Another big thank you to ACCJ members for reading—and to the Journal for inviting me—to keep swinging the Ax in 2012. Last month, we chopped up Global Readiness and this month I’d like to return to the business of meetings – a place where Global Readiness can either shine brightly or dull everyone down when not adequately developed.
In January’s Strokes to the Finish Line column, we covered the rowing analogy for meetings: “three strokes” (compliments, questions, and validation), and we examined one of the most common momentum killers for meetings – the word “but.”
But… I mean AND there’s more!
ENEMY WORDS, PHRASES, AND FROWNS
Now that we’re into the Year of the Dragon, let’s hone our slaying skills. In January, we shared that “keeping the ‘buts’ out of your mouth” encourages more contributions and builds momentum. However, several other silent – and not so silent – killers lurk. Let’s start where communication began.
ROLLING EYES & HEAVY SIGHS
Long before we came up with words, we communicated through gestures and vocal utterances. Guess what? We still do. It’s our primary form of communication. That’s why how we look and how we sound take precedence over what we say. Clients who see themselves video-recorded during one of their meetings often express shock at how “bad” they look or sound. They feel embarrassed and had no idea what they look and sound like to others, whether when speaking up or remaining silent. Watching themselves, they can see how their unconscious reactions serve to either help or (in many cases) hinder a meeting’s progress. This knowledge is especially valuable for leaders, due to the asymmetric influence on meetings you attend.
Even if you don’t record your meetings, go into your next one aware that your visual and vocal reactions will either negatively or positively influence others, and thus influence the outcome of the meeting. You might even want to assign “Angel’s Advocates” to ensure the first response following any suggestion is positive. That way, you remain free to disagree later and choose another course of action and you will encourage more contributions.
Many visual and vocal expressions are subtle and tough to catch, and even tougher to counter. On the other hand, a trained ear can easily capture words and phrases for later slaying, like the enemy dragons they are. There are five enemy words and phrases that sap the energy from you and others who aim to drive a meeting towards its goal. Note how often (or not) they’re used in your daily meetings, conversations, and presentations. Ready your swords!
“Well, we have to put in more time on this project….” “I have to check with the CFO…” “You have to understand.” Let’s take these one at a time.
“Well, we have to put in more time on this project.” How does that make you or your team feel? Could you inspire the team more by saying, “Let’s put some more time into this project”? Or, “I’d really like this one to impress the client, big time. How about another two or three hours to really nail it down”? Saying, “We have to” places a burden on the team and, as we’ll see below, it’s a false burden.
“I have to check with the CFO…” No, you don’t. In fact, you don’t have to do anything – anything, that is, except to live (until you die). That’s it. Think about it. What else do you “have to” do? Some will say, “Well, I have to go to work.” Do you? Or do you choose to go to work because you want to receive a paycheck, or to maintain a certain social status, or to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
“But Andrew,” I hear some say, “I have to eat.” Not as much or as often as you think. Ask a hunger striker. You eat because you prefer not to be hungry, not because you have to eat. You won’t die for 30 days or more without food and even then, you only “have to” live until you die, remember? Oh, by the way: keep that ‘but’ out of your mouth.
“I have to pay taxes.” You choose to pay taxes because you want to avoid the penalty that comes with non-compliance. By now you’ve got the picture. There’s only one legitimate “have to”: live.
What about that pesky CFO who requires that expenditures above a certain amount go through his or her office? Well, yes, there are consequences for failing to gain approval from the CFO, who may hold final authority. That differs from having to check with them. Much better to say something empowering to yourself and your team, like “I’m on board with this and with the CFO’s approval, we’ll be set.” Saying, “I have to check with the CFO” makes you sound passive and less powerful than you are.
The worst offender in the “have to” world is one we so often hear in heated discussions: “You have to understand that…” Just as you don’t “have to” do anything except to live, neither does the other side. Beware of the person who knows this truth the next time you say or hear, “You have to understand.” They’ll reply, “Why?” or simply, “No, I don’t.”
“I’d just like to add…” When you’re in a meeting, driving towards a goal, everyone is there to contribute. Whenever you say, “just,” you’re giving a half-power stroke that only serves to delay the finish. “Just” diminishes your contribution. Catch yourself and help others eliminate “just.” Use “Let me add,” or “To add to Satoshi’s point…” With apologies to Nike, “Do it!”
SORRY (and other apologies)
Speaking of apologies, most that happen during meetings are unnecessary and most are not really apologies at all – rather, they’re habitual phrases. “Sorry to interrupt…” Never interrupt. Add value, and return the floor to the other speaker when you finish your 30-second or less contribution. That’s positive, right? So why apologize? Pull your oar –take your stroke – and keep the meeting going. An interruption interrupts; a contribution contributes. The difference? Check others’ reactions. Are meeting participants more or less engaged? Was the person you spoke over irritated or enthusiastic – or even, as is often the case, relieved? (How many times have you or someone else droned on a bit too long and forgotten the main point? Someone jumps in with a compliment or quick paraphrase. That’s nothing to be sorry for!)
When you apologize, it’s most likely out of habit or to sound polite. What you may really be saying is, “I’m sorry to be helping us clarify where we are going and for helping us get there quicker.” See how ridiculous that sounds? Yet so many of us fall into the “sorry” trap.
Sort of, Kind of, and other modifiers Even professional broadcasters fall victim to these worthless modifiers. A recent KCRW program Left, Right and Center, a radio show dedicated to debating political issues of the day, featured the host and one of his regular contributors continuously modifying their remarks with this self-limiting language. “Well, I’d sort of like to point out …” Sort of? You’re getting paid to sort of express an opinion?
Why chop your oars off at the handle? Dig deep into the water and express your point. If you’re not sure where you stand on the issue, you can still declare: “We’ve heard good arguments for direction A and solid reasons for B; let’s take a few more minutes to hash this out, and if we need more information, we can postpone the final decision until next week.”
Rather than expressing politeness, most of these modifiers are simply habits. Space-fillers, as useful as, “You know,” “like” and “and so on.” Once you start looking for these non-contributors, you may be surprised how often you find them. Then, recalling a message on my father’s office wall: cut them. No, Dad wasn’t an L.A. gang member but an orthopedic surgeon. That somewhat self-serving sign on his wall said, “A chance to cut is a chance to cure.”
So cure your meetings by slaying these self-limiting demon dragons.