Listening Skills

Are you really a good listener?

How many people do you know who say they are good listeners, but really aren’t? I’m sure you know more than a few. 

I find that a lot of people who are good problem solvers think that also makes them good listeners. Yes, in many cases good listeners are good problem solvers. But being a good problem solver doesn’t automatically make you a good listener.

True listening (which is very different from hearing) requires work — and there are a lot of barriers. Distractions, your attitude toward the speaker or topic, and even your physical state (e.g., being hungry or tired) can all interfere. But the most common barrier is our tendency to begin formulating our response to what someone is saying rather than waiting for them to finish.

Observe your own behavior for the next week. How often do you find yourself thinking about your response before a speaker is finished? If it’s often, try to remind yourself to stay in the moment. Be quiet, let the speaker talk, and don’t think ahead to how you want to respond. Withhold judgement until you’ve had time to fully understand and comprehend what is being said. And eliminate those distractions you personally have control over (like your phone or smartwatch). 

Did you know that we typically comprehend and retain only 25% of what we hear? Add to that the distracted digital world we live in, and it makes us all poor listeners at times. But there are things you can do to improve your listening skills. The first step is reminding yourself to truly listen so you can stay in the moment and allow yourself to really comprehend what the speaker is communicating to you.

For more listening tips, check out my interactive workshop 10 Tips for Becoming a Better Listener or my quick class Be a Better Listener.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash
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Virtual Background Tips for Zoom

Better Virtual Backgrounds for Online Meetings

During some recent Zoom meetings, I’ve received a lot of compliments on my virtual background. I created it after a lot of trial and error, so I thought I would share my final methodology in case it helps you to develop something that works for you.

The Case for a Virtual Background That Works

My home office looks fine when I’m on calls, but I’ve grown tired of tidying up my work table and getting the room lighting right each time I want to jump on a call. Also, when I record my courses and host my online workshops, I want my branding to be present on the screen at all times.

Going Green

After people tell me they like my background, they always ask, “Do you have a green screen?” The answer is no. I’ve had one in my Amazon shopping cart for months, but never bought it because I don’t have room in my office to keep it up all the time — and I know I would get frustrated setting it up several times a week. That’s why I wanted to try to get Zoom’s built in virtual background feature to work for me without a green screen.

My Approach

I use Zoom to rehearse my presentations so I can record them and watch them back. That’s how I find out where my bumpy points are. When rehearsing with the standard virtual backgrounds in Zoom or Teams, I noticed that the main area where the backgrounds had trouble tracking me was around my hair. 

So, that was step one when designing my virtual background. It had to be close in color to my hair so people would not notice if Zoom wasn’t clipping my head perfectly.

The second step was to get the lighting right. I make sure I’m lit from the front (I use a diffused lamp with a daylight bulb that is strategically placed behind my laptop’s screen so it does not reflect in my glasses). I also have a second lamp with a soft white bulb that helps provide additional light and that makes my skin tone a bit warmer.

The third step in my trial and error approach was to make sure I was not lit from behind. If I have another light on in the room that is behind me, Zoom has a harder time tracking my silhouette. But when I minimize light behind me and ensure most of the light in the room is in front of me, Zoom does a better job. 

Lastly, I had to fidget with the logo placement to get it right, and also recruit the help of a friend to make sure the logo wasn’t backwards (like it was for me because I use the “Mirror My Video” setting in Zoom).

It’s Not Perfect

My method isn’t perfect. If I gesture too much sometimes parts of my fingers disappear. I’m sure if I had a green screen the background would look even better. But for now, it works just fine for my needs. 

I hope my approach helps you create a virtual background that works well for you.

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Looking in the Professional Mirror

Seeing You, More Clearly

One of the best parts of being a coach is that I get to help people see themselves — their talents, skills, accomplishments, and value — more clearly. It also means uncovering blind spots and seeing things that are holding them back. That’s equally as valuable, but usually harder for them to explore.

When you look at your professional self in the mirror, who do you see? How do you describe yourself? 

Are you the person you want to be?

There have been times during my career where I have answered that question with an emphathic, “Yes!” There have also been times where I have said, “No, definitely not.” Those times were pretty hard for me. 

Taking a look in that professional mirror on a regular basis is important. When the answer is no, you owe it to yourself to explore why so you can fix it. Sometimes the fix is a minor tweak. And other times, it requires a monumental shift. 

Either way, being honest with yourself is the only way to change that no to a yes.

Start today.

Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels
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Communication Tip: Yes, and…

Yes, and…

I wanted to be an actor when I grew up. While my adult life didn’t go according to that plan, I was fortunate to do a lot of acting when I was younger. I also have a degree in Speech and Theatre Arts and began my career teaching theatre classes to high school students. 

One of my favorite lessons from the theatre is in improvisation, which involves carrying out a scene spontaneously, with no script. My fellow actors and I would make it up as we went along, based only on a theme or topic. Practicing and preforming improv (which is what we called it for short) often led to funny scenes that got the audience laughing, but it wasn’t always comedic. In fact, it was often more difficult when the scenes were serious.

When you are performing without a script, each actor relies on the other to set them up for success. That’s where the phrase “Yes, and…” comes into play. When you use language like this, it confirms agreement with where the story is going, and allows you to build on it. When improvising a scene, you might not literally say “Yes, and…” but that’s the spirit. For example:

ROBERT: “There’s a purple giraffe coming down the street! It must have escaped from that new circus that’s in town!”

DENISE: “I see it, too. I feel like I’m hallucinating. Oh my, now I see a turquoise elephant about 20 feet behind the giraffe. What’s going on?”

By confirming that she sees it too, and then adding to the ridiculous story, Denise supports Robert’s direction for the scene and adds to it so it can move forward. Imagine if she had said, “What? A purple giraffe? I don’t see it.” What’s Robert supposed to do with that response? Momentum shattered. Boom, end of scene.

Try to use this improvisational technique in your business life. If you can confirm what someone else has said to give it validity, and then add to it or expand on it, I’ll bet you’ll have more effective collaborations with your colleagues. And remember, “Yes, and…” is very different from “Yes, but….” The latter conveys disagreement, while the former communicates acceptance.

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Better Nonverbal Feedback in Zoom

Zoom Nonverbal Communication Features

Many people don’t know about the enhanced nonverbal feedback feature in Zoom (which is off by default). By enabling this feature, you and your participants get an extra set of icons in the participants box. This allows your meeting attendees to raise their hands, answer yes or no questions, ask for a coffee break, and more! 

I like these nonverbal features more than the “Reactions” feature when I give workshops or conduct long meetings. I ensure my meeting participants know about them and I ask them to use them to communicate with me. For example, in my online workshops, I have several instances where I ask my attendees questions and direct them to answer me using the green and red yes and no icons. 

Using this feature along with the chat box helps me make my virtual meetings more engaging. It also helps me read the room more easily, which can be tough in the virtual setting.

Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash
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Promoting Your Personal Brand at Work

Finding the Right Decibel Level for Promoting Yourself at Work

Some people have no problem speaking up about their accomplishments, contributions, and value. In fact, those that do it too much or too loudly at work often come off as arrogant.

Yet those who don’t speak often or loudly enough about what they bring to the table and what they’ve achieved can find themselves easily overlooked. That can really get in the way of getting ahead, especially in certain environments and cultures.

I’m not afraid to speak up, and my time as an actor, educator, and entrepreneur has made me quite comfortable being in the spotlight. Yet in most cases I prefer not to be. I’m an introvert who is comfortable being an extrovert when I need to. However, I am most comfortable when I am quietly helping others succeed. I think that is one of the things that makes me a good teacher and coach

When I began my career, I learned quickly that in business your work doesn’t speak for itself. So, over the years I’ve had to find a decibel level for promoting myself that I’m comfortable with. One that stays true to who I am while also helping me put myself out there so people can understand my value. 

In her book You — According to Them, Sara Canaday calls this topic “Faulty Volume Control” and she likens it to thinking about the volume of your smartphone on a scale of 1 to 10. Based on that idea, I created this graphic to help my clients find their optimal decibel level:

Where do you fall on this scale? I think I’m about a 6. Some days I might lean towards 7. But I used to be a solid 2. It has taken work to turn my self-promotion volume up a few notches. 

Finding your authentic voice and sharing it at a comfortable decibel level will help you communicate your unique value propositions and your contributions appropriately — avoiding the extremes of coming on too strong, or flying so far under the radar that you are virtually invisible. 

You don’t need to go from a 2 to an 8 or from a 10 to a 4. But see if you can move up, or down, a notch or two in the coming months. I think you’ll find that it makes a difference.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
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Not All Work Gets Done at a Desk

Not All Work Gets Done at a Desk

Leaders of high-performing remote teams hire people they can trust and invest in their success by training them, and by helping them acclimate to the team’s culture. 

They also spend time to make sure everyone on the team is in the loop and on the same page as much as possible. Avoiding miscommunication is one of the best ways to keep a team efficient and healthy. 

If you’re leading a remote team, another important thing to remember is that not all work gets done at a desk. Think about your own behavior. How many times have you solved a problem by speaking with a colleague during a coffee break or by having a quick chat in a hallway? I’m sure there have also been times when stepping away from your desk to clear your head has helped you move something forward, or in a new direction. 

Hire people you can trust, train them well, support them professionally, set expectations for availability, and then give them space to get their work done. If they are not adding value, you should be able to tell. If you can’t, then you either didn’t clearly communicate your expectations or you didn’t hire well. 

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash
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Don't Text and Listen

Don’t Text and Listen

Texting while driving is dangerous. We all know it. Yet many people still do it. It’s hard to resist the distraction of your phone buzzing or dinging. We know that phone notifications negatively affect productivity, even if we don’t check them right away. Just knowing there is a message waiting for our attention destroys our ability to concentrate.

In my listening workshop, I teach the importance of preparing yourself to listen. It’s not as easy as you think, and the many distractions that our digital world provides are a big part of the problem.

Here are some tips to help avoid distractions when it’s time to truly listen:

Prepare to listen

From hunger to tiredness, to thinking about the argument you had with your colleague Ricardo this morning, there are a variety of things that can keep you from focusing. Do your best to put yourself into a listening state of mind, and make sure you’re setting yourself up for success.

Avoid multitasking

If you’re checking email or social media during meetings or at the dinner table, you’re not listening. If a conversation you are in is important to you, focus on it and put other tasks aside until it’s finished.

Eliminate potential distractions

Distractions come in all shapes and sizes. Some are predictable and some are not. Make sure the ones you can control are avoided. Turn your phone and smartwatch off or put them in Do Not Disturb mode. 

Take notes

Taking notes helps you remember things. It can also help you stay in the moment. The bonus is that it also nonverbally communicates that you are listening to the speaker. How nice of you! However, be careful not to let your note taking become so extensive that you stop listening.

Postpone listening if you cannot concentrate

If you can’t fully invest yourself into the conversation at hand, sometimes it’s best to postpone it until later. Wouldn’t you rather hear this instead of sitting across from someone who is not listening to you: “I’m sorry, but we have an emergency going on and if I meet with you now, I won’t be able to concentrate. Our conversation is important to me. Can we move it to 4 p.m. today?” 

Listening well takes work, and there are a lot of barriers that will naturally get in the way. From your own biases or judgement of the speaker or topic to your physical and emotional state, there are many opportunities for inefficiencies. Don’t let distractions that you can control add to the mix.

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Don't Say "Like I Said…" Ever!

Like I Said…

The two phrases that make me cringe most when I observe a presenter or meeting participant fielding questions are: “Like I said…” and “As I mentioned previously…”. 

Here’s why.

If someone asks you a question that you’ve previously answered, it means one of three things:

  1. They missed the answer the first time because they were not listening.
  2. You were unclear when you reviewed the answer previously.
  3. You made them work too hard to understand and remember it.

The fact is that they missed it, and it was probably your fault. Perhaps you buried it among other complex data they were trying to decipher. Maybe it was a key point you should have covered with emphasis, and you didn’t. 

Or maybe it wasn’t your fault and they were distracted by a text message at that precise time you covered that specific point.

The bottom line is that it happened; and how you handle it makes all the difference. When you use a phrase such as, “Like I said…” you are pointing a big finger right at the questioner that says, “I covered this before, dummy. Weren’t you listening?” That’s just like being called out by your 6th grade teacher in front of the class. Nobody likes how that feels. 

Instead, kindly answer the question. Maybe even give an example or elaborate on it a bit. You might find that the question came up because the questioner simply could not think of a better way to ask you to elaborate more on the specific point.

Banish these phrases from your repertoire. Don’t even use them in email communications. Saying, “Like I said…” or “As I mentioned previously…” may make you feel better by pointing out that you covered the information already. But it’s not about you. The fact is that these phrases do nothing but hurt your effectiveness as a presenter and influencer.

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Personal Branding: Storytelling (Old Style Pen)

Who’s Telling Your Story?

In business, everyone has a story to tell. In this context, I’m not talking about fairy tales or fictional stories that are simply meant to entertain. I’m talking about crafting a narrative that showcases your unique strengths, talents, and value

I’ve thought about this topic a lot after watching an interesting Ted talk by Carla Harris. She talks about finding people who can help you get ahead at work — and she makes some powerful points about how many people who are really good at what they do often have not put enough work into relationship building. Therefore, there’s nobody else fighting for them. I’ll let you watch the talk to find out what her solution is, but it made me think about a lot of brilliant, talented, and wonderful people I have known during my career who let other people control their narratives. In other words, tell their stories.

Many people think of personal storytelling, or even personal branding, as shameless promotion. That’s often because the people they’ve seen do it have been the types who happily talk about themselves while speaking over others in the room. It doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, it shouldn’t be like that at all.

Think of storytelling as a guide — one that carefully leads others along the path to understanding, and remembering, you. Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, loud or quiet, passive or assertive, you can find a comfortable way to talk about yourself that showcases the right parts of you to the right people. Then, you can build stronger connections and relationships, and be remembered. 

In a recent episode of Dave Stachowiak’s podcast Coaching for Leaders, he interviewed leadership and entrepreneurship expert and professor Laura Huang about her new book, Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage. On the podcast, Laura shared this wonderful visual of how we show ourselves to others. She said to think of yourself as a diamond. Every diamond has flaws. And every diamond has many beautiful, and different, facets. There’s great power in learning to show the right facets to the right people. You’re not being inauthentic by doing so. It’s still you, but you’re tailoring the story to the audience to ensure you are guiding them in better understanding the aspects of you that matter to them. 

Whether you’re trying to climb the corporate ladder, or to sell a product or service, it’s easier to influence others when your communication considers the needs of your audience, and is tailored to tell them the story that they need to hear.

And most importantly, make sure you’re in control of your story.

Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash
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