Some of you may not know that I write a bi-monthly email called the “Insider List,” and send it to everyone who has opted to receive it (you can do that here on the site, if you’re interested). Last time I wrote about the slipperiness of language – and how that slipperiness makes listening even more important. The example I used was the word/phrase “mayday” or “May Day,” which can either mean a happy spring holiday or a call for help.
In response, one of my “Insiders,” a friend and colleague named Todd Sattersten, sent me an email letting me know that there’s a word for words that have two opposite meanings: they’re called contronyms. Here are a few great examples (some of them from Todd):
sanction - ‘a penalty’ or ‘official permission or approval’
fine – ‘the state of being good’ or ‘a penalty for doing something bad’
shop – ‘buy’ or ‘attempt to sell’
custom – ‘special’ or ‘usual’
bolt – ‘secure’ or ‘run away’
dust – ‘add fine particles’ or ‘remove fine particles’
strike – ‘hit’ or ‘miss (a ball)’
buckle – ‘fasten together’ or ‘break under stress’
I love such quirky, illogical, counter-intuitive, imprecise aspects of language: I get a big kick out of the fact that such words exist, and that we’ve created a word for them.
And the fact that language is often like this is one of the main reasons listening well is so important. Contronyms are simply an extreme example of the potential for misunderstanding inherent in any conversation. It’s so easy to assume you understand what someone is saying…and miss what they’re actually saying.
If, instead, we were to approach every conversation assuming we really don’t know what the person is thinking or what they intend, and then get very curious about finding that out – I’m convinced about 90% of our misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and mis-matched expectations would simply evaporate.
Contronyms (and other slippery words) would lose their power to confuse – and speaking would become a bridge to understanding rather than a barrier.
What do you think?
Last week I had the pleasure of spending a little bit of time with a lot of wonderful women. As a part of the Rising Leaders leadership intensive we teach for WICT (Women in Cable Telecommunications) twice a year, I conduct 30-minute “mini” coaching sessions with 50+ women, all of whom are high-potential midlevel cable executives.
In more than half of these individual sessions, we end up focusing on self-talk – that little voice that runs in your head non-stop. I’ve discovered, over the years, that many (perhaps most) of the problems we run into in our lives have something to do with how we talk to ourselves about situations. Learning to manage your own self-talk is one of the most useful tools you can have in your self-development toolbox.
Let me give you a poignant and powerful real-life example. Three of the women I spoke with – very bright, accomplished women – were convinced that they were doing badly at work, that no one was supporting them, and that they were sure to fail.
For all three, the facts contradicted their fears: all had been recently promoted; had been nominated and sent to the program by their boss and HR (a big investment for their company); had gotten great performance reviews; and had scored well on the interpersonal and leadership assessments we provide as part of the class.
So, what was the deal?
All three women had awful self-talk. That voice in their head was using them as a chew toy. “You’re doing a terrible job” that voice was saying, or “No one wants you on the team,” or “There’s no way you can succeed.” And, because they were largely unaware of what they were saying to themselves, it was affecting them on a daily basis like pollution leaking into a water system..invisible and deadly.
We taught these women our model for bringing your self-talk to your conscious awareness and revising it. It’s dramatically powerful: whenever you feel hopeless, helpless, defeated, incompetent, or overwhelmed, managing your self-talk about the situation you’re in is almost sure to help. Here’s how it works:
- Recognize: The first step in managing your self-talk is to “hear” it. Unless you’re aware of this internal monologue, it’s impossible to change it. Start by simply recognizing what you’re saying to yourself. For instance, let’s say you’ve just gotten a promotion. Rather than being thrilled, you realize you’re feeling anxious and overwhelmed. When you focus on your thoughts about the promotion, you might hear something like, “There’s no way I’m qualified for this – it will be a disaster.” As soon as you “hear” what you’re saying to yourself, that sense of hopelessness or overwhelm makes sense – you’re believing that negative voice in your head.
- Record: Writing down your self-talk creates a useful separation; when you see it written down, it feels less like an intrinsic part of you. If you write down that self-talk statement, above: “There’s no way I’m qualified for this – it will be a disaster,” you’ll be better able to look objectively at how this negative self-talk affects you: perhaps making you more likely to abandon the project, or to feel cynical or hopeless about the possibility of accomplishing it.
- Revise: After you’ve recorded any inaccurate, unhelpful self-talk, you can decide how to “rethink” it. This step is the core of the process. Your goal is to create alternative self-talk that you’ll believe and that will lead to a more useful response. For instance, if you try to substitute self-talk that’s falsely positive, like, “This will be a piece of cake,” you simply won’t believe it, and therefore it will have no impact on you: you’ll just revert back to your original negative self-talk. What could you say to yourself instead, that’s believable and that would create a more useful response? How about something like: “I know this will be a challenge. But I’m good at learning new things, and I’m really motivated.”
- Repeat: Like any habit, managing your self-talk requires repetition. Substituting more hopeful and accurate self-talk for your negative self-talk will be helpful the very first time you do it. And you’ll need to consciously do it again the next time the voice in your head comes up with a similarly unhelpful statement. And again. This is a process for creating new habits of thought. Whenever you find yourself falling into a pattern of unhelpful self-talk – either overly negative or overly positive – consciously substitute your revised, more realistic and accurate self-talk.
So that’s it. Until you try it, you may not see see how powerfully helpful it can be. Think of it this way: imagine if you had a ‘friend’ who was saying the kinds of unsupportive, unhelpful, negative things you sometimes say to yourself, would you just nod and accept it? I hope not. By learning to manage your self-talk, you can make sure you’re not getting in the way of your own success and happiness.
Last week my “co-mom” Becky Fall put this marvelous video on her facebook page. [BTW, Becky is my daughter Rachel's mother-in-law, and when Rachel and Becky's son Will got married 5 years ago, we realized there was no word (at least in English) for our relationship to each other, so we coined one: "co-mom."]
I found it hugely inspiring; I fully intend – barring illness or death – to be as active, loving and full of interest and joy in my nineties as Ms. Porchon-Lynch. It’s wonderful to see it in action; it makes my intention seem more grounded in reality, more achievable.
And it made me realize how helpful it is, when you’re trying to do something that defies common wisdom, to know that others have done it. It’s much easier for us to break through to a new possibility if we have even a single example of it being possible.
A few weeks ago I was talking to my son-in-law to be (my other daughter’s fiance) about this – he was saying that he felt most people were stuck in old ways of living and thinking, and that even if there were a few innovators here and there, it didn’t really matter. I disagreed, saying that I see each of those “few innovators” as having a huge ripple effect of positive influence on society. I gave him the example of Roger Bannister, the first man to run a sub-four-minute mile. Before Bannister’s achievement, in 1954, it was widely believed that running a mile in less than 4 minutes was physiologically impossible. The record for the fastest running of the mile had been stuck at just over 4 minutes for 9 years.
Once Bannister broke that record (on May 6, 1954, running a mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds), it was only 46 days till someone else broke that record – the psychological barrier was down.
So if you want to do something that most people think is unlikely, or even impossible – be vital and active in your 90s; become a great leader if you’re not a “born” leader; start a successful business without much (or any) business experience…find all the examples you can of others who are actually doing it.
And break through.
I originally wrote this post at the end of 2009, when I was just starting to work on writing Leading So People Will Follow. It’s still a good summary and explanation of the concepts in the book – I thought you might find it useful:
I’ve been thinking about leaders lately, and how good leaders are going to become increasingly important as everything in business gets flatter, faster, more disrupted. I’m noticing more than ever before how essential it is for organizations to have strong and flexible leaders in order to succeed. I watch as those organizations whose leaders are too inflexible, too cautious, too short-sighted or too fear-based continue to founder, while those whose leaders are far-sighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous and trustworthy seem to be finding their way much more quickly and easily.
And it just so happens that we at Proteus have and use a leadership model based on those six qualities, so it’s reinforcing our sense that these truly are the essential characteristics of good and effective leaders. We evolved our model based on “leader stories” from all over the world, going on the premise that folk and fairy tales tend to carry the “DNA” of our cultural expectations about what good leadership looks and feels like. If you’re interested, here is a little more explanation about the six qualities as they show up in these leader stories:
In these stories, the young leader-to-be can see beyond his current situation to his ultimate goal (save his father, win the princess, kill the monster), and can express it clearly and in a compelling and inclusive way – especially those whose help he needs – even when others lose sight of it, believe it’s impossible, or ridicule him for trying. He is Far-sighted.
Moreover, the leader-in-training doesn’t just go through the motions. He is deeply committed to his quest. His every action is directed toward achieving it. Nothing dissuades him, even the inevitable setbacks and disappointments attendant on any quest. He may not be loud about it, but he is relentless. He is Passionate.
Throughout the story, he is confronted with difficult situations. He may be afraid and lonely; he may feel like running away, longing for the comfort and safety of home. He often faces situations that are particularly trying for him personally. But he doesn’t turn aside; he doesn’t (unlike his brothers or others who attempt the same journey) make the safe and easy choices. He doesn’t wimp out. He is Courageous.
He’s not a cardboard action hero, though. His brain is tested, and he must be able to learn from his mistakes. In many versions of the story, he doesn’t initially follow the advice given him, and his mistakes create complexity and danger. The next time a similar situation arises, he behaves differently and succeeds at his task. He doesn’t deny or whine or blame; he improves. Finally, he uses his powers of discrimination to think through difficult choices and arrive at the best and most moral solution. He is thoughtful, appropriately humble, clear-headed and curious. He is Wise.
Along the way, the future leader meets people or creatures in need, and he helps them or shares with them even though his own supplies are low; even if helping them takes him out of his way or slows him down. In some versions of the story, he actually has to seem to sacrifice his life for those he loves or to whom he owes his loyalty (this always turns out OK in the end). And later on, when he is king, his people are prosperous and happy because he rules with an open hand — the leader is not stingy, miserly or selfish. He is Generous.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, his word is his bond. If he tells his dying father that he will find the magic potion to cure him, you know that he will. If he tells the princess that he will come back to marry her, she can send out the invitations. The hero does not equivocate or exaggerate. He is Trustworthy.
When leaders demonstrate these attributes consistently, they become a strong, safe point around which teams and organizations can coalesce. Their people turn to them and say, We’re with you – let’s go. And great things happen.
A colleague of mine sent me a really interesting article from the NYT other other day, about the importance of ‘shared narrative’ in making people emotionally healthy. About 20 years ago, some researchers noted that kids who knew a lot about their own families tended to do better in challenging situations. They then created something they called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children 20 questions, such as, ”Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know the story of your birth?”
It turned out that the “Do You Know?” questionnaire was an astonishingly accurate predictor. The article goes on to say, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
This reinforced a deep personal intuition I’ve always had as a parent: when my kids were small, we spent time talking about my parents and siblings; the experiences I’d had growing up; how their dad and I met; what we did in the world of work. We also talked about what they had been like as babies and small children, how they were alike and different from other members of the family. Finally, we told them about difficult things that had happened, and trials and tribulations overcome. Somehow I knew this was an important conversation for them to be a part of – and I was often surprised and saddened by how little the kids’ friends knew about their families: they often didn’t even know what their parents did for a living. We’re continuing that into the next generation, telling our granddaughter stories about ourselves and those who came before.
But it also reinforces something I’ve observed as a business consultant for the last thirty years: companies and teams that have a strong, mainly positive shared narrative about themselves also tend to be healthier, more flexible and more resilient in response to difficulty. For example, we worked with someone last year to help us further clarify our Proteus brand. She interviewed a number of staff members and consultants to find out about our current understanding of our own brand. And one thing she found is that each of us said very much thing same thing about what it was like working as part of our team, how we treat each other and our clients, what’s important to us. In other words, even though we needed to get crisper about our brand communication (we did), we had a really strong, consistent shared narrative about Proteus and ourselves as “Proteans.” I feel the power of that every day: it draws us together and helps us overcome the challenges of distance, the inevitable misunderstandings and disappointments of human interaction, and the ups and downs of growing a business.
We’ve been gathering around the campfire to share our stories since time immemorial…and it sounds like we need to keep doing it.
One of the groups I belong to on LinkedIn is called HR Matters (created by Rowena Morais, the editor of an HR-focused magazine by that name headquartered in Southeast Asia). Another member of the group, John Baldino, recently posted a link to an article on his blog called What Makes You Beautiful (the title, as I now understand, of a song by a band called One Direction – I can only assume that John has teenagers in his house).
The focus of John’s post is the fact that businesses are biased toward good-looking people, and that it’s a largely unconscious but extremely widespread bias. People who are considered more attractive, studies show, are more likely to get hired in the first place, get paid more on average for doing the same job, and are more likely to get promoted sooner. I only kind of knew this was true, but John’s post really brought it to my conscious attention. And a quick stroll around the internet yields dozens of articles and papers exploring this bias.
So – as I generally do when something new comes to my attention – I started to pull it apart. And I believe that what makes this particular area of bias difficult is that it’s a mixture of some reasonable and justified assumptions with some unreasonable and unjustified assumptions.
Reasonable and justified: part of what people consider “attractive” is simply good grooming, which is completely within a person’s control, and is – I believe – a marker for other positive traits. For example, if a candidate is showered and shaved, wearing clothes and shoes that are clean and in good repair, with clean hair that doesn’t look like he or she has just rolled out of bed – I would consider that attractive. And I would infer (I think reasonably) that his or her attention to these aspects of self-presentation implies a sense of respect for the meeting, an understanding of expected professional behavior, and a basic focus on order and excellence. Another part of what people consider attractive is behavioral (and, again, completely with the person’s control). That is, I find people attractive who look me in the eye, stand and sit tall, don’t fidget, listen well, can converse easily, have a sense of humor. These things demonstrate both self-confidence and emotional intelligence – both of which are associated with professional and interpersonal effectiveness.
Unreasonable and unjustified. Unfortunately, I believe most of us also make unwarranted positive assumptions about aspects of attractiveness that are congenital, and have little or no bearing on a person’s abilities. For instance, if a person is overweight, has thinning hair, has unsymmetrical or disfigured facial features, is older, is disabled in some way – I fear that many people automatically assume that person is less intelligent, less confident, or less capable than someone who is slim, thick-haired, young, smooth-featured and whole.
And that’s the part of this that we need to get conscious about; the assumptions we need to question. To the extent you or I are making judgments about people’s qualifications based on these “luck of the draw” kinds of physical attributes – we need to stop doing that.
And as a little mantra, to help remind yourself that these characteristics are a lousy basis for judging someone as a professional or as a human being, repeat after me: Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Every year, my husband and I take a break from the New York winter and spend some time unwinding on a beach. For the past four years we’ve gone to Jamaica. Mostly it’s pure lovely downtime – I really make the effort to “contain” work, so that I just have one 30-60 minute session of emailing or blogging each day. Like right now.
My brain really never stops considering things, though – that’s just how I’m wired – so I thought I’d share something cool with you that I just found out. Yesterday at the beach, Patrick brought me this fascinating creature (the picture at left); a big sea shell with a claw sticking out of it. He said it was crawling along the beach by pulling itself with its claw.
I looked it up just now, and I believe it’s a hermit crab. They have long, soft bodies that they curl into an abandoned shell (whose original occupant has died), and then grasp into the shell with their “tail” – really the end of their abdomen. As they grow, they need to find progressively bigger shells. But then I started wondering – how do they find a shell that’s the right size when they need it? They must be very vulnerable to predators, I reasoned, when they’re between shells.
Then Wikipedia gave me a really interesting answer:
Several hermit crab species, both terrestrial and marine, use “vacancy chains” to find new shells: when a new, bigger shell becomes available, hermit crabs gather around it and form a kind of queue from largest to smallest. When the largest crab moves into the new shell, the second biggest crab moves into the newly vacated shell, thereby making its previous shell available to the third crab, and so on.
And I started to think about how “vacancy chains” are a big part of human life, as well. It’s just that they’re somewhat more complex, so harder to see. But, for instance, every time someone moves to a larger/better house, it starts a vacancy chain. Every time someone moves to a bigger/better job: a vacancy chain. And we’ve used the internet to create more efficient vacancy chains, too: to sell stuff we no longer need because we’ve acquired a newer or better version, to let other people know that we’re wanting to move on to a better relationship, organization, dwelling.
There’s an internal analogue as well. When we learn something new, or understand something that previously eluded us, we’re moving to a bigger comprehension of the world and abandoning our outgrown worldview.
That kind of internal change is difficult; we feel vulnerable when we’re ‘between understandings.’ But here’s an inspiration to keep growing and ‘moving along the chain’ mentally and emotionally: when we cling to a smaller understanding of ourselves or the world around us, we’re actually getting in the way of evolution.
Last night I was throwing out my Google net to see what I would catch. I do this regularly: Google search terms that have to do with our business (“leading so people will follow,” “erika andersen,” “executive coaching”, etc.) just to see what’s out there, and to respond when appropriate.
So I googled “proteus” and the first few entries that came up were about a newly released online game called Proteus. It sounded intriguing, so I bought it ($10 on their website, if you’re similarly intrigued.)
It’s a little hard to explain; you use your mouse pad to wander around and explore a world of islands and seas. It’s extremely primitive graphically (think early 80s pixelated video games), but somehow it seems more like the beauty of a primitivist painting than programming laziness. Each island has its own character and background music, and little pixel creatures who make their own sounds and do their own activities. There don’t seem to be any clear rules or objectives; you explore and see what happens. I haven’t spent much time in Proteus-land (remember, I just bought it last night), but the only cause-and-effect thing I’ve noticed so far was when I got onto an island that had lots of weather (rain, wind, rapidly moving clouds overhead – hauntingly beautiful), I discovered that I couldn’t move against the wind. And when I moved into what looked like a little dust-devil circle on the ground, I was transported to another island.
Because this is how my brain is wired, as I played, I was looking for similarities to “my” Proteus. There were a lot of dissimilarities: most of our work with clients is pretty goal and outcome focused. We help clients get clear about where they want to go and who they want to be, and help them build the capability or walk down the path to get there.
But then I noticed, as I moved around the world of Proteus, that I felt soothed and focused, drawn in, and very, very curious. Which are actually some of the effects I hope that we have on clients. And when I looked at some of the reviews on the site, I thought, These are some of the things clients say about us. I especially loved these two:
What surprised me most about Proteus was I found myself going back to it over and over. There’s something delightfully intoxicating about it.
…you definitely will want to explore Proteus’s island – trust us on that.
I like to think that we also create an environment that’s attractive to people, where they feel safe, and calmed. In our case, though, it’s a means to an end: it’s for the purpose of then breaking new ground, being illuminated and strengthened to live the lives and create the enterprises they want.
Maybe they’ll develop Proteus II, Leader Readiness…
I’ve realized lately that there’s something I love no matter what form it takes: growth. The process of something changing its form to become more complete, more mature, more fully established and able to fulfill its innate purpose – wonderful.
It’s marvelous to observe in nature; it’s why I enjoy gardening so much. Think about it: a tomato seed is tiny, almost transparent, fragile-looking. (If you’ve never seen a tomato seed, here’s a comparison: a tomato seed is about the size and shape of this capital O.) And that tiny object, when put in the ground and watered, first breaks through the ground as a little green seedling. And then over the next few months – a remarkably short period of time – it grows as tall and wide as an adult person, yields dozens and dozens of tomatoes, each of which is hundreds of times larger than the original seed.
And I’ve understood that growth – any kind of growth – requires two things: a framework for expansion and a compulsion to evolve. In nature, DNA provides that framework. The tomato seed contains all the instructions needed for the fully mature plant, as the human egg and sperm do for the adult human being.
The compulsion to evolve is the thing that fascinates me. I see it in all life: it shows up in animals as the urge to survive and reproduce; in plants as breaking through the ground, turning toward the light. It shows up in human beings as curiosity, competition, the will to create a better life for one’s children.
Earlier this week I had the chance to spend a couple of days with a very senior team in a large client company of ours. I’ve been coaching the leader of this team for the past five or six years. My intention – as is always the case when I coach – has been to offer him good frameworks for growth, and help him get in touch with his own compulsion to evolve. It’s been a joy to observe his growth, as a person and as professional, over these years.
But this time I saw his team evolving, as well, and it was so exciting to me. Over the past five years, I’ve worked with this team on 3 different occasions. This time, I saw framework + compulsion. By framework, I mean that they’re finally set up properly: they have the right people in the right roles, they’re clearer than ever on what they’re trying to do and how they’ll do it. We did some work in this session that helped clarify those framing supports even more.
The new thing though, and the most wonderful to see: the awakening of the compulsion to evolve. In previous iterations, there were people on the team who weren’tat all sure they wanted to grow as a team. This time, every single person in the room genuinely wanted to evolve into a high-performance team that will get great results and have fun doing it.
And to me, that’s as amazing as the tiny seed becoming a gigantic fruitful plant. That a group of people would come together and make a conscious decision to pool their passion, their experience and their trust in order to evolve into a new thing; a team.
A business miracle.
My partner Jeff sent me this wonderful article from The Week a few days ago. It’s a list (with definitions) of 14 words for which there are no English equivalents. A couple of them pinpoint experiences I’ve had so precisely (Koi No Yokan, in Japanese, is the sense upon first meeting a person that the two of you are going to fall in love) or are so obviously high-utility (Zeg, In Georgian, means ‘the day after tomorrow’) that I immediately wanted to co-opt them and insert them into English.
And it made me reflect on the wonderfully organic nature of language. Live languages grow like organisms: they evolve toward usefulness and away from functional dead ends; they interbreed with other languages to acquire elements that serve them better. For instance, think of all the words that we now think of as English, but that are actually borrowing of genetic material, if you will, from other languages. Words that we added into our lexicon because we didn’t have a good word in English for the concept or thing they describe. A few examples:
Kindergarten – German for “children’s garden”; a great word to describe a place where children go to grow that’s not quite a school but more than a play group
Rendezvous – In French, rendez – vous, ”go to you”; a meeting, usually with one other person, at a predetermined time and place…a very useful word, and so – voila! – we now think of it as English. (Like “voila,” a contraction of vois la which means “see there” and which we use to mean lots of things, from “there you go,” to “here it so,” or “so it happens.” Also very useful.)
Pundit – In Hindi payndit is ‘a learned man, master or teacher.’ Good to have a single word to describe someone who is considered (though perhaps only self-considered) an expert on a particular topic.
And then there are all the words that morph into new parts of speech to suit a particular need. At what exact point in time, I wonder, did Google become a verb as well as a descriptive noun?
As the pace of change and the globalization of communication continues, I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings in terms of the evolution of the English language.
For myself, I’m going to just start using a bunch of these words – including Lagom (Swedish for ”Not too much, and not too little, but juuuuust right”).