In preparing for an engagement this week, I was reminded of this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I have coached a lot of leaders who are frustrated that they are not being heard. Several times, they have said in effect, “I told them, so why don’t they get it?” Leaders must remember that the meaning of their communication is the response they get. How people respond to us determines the meaning of what we’ve said or done, regardless of our intent. We know that the message sent is not always the message received. So, a good rule of thumb in communicating is this: “If it’s your message, then it’s your responsibility to make sure they ‘get it.’” It’s like this picture of the mailboxes: I can send a communiqué, but I can’t assume it will be received, opened, read, or understood. Even text messages sent can become an illusion if we rely on the message “delivered.” It is too static. Instead, we need a back-and-forth exchange to ensure that what we intended to say is actually received and understood. Otherwise, we will continue to live under the illusion that communication has really taken place. 

A few years ago, I was asked by a client to teach Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT System to help leaders improve their ability to communicate with employees. While the model was developed to help create more dynamic learning, it’s a great framework to help leaders deliver information in a more complete and engaging way. McCarthy found that there are four distinct ways of taking in new information: experiencing, conceptualising, applying, and creating. Translated simply for communicators this becomes Why?, What?, How?, and If?. Questions to consider in each area when preparing your communication include:


  • Why is this important?
  • Why is this relevant to you?
  • Why should you listen to this?

Listeners need a reason to engage and the rationale behind what you’re saying. In effect, you are pre-empting their internal dialogue of “So what?” and “Why should I care?”


  • What are the facts?
  • What do the experts say?
  • What exactly are you saying and asking?

Listeners need to hear the facts and a theoretical understanding of something before they are willing to try it out or commit to implementing. In this step, don’t forget to give the rationale and thinking behind the facts and details.


  • How does this work?
  • How will I be able to do it?
  • How will I use this in my life?

Once listeners know the specifics and associated logic, they need to try it out, experience it, and potentially even give it a test run. This is where they get to “kick the tires” so to speak. And this is where leaders get to hear where the speed bumps are in the work life of their employees.


  • If this is true, then what?
  • If I do this, what will be better?
  • If I modify your idea, what will happen?

It’s likely that the communication won’t cover every situation or contingency. It would be too long and detailed if it did. Consequently, listeners need permission to consider alternatives or to adopt it in different circumstances. They need to know the guardrails and what authority they have to implement the ideas in their area. This is a good thing because this step can lead to engagement as employees will start to make it their own. 

A natural reaction to communicating this way is: “I don’t have time to prepare all of this!” I get it. Usually, I’ll craft what I’m trying to say, and then quickly scan to see if I’ve covered all four areas. We’re all busy and feel that we don’t have time to answer all the questions (or others you think of) in the four areas described. But I have found that a little time up front saves me a lot of time later answering questions and clarifying what I tried to say. To get started, use this simple 5-step process to make your communication more effective and better received:

  1. A little what? (Provide just enough what so they know what the session is about).
  2. WHY? Give them the WIFM (What’s in It For Me).
  3. WHAT? Present the essential facts, data, etc.
  4. HOW? Offer a chance to “try on” the idea in a safe way.
  5. IF? Ask: “What do you think? What do I need to know? What questions do you have? What will it take to implement?”


Last week, we were working with a client discussing their personal visions, how to lead teams, and their role as leaders in overcoming resistance to change. The word liminality came up, which is from the science of anthropology. Liminality is a state of transition between one stage and the next. How often do we find ourselves in liminal spaces? In architecture we see this a lot—hallways, stairs, thresholds—as we move from one space to the next. In organizations, this is a great metaphor for all of us as we move through times of growth, change in leadership, downsizing, change in direction, reorganization—in short change. But the problem for most of us is that these transitions also bring feelings of tension, unease, and uncertainty. If we as leaders naturally feel this, imagine how much more those we lead feel it if they don’t have good sources of information or aren’t “in the know.” I remember one CEO standing and announcing to all present in our transformation meeting: “We will not pass through the emotional cycle of change.” What? How can you mandate how people will or won’t feel during change? It’s natural to pass through stages of unawareness, awareness,  and understanding on our way to acceptance as we psychologically transition across new boundaries and borders. 

When I discussed this concept later with my friend and colleague Fritz Gugelmann from Duke Corporate Education he said, “Great concept, nerdy word. In the context of our work on change, it seems quite relevant. For example, the old system had rules and roles; the new one will have rules and roles. But when we’re in between (in a liminal state) neither the old nor the new rules really apply. In the classic studies of liminality, the new state is already defined and understood (e.g., single men become married men)—we know what the rules will be in the new state. In change, of course, we might not know yet what the new rules will be, and we might not know some important things like who the new boss will be. So, we’re in a liminal state, but we probably don’t know where we’re headed.”

When we don’t know where we are going or what the next stage will be, we experience one of humanity’s oldest fears—fear of the unknown. Consequently, many will feel a sense of dread or anxiety but might not always know why. 

Marilyn Ferguson, a founding member of the Association of Humanistic Psychology, said, “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear. It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There is nothing to hold on to.”

So, what can we do as leaders? Share. Share more. Over share. And then listen more than you want to or think you need to. Most people don’t need to be agreed with, but all of us need to feel understood. When you communicate, share the facts, details, plans, and next steps. Share what will happen to them and their team, what’s in it for them, how this will be better, and how the organization might struggle. Give people a chance to try the change on, get involved, offer feedback, and see how it will make their jobs easier and harder. Then listen…just listen without defensiveness until they feel heard.

C. S. Lewis, the famous novelist and poet, said, “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.” It’s our job as leaders to give people something to hold onto—vision, purpose, strategy, transition descriptions, details, plans, hope, faith, belief. The liminal state can be either exhilarating or debilitating. Step into the space and lead so that others can follow and feel the positive side of change. 

Leadership Purpose

I’m currently preparing to help a group of leaders define their personal leadership purpose—their leadership philosophy or identity. Exercises like these generate both excitement and pushback. Some resonate; others resist. But check out these findings:

  • 79% of business leaders believe that an organization’s purpose is central to business success, yet 68% shared that purpose is not used as a guidepost in leadership decision making processes within their organization.
  • The highest-performing employees are 3x more likely to work for a company with a strong sense of purpose. Yet only 13% of them said that their organization is differentiated by a “purpose-driven mission.”
  • More than 90% of employees are willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work.
  • 83% of Gen Z in the US consider a company’s purpose when deciding where to work.
  • 74% of employees place a high value on finding work that delivers on a sense of purpose.

If you are not the kind of leader who establishes a higher purpose or the “Why” of work, employees will find that connection elsewhere. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, said, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Employees need to know why what they are doing matters. It’s hard to get the benefits of high engagement if employees don’t know what they are fighting for. 

The benefits of having a clear identity statement are compelling:

  • Forces you to think deeply about your life
  • Identifies what is truly important
  • Forces you to clarify your deepest values, aspirations, and what you stand for
  • Integrates who you are; becomes a code of conduct that defines your convictions
  • Provides focus
  • Simplifies decision-making; allows you to more readily dismiss distractions
  • Creates accountability 
  • Becomes a personal barometer to assess your success
  • Points the direction you intend your life to move in like a personal compass or north star
  • Defines your “why”

Seneca, the Roman philosopher, said, “Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.” Managers may be good at following the course, but it’s leaders who point everyone in the right direction and elevate our vision to distant harbors. My message to this leadership group in a couple of weeks will be: “It’s time to define your north star so that your employees know what kind of leader you are and how they are going to follow. 


Immunity to Change

Why is it that even when we know what to change, we still struggle making the change? Volumes have been written about that subject, and we’re still learning. Change is hard! It’s hard to close the knowing versus doing gap. In their well-researched book Immunity to Change, Kegan and Lahey use the analogy of an immune system to portray what happens when we try to change. Our physical immune system is designed to protect us from sickness and disease. An emotional immune system also tries to protect us from hurt and emotional pain. But when change is involved, it rejects altering behaviors that no longer serve us well, experiences that might enable us to grow, and outdated mindsets that put us at serious risk. Trying to protect us, our emotional immune system tries to maintain the status quo. Psychologist William Perry said, “The two most important things to know about people trying to change: What do they really want? And, What will they do to keep from getting it?” Kegan and Lahey put it this way: “Change does not fail to occur because of insincerity. Change fails to occur because we mean both things. It fails to occur because we are a living contradiction. It’s like we have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake.” In effect, our emotional immune system becomes a self-protection system artfully designed to keep us “safe” from change. 

So, what do we do? Most of us without knowing have hidden commitments that keep us rooted in the present when faced with our goals and intentions for the future. We have a set of (1) actions that we are doing/not doing that compete with the goal; (2) underlying fears or hidden commitments that fuel our behavior; and (3) assumptions (usually not tested) about life and people that inform our beliefs and mindset. Kegan and Lahey suggest conducting an X-ray on each of these areas to better understand what is happening. Where are influences cycling in opposite directions and keeping us stuck? Where is there energy for change that might be trapped against an equally important commitment? What assumptions are driving current behaviors and causing us to work against our goals? 

Caution! This is scary! As personal insights come to the surface, often anxiety increases and our emotional self-protection defenses go on high alert. Take your time. Shine a light on what is happening under the surface. Experiment. Challenge assumptions and see what happens. You can always go back to what has worked in the past. My own experience of challenging beliefs and trying on new behaviors has helped me realize that my operating system or way of doing things isn’t always protecting me but sometimes hurting me and my progress. Experimenting with new behaviors for a short time has allowed my defense system to calm down while I realized the benefits of the new way of doing things. When I’ve backed off the brake pedal by challenging what’s holding me back, I’ve accelerated my own change toward what will make me better and more emotionally healthy. Good luck on your journey to change the way you change! 

Leading Through Transitions

“Our emotional wake determines the story that is told about each of us.” What great insight for leaders leading through transitions—personal, team, or organizational. If I were to ask those you lead to describe your emotional wake, what would they say? How leaders deal with change splashes on to those around them and impacts the culture, energy, and feeling of the team. For example, do you provide perspective and vision, or are you in survival mode just coping and trying to make it through another week? Are you finding opportunity and challenge in the changes required for your business, or are you exhibiting anxiety and worry? Are you engaging others in finding new solutions, or staying with the way you’ve always done it? 

The tricky part for leaders in transition is that they are often receiving change for themselves while at the same time trying to lead others through change. This can be both challenging and exhausting. The typical response is to double down, buckle up, and work harder. This works for a short time. A big burst of energy can get leaders through some things. But transitions take longer. As with running, a runner can’t sprint a whole marathon. If leaders try this approach, the result is typically some level of personal burnout and fatigue, as well as disengagement for those she leads. The leader’s “emotional wake” takes on negative rather than positive energy at that point. 

For some years, I’ve been coaching leaders how to positively fuel their emotional wake by managing themselves and their resilience. Years ago, I heard Jim Loehr discuss with a group of senior executives how to sustain high performance in the face of ever-increasing pressure and rapid change. He compared leaders to corporate athletes. The difference, he noted, was that athletes plan their rest and recovery but leaders don’t. He later wrote: “A successful approach to sustained high performance must pull together all of these elements and consider the person as a whole. Our integrated theory of performance management addresses the body, the emotions, the mind, and the spirit.” Leaders must proactively manage each of the following areas of their life to have the capacity to lead during transition: 

  • Physical (Energy and Capacity): Take a walk, breathe, exercise, take some alone time, plan healthy snacks
  • Mental (Knowledge and Skill): Read to learn, seek feedback, try a mental challenge, read for fun, schedule time to do one of your hobbies
  • Spiritual (Identity and Purpose): Create personal goals, mediate, read wisdom literature, review your purpose or mission, spend time in nature
  • Emotional (Feelings and Emotions): Create a gratitude journal, celebrate accomplishments, plan time with a friend, establish boundaries, learn to say “No”
  • Social (Relationships and Expectations): Ask for help, plan a virtual lunch, write a thank you note, network, schedule an outing

Proactively engaging all parts of self creates energy and the emotional fuel necessary to be fully present, receive change, and effectively lead in transition. 

Alvin Toffler, a writer and futurist said, “Our moral responsibility is not to stop the future, but to shape it. To channel our destiny in humane directions and to ease the trauma of transition.” This is the role of leadership! To shape the future and ease the trauma of transition, leaders need energy to enable change to happen. Working harder isn’t enough. Successful leaders take time to engage all parts of themselves and allow their employees to do the same. Maybe in your next team meeting you could ask, “What is one practice you have adopted to increase your personal resilience?” And “What’s getting in the way of bringing your whole self to work?” Not only will this give your team permission to refuel because they see this is important to you, but it will also give you ideas to add to your personal resilience practices.

#change, #leadership, #changethewayyouchange

Change the Way You Listen

Is how you listen helping or hurting your leadership? A LinkedIn survey of nearly 14,000 employees around the world found that only 8% of employees reported that their mid- and senior-level leaders are practicing listening “very well.” Why? There are a lot of reasons. In one study conducted with 2,250 adults, Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that we spend around 47 percent of every waking hour “mind wandering.” But the biggest factor that I have seen surface over and over with mid- and senior-level leaders is HOW they listen. When you listen, do you interrupt, listen to respond, listen to solve, or wait for the other person to stop talking so that you can share? Do you listen only to what is being said versus the underlying emotion? Do you believe that listening equals agreement so you prepare your rebuttal while the other person is talking? Are you efficient with people and move them along and try to get them to solution quickly?

In contrast, great listeners work to connect and listen to understand instead of respond and solve. They validate others and show that what people say matters to them. They are curious and “seek to understand” rather than taking over the conversation. One of my favorite quotes underscores how to listen well: 

“Hearing doesn’t equal listening. We hear background noise all the time and pay it little heed. But when we really listen, we are working to connect with someone else. Great listening is like being a human satellite dish where we receive information and decode it. We take in sights, sounds, body language, and other signals to ensure connection. Our ability to receive other people’s signs and translate them correctly is our goal. When we are disconnected, it is because we have escaped into the recesses of our own mind, we’re listening to respond, we’re distracted or our attention span is low, we’re dialed out, we’re not receiving, and the channels won’t connect.”

By the Numbers

Most speakers average 150-175 words per minute while most listeners can consume 400-500 words per minute. Distracted leaders allow their excess brain capacity to dialogue internally about the conversation and miss meaning by relying only on the words spoken (which account for only seven percent of communication). Great listeners, on the other hand, focus their brain on what is being said, what is not being said, and the feeling communicated through tone (35%) and body language (55%). These leaders listen like a human satellite dish and take in the “sights, sounds, and other signals to ensure connection…and translate them correctly.”

Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light

A simple metaphor that I have used with leaders to improve listening is a traffic stoplight. Obviously red light means stop and green light means go. But many drivers misinterpret a yellow light and tend to speed up and rush through an intersection instead of slowing down and proceeding with caution. The same rules apply in our communications. When we attempt to reflect back in a conversation what we heard and get a response of “No” or “Not really…that’s not the issue,” that’s a red light. Translation? Stop. Pause. Listen more empathically. You’ve missed the essence of the message. Read their body language. What emotions (anger, happiness, sadness) can you pick up on? Or, if in the course of the conversation, you try to clarify to ensure understanding and the other person responds by saying a “Well…” or “Kind of, but not really?” that’s a yellow light. You’re close but not there yet. Slow down. Engage more. Get curious. Work to decode and translate meaning. Only when the other person says “Yes!” to your restating of what they are experiencing have you received a green light and can continue to the next intersection on the road to understanding. 

Flexing a Few Behaviors

To become skillful in the art of dialogue and empathic listening, leaders can flex just a few behaviors. Here are some “training wheel” phrases that will help develop better listening skills. 

  • REFLECT what is being said
    • “You think that __________ (it’s all your fault, it’s over).”
    • “You look _____________ (upset, angry, pleased).”
    • “You sound ____________ (confused, shocked, concerned).”
    • “You feel ____________ (worried, excited, relieved).”
  • CLARIFY to ensure understanding
    • “Tell me more about ___________.” 
    • “For you, the issue is __________.” 
    • “What else?”
  • REFRAME/RESTATE what the speaker both said and feels
    • “For you, the bottom line is ___________.” 
    • “Your dilemma is ___________.”
    • “You’re not sure what to do about ___________.” 

Take Away

When I ask clients “What is hard about listening like this?” they usually say things like “Concentration,” “It’s hard not to interject,” or “I want to give advice.” Listening empathically is a muscle that has to be developed. When I ask employees “What is it like being listened to this way?” they often say “Refreshing,” “Liberating,” or “It’s like having oxygen in the conversation.” Just for fun, see how well you listen by watching the video clip “It’s Not About the Nail!” If the clip reminds you about a recent conversation you’ve had, it might be time to put your training wheels back on and practice the art of dialogue and empathic listening. 

#leadership, #change, #changethewayyouchange