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Talk the Talk

a blog about communications and life

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.



Acting the part

Last week I was running a webinar for a leadership development program. The participants were senior level, super-smart scientists located around the county. Before I got to the meat of the session, I said (as I always do) that I might use some familiar words, but maybe not in the way they generally used them. I hate jargon, so I don't use "in group" vocabulary of communications professionals or theatre people unless I am speaking to those groups. Still, I try to be careful about defining my terms, but there is always something that slips through. In this case, the word was ...

"Actor." Well, not the word, exactly, but the concept.  

I talk a lot about authenticity, and the importance of finding your own authentic leadership voice, And the key to that is discovering your own presence, which I liken to an actor's stage presence. I then go on to explain to the participants how they can each go about finding their own presence, which in turn helps them embrace their authentic leadership style. When I opened up the discussion for questions,  I got one I hadn't expected. The concept of an actor being authentic seemed confusing. Actors do the opposite, don't they? They're not really themselves, because they become other people, right?

That stopped me for a second. 

Somehow I had forgotten about this common misconception. I guess I mistook the popular, pervasive obsession with actors for at least a limited understanding of what they do. But it seems many fans of movie, TV, even stage actors don't really know how their favorites create such compelling illusions. The fact is, actors need a high degree of self-knowledge, self-confidence, and grounded-ness to be able to do what they do. It takes training and discipline. Actors do not shed their own skin and put on someone else's, no matter how much their PR myth-making machines might insist that they do. To have the presence of mind and body to be able to fully be yourself--yet fully portray another person--is the craft an actor works on for years, if not a lifetime. No matter how much magic they create in the audience's eyes, actors are not sorcerers who can switch themselves off and step into another life. If they were, they'd have a hard time coming back to their own lives and picking up the kids or doing the grocery shopping. Which I know they do. At least in New York! 

I felt a twinge of regret bursting the questioner's bubble. Like a parent coming clean about the Tooth Fairy. But the good news for non-actors is this: it's not really all that magical. You, too, can learn how to get your own brand of presence. And maybe a little bit of stardust! 


Back in the Big Apple!

I have officially been here a month now, and, in spite of a couple dozen boxes that remain unpacked, I am settling in. These past weeks I have been exploring my new Brooklyn neighborhood, and reacquainting myself with neighborhoods I used to frequent.

My work slowed down a bit for this move, and this gift of time has given me a chance to engage in a lot of listening. I meet friends for lunch, go the the theatre, run errands, and dip in and out of several universes. Because New York, to borrow a phrase from Brooklyn's own 
Walt Whitman, "contains multitudes,” it offers me an incredible chance to listen to how people use words, tone, rhythm to convey meaning. When I am followed down the street by someone on the phone, I get a mental picture not only of the speaker, but of the person on the other end. Of course, for a playwright, this is an amazing resource to be able to tap into as soon as I walk out the door!

As a communications coach, it reminds me of the importance of connecting with listeners by speaking a language they understand. This does not mean you are a chameleon, exactly, and adjust grammar, structure, and vocabulary to match every person you communicate with. But there is a natural tendency to modify our own cadence and phrasing as we mirror that of out conversation partner. I hear that, too, when I am walking near people engaged in conversation. They speak a common language, creating a subconscious connection that can lead to real communication and exchange of ideas. But when one person steadfastly refuses to meet the other halfway--in style, vocabulary and/or tone--communication is blocked. With these people “winning" becomes the purpose of all verbal interaction.  It is an infuriating, highly inefficient way to try to get things done. These exchanges often result in a fight, or a stony silence ending the conversation. Sometimes the person being shot down/shut out storms off in anger or frustration. Not a happy thing to witness.

But hey! It's New York! There's drama (and lots of comedy) on every street!  Just listen.


Sage advice takes center stage

I love the Tony Awards! I fantasize about being there someday to celebrate my own work or the work of my friends. And though I rarely get to see all the nominated shows, I try to see a few. This year I was lucky enough to see The Band's Visit and Three Tall Women, both of which won multiple awards. The acting inThree Tall Women was the best I have ever seen (!), and Glenda Jackson and Laurie Metcalfe very much deserved the honors they won. Sadly, this masterpiece of theatre closes Sunday, June 24th.

But musicals can live forever, which may be why they have a special place in my heart: Broadway cast albums last far longer than the original run of the show. So you can revisit the magic again and again, as I did last week when I listened to The Band's Visit.  I won't elaborate here on why this score by the amazing composer/lyricist David Yazbek is so special. I just want to direct your attention to two songs in Act Two. The first one is the show's comic number. In it, Papi, a teen who can't seem catch a break, describes the paralyzing nervousness he experiences when he tries to go on a date:

And my tongue gets big
And I can't move my knees
And my eyeballs freeze
And all I see's a tunnel
And there's cotton in my head
My legs are full of lead

And my brain goes deader than the Dead Sea
Dead, dead
Dead in the mind and I find that I kind of
Go into an infantile trance
I'm peeing in my - not literally - peeing in my -
But, you know, I may as well be - peeing in my ---

This is followed by a tutorial from Haled, one of the visiting musicians of the title, and a self-defined master of romance. He tells poor Papi that it is all about getting the focus off of yourself and your own nervousness. His advice? 

You melt the ice
You melt yourself
And soon you're all one puddle
You talk, she talks
It's not about the conversation
The words are like your lips, are reaching out
To kiss the ear

Both these songs about date-induced anxiety contain wisdom that extends beyond the realm of romance, to anything that causes nervousness and panic. Public speaking and presenting, for instance! It’s always about making that connection, the real connection that can only happen when you are not all wrapped up in your own head, your own doubts and fears. Find the soundtrack and listen to it. I'm pretty sure you'll be enchanted by the story it tells. And you might take something away that serves you in real life!

***Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy
From left, Rachel Prather, Etai Benson and Ari'el Stachel in The Band's Visit