well. If you need to top your own well off, I can think of no better advice than to live life mindfully, and with empathy for those who are new to your world. Photos are great memory jogs, but no substitute for actual experience you can feel. 


Recall, re-create and connect

Writing a speech is one thing, delivering it is quite another! Many speakers fall into the trap of not allowing enough time to do both. And you've heard the result: wooden, stiff speeches coming from experts who should be really owning their material. Here's why this happens again and again: putting together a good slide deck takes time, so does editing and revising the text. As the graphics-tweaking and word-smithing drags on, the speaker becomes distanced from the original intent of the message. So in the end, they have words on a page or screen. And that's what you hear. Words. Not a message, not the thoughts the words represent.

You want to avoid this kind of dull recitation, right?  Many people think they can sidestep this problem if they go light on their written prep: if I don't have written words, I won't read them! But preparation is key (here are two of my favorite blogs on the subject, from 
September 2103, and July 2014). So don't skimp on it! Write it down. Once you've crafted the content for your message, your challenge is to connect with your audience. So you have to get off the page, out of your head, and back into your heart and your gut. You need to invest time in the process of creation and re-creation. Ask yourself why you're presenting on this topic, then recall what you felt as you began crafting your presentation. The next step is to connect that feeling to the ideas represented by the words you chose. Put those feelings and images into a mental video that you play as you deliver the speech. You'll recall what sparked your need to communicate, and your listeners will feel that you are fully invested in your message.

This is what actors do; they convey the subtext, the unspoken feelings and ideas under the words that are the essence of the message. Of course, they do it with a twist. They convey someone else's mental video! So you, as a speaker or presenter, have it that much easier. But you won't own it unless you rehearse.



The best gift of 2018!

Being fully present is something that takes some work. And the experts are on it! It seems that research in this area is having quite an uptick lately, so we might assume that the problem of distracted living is a recent development. But many ancient disciplines--meditation, yoga, Quigong, and others--focus on cultivating mindfulness. So it's safe to say that human beings have been having trouble staying fully connected and in the moment (in a nonjudgemental, non-reactive way) for millennia. It's a relief to know that chronic inattention is not a recent development! But that is small consolation to those of us who fight daily to keep our heads in the game.

It's especially hard to focus this time of year, when we have so much on our plates: wrapping up year-end business, traveling, shopping, doing whatever it takes to make the holidays more festive than ever!!! To counteract our natural tendency toward distraction, we need to double down in December. Put mindfulness at the top of your to-do list. Don't let your morning yoga routine or your walking meditation fall by the wayside. With the stress of so much to do in such a short time we need these activities to keep ourselves grounded, centered and sane. So make time to do this work on yourself, for yourself. And if you need more motivation, there's this: your friends and family will appreciate it, too! Nothing says "I care" better than really being there for someone, listening with your whole heart and mind, and providing that calm foundation that we all need, but rarely find. It's the season of giving: so let your presence be your present!



Tis the season!

Every year the holiday-themed displays in big box stores creep earlier and earlier into the fall, so I have gotten used to tuning them out. But as the snow fell (and fell!) here in Brooklyn on Thursday, it was as if a bell had rung, waking me up to the fact that The Holiday Season is just around the corner. And as the evergreens start to appear, I thought I'd reflect upon one of my "evergreens"--communications issues that crop up regularly in my practice. This particular one bears some consideration as we enter a holiday season of professional and collegial socializing.  

A client was discussing some workplace communications issues that had been brought to her attention. Her boss suggested she could solve them by "being more authentic." She nodded, of course, but shared her concerns with me. "Everyone places so much importance on being authentic; they say it helps the office culture. So we all need to 'just be ourselves' all the time. I feel I'm being honest, but I want to maintain a distance between my office self and my at-home self." And she is exactly right! I have blogged about this before (What is authentic authenticity?), echoing the sentiment of a New York Times headline that made me laugh:  "Unless You're Oprah, "Be Yourself" is Terrible Advice ." 

This buzzword "authentic" does not mean unfiltered! Few people in our personal lives--not friends, spouses, and certainly not children--want to see what's really going on in our primal, private inner selves. So why should we share those thoughts and actions with office mates? Bringing this point up to those who insist on it doesn't really get you anywhere, though. But take heart, this "authenticity mania" will wear itself out eventually. In the meantime, my client and I devised some strategies to give her more flexibility with those who chide her for not being "authentic" enough.  

True authenticity--being fully present, communicating with an open mind, responding appropriately to the situation--is a wonderful thing. But just like you wouldn't show up to a gala in torn jeans and a dirty tee, you don't want to show up for work without your professional communication mindset. "Authenticity" is a worthy goal, but not when people misinterpret it to justify their own laziness.