Archive for the ‘learning’ Category
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I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with the idea of selling. For some reason, even from an early age, I had the idea that sales was simply about finding people who had a real need for what I had to offer. So, for instance, selling Camp Fire Girls candy in grade school held no terrors for me: I’d go around and ask people if they wanted to buy it, and if not, I’d ask the next person. I figured there was no harm in asking, even if they didn’t want it - and them not wanting it didn’t have anything to do with me; maybe they didn’t like candy, or were on a diet, or had already bought some from somebody else.
And actually, that’s pretty much how I sell today, 50 years later. I set up a conversation with someone; I listen to find out whether he or she could have a need for something Proteus offers. If so, I explain the service or product I think they might find useful. I ask if they’re interested in exploring a possible fit between their need and our offer. If not, I assume it’s because they 1) don’t see the need in the same way I do, or 2) they believe they have a better way of meeting that need that doesn’t involve Proteus. Next!
I recently read a wonderful little book, Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human, that pretty much reinforced the positive ideas I’ve had about selling for all these years.
However, it also made it much clearer to me why most people don’t view sales in a positive light – why they have a ‘cringe’ relationship with the idea of selling. Rather than seeing it as a collaborative, mutually beneficial process of finding a fit between need and offer, they see it as manipulative, pushy, inauthentic, slightly sleazy. Sales, for most people, evokes images of being glad-handed and lied to by some untrustworthy used car salesman in a shiny suit and bad toupee. No wonder people think they don’t like to sell!
The problem with holding on to that old, outmoded conception of selling is that almost all of us need to be able to sell. If you define selling, as Pink does, as ‘the art of moving others,’ we’re selling ideas, opinions, and proposed courses of action every day – to our kids, our boss, our spouses, our PTA group, our employees.
And for those of us who are entrepreneurs or freelancers, even more of our time is spent ‘moving others’ to see that fit between our business or ourselves and their need.
So it makes sense to shift our ideas about selling – and that means (you know this is favorite topic of mine) changing our self-talk. Here’s a quick and simple exercise for doing just that:
1) Ask yourself: What words come to mind when I think of myself as a salesperson?
2) Listen to the response that arises inside your head:
2a) If you find you’re thinking words like helpful, partner, problem-solver, relationship builder, mutual benefit - congratulations. You have the core mindset of a successful 21st century salesperson.
2b) If your thoughts are running more along the lines of words like rejection, pushiness, annoying, drudgery, scary – I suggest you continue on to step 3.
3) What could you say to yourself differently that’s more positive and hopeful about the idea of you selling – yet still feels true to you? I asked my husband (whose self-talk about selling is quite negative) and his response was, “I have a great product that some people will find useful. If people don’t want to buy it, it’s no reflection on me.” Great, simple, positive, accurate.
4) Once you’ve come up up with more supportive (yet still believable) self-talk, you’ll need to remind yourself of it whenever your old, unhelpful self-talk muscles its way toward the front of your brain.
Changing your mindset in this way is key to feeling differently and then acting differently about selling. And as selling starts to occupy a new place in your brain and heart, you might feel comfortable enough to explore ways to get better and better at it.
Just in case, here are two articles to support your evolution: The Unexpected Secret to Being a Great Salesperson, a post on my Forbes blog from earlier this year, and Sales Tips: 4Ways to Avoid Cold Calling, a post I wrote for the Salesforce blog.
I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about learning: how we learn, especially as adults; why the ability to learn well and easily is so important now; what gets in the way of our learning.
And one thing I’m noticing is that most people have a rather limited and not-very-positive view of the word “learning.” For instance, I’ve noticed that if I put “learning” in the title of a post at Forbes, I get – at best – a couple of hundred page views. If I then go back and change the title, removing “learning” and substituting a phrase like “How to….” or “5 Ways You Can….”, the page views jump dramatically.
So I’ve started asking people what they think of when I say “learning.” Generally among the first few words out of their mouths: ”school,” “boring,” “classroom,” and “teachers.” As a result, I’ve come to believe that for many (most?) of us, our associations with learning have been deeply tainted by our early, negative associations with schooling: our memories of being scrunched into uncomfortable desks with a bunch of other bored 9-year-olds while some boring grown-up drones on about something that’s infinitely less interesting than whatever is going on outside the windows of our too-warm, over-crowded classroom.
And it’s really unfortunate, because – in the words of Arie De Geus - “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” I’ve come to believe that this is true not only organizationally, but personally as well. In this highly disruptive, fast-changing era, people who master the art of learning new things quickly and well have a tremendous advantage. Emerging technologies? Changed business models? Different employee expectations? New ways of working globally? Cultural mash-ups?
All doable if you’re a kick-ass learner.
To find out how to be a truly excellent learner, go back before you got stuck into school, and think about how you were as a little kid. Since lots of people don’t have much memory of themselves at this age, I’ll remind you. Little kids are driven to learn. They want, deeply, to be like the bigger kids and grown-ups they see all around them. It’s aspiration in the simplest, most direct sense. It’s also a powerful survival mechanism – from the beginnings of humanity until a few hundred years ago, the children who most quickly became skillful, contributing members of the tribe were most likely to live and reproduce.
And the impulse that focuses this aspiration to learn, that catalyzes real change in understanding, is curiosity. Anyone who has ever been around a 4-year-old has experienced this firsthand: Why? How did that happen? Does that always happen? Is that a good thing? What if I did that? Can I do it? Why not? It can be exhausting to the adults involved, but it’s a remarkably effective way to figure out the world, how it works, and one’s place in it. Curiosity is the impulse to understand. It’s part of that survival mechanism – understanding our environment as deeply as possible is key, not only to not getting killed by some aspect of that environment, but also to using what’s available in that environment to increase the likelihood of our safety, comfort and health.
There are two other things that kids have (at least when they’re little) that we tend to lose as adults: they’re willing to admit when they don’t know something, and they don’t care about making mistakes. We call those learning capabilities neutral self-awareness and willingness to be bad first.
Learning language is a great example: “What’s that?” my granddaughter asked me last summer, pointing at a radish I’d just pulled from the garden. “It’s a radish,” I replied, handing it to her. “Rabish,” she said with satisfaction, inspecting it. “Radish,” I repeated. But she couldn’t quite get that combination of letters – and didn’t really care. Her focus was on pure acquisition of understanding, and she wasn’t at all embarrassed about her difficulty with the pronunciation, as an adult would have been.
I’m deeply convinced that if we, as adults, can re-connect with those four childhood capabilities – aspiration, neutral self-awareness, endless curiosity and willingness to be bad first – we will be far more successful at navigating through this ever-changing world.
I’m planning on writing my next book about this whole arena, so I’d love to hear your stories of how you used any of these four capabilities to get better at something, to develop a completely new skill, or to find out about something you didn’t know. I’ll also be writing about this at Forbes, so if the topic interests you, please join us over there as well.
And as always, thank you for reading…it inspires me to get as clear as I can about what I observe and experience, so I can share it with you as usefully as possible.
Just this week we had our annual Proteus company meeting – something we’ve done every fall for many years. I believe it was the best one so far: great energy; lots of fun; useful conversations and clarifications; really good connections among all of us. But for me, the most wonderful thing was this: I didn’t make the arrangements; I didn’t manage getting everyone there; and I didn’t run most of the meeting.
My excellent team members did much of the heavy lifting, and I showed up with everyone else and participated.
My job as co-CEO of Proteus has changed dramatically over the past year or so, and I’m very excited about it. The metaphor I’ve been using in describing the change: for 20+ years, I felt like I was running with a kite, trying to get it up in the air. Now, the wind has caught the kite, and my job consists of paying out the line, keeping the proper amount of tension on it so that the kite stays in the air and can go higher and higher.
The ‘wind’ is composed of a better-than-ever team of smart, well-intentioned, skilled people; better and better internal processes for doing our work; ever-more-clearly-developed and useful IP; and a wonderful momentum of satisfied and vocal clients who keep calling us back and referring us to others.
So even though I’ve had the same job on paper for 23 years, “Founding Partner and CEO” of Proteus is very different now than it was even a few years ago.
And I’m seeing that the most important way for me to make this shift is to talk less, listen more, and get very curious. In fact, I think that’s key to making any shift, but it’s especially important when something you think you know very well is shifting under you.
When we’re involved in learning something brand new to us, we tend to come in with a helpful “novice” mindset: e.g., “I don’t know know much about this; there’s a lot I need to find out.” That mindset moves us in the direction of listening and curiosity. Unfortunately, when it’s time to learn something in an area where we already think we’re experts (e.g., doing our job, running our company, raising our kids), we tend to be much less open and curious, much more focused on how it should be, on what we know (or think we do), and on telling others what we know and how it should be!
I suspect that, in today’s world, most people’s jobs change pretty significantly from one year to the next, and that no matter how long you’ve been in a particular job or company, it’s probably a good idea to come in every day with that learner’s mindset.
Michelangelo, arguably one of the most brilliant and productive people in Western history, had a stock response he used throughout his life whenever people complimented him on an achievement or an idea: he said, “Ancora imparo” – “I am still learning.”
If it’s good enough for Michelangelo, it’s good enough for me.
My daughter just put something wonderful on facebook the other day. It’s about 7 minutes long, but I strongly encourage you to watch at least the first 5 minutes. Then we’ll talk about it…
I love this so much. I had no idea such a thing existed, and I’m truly fond of finding out new stuff.
I have an almost childlike joy, a sense of excitement and wonder, at discovering new things. I feel very fortunate to have retained this quality as an adult; I believe we are all born with it (watch any two-year-old exploring a new object), but too many of us have it thoroughly socialized out of us early on. We’re told that our enthusiasm is childish; we’re made fun of for not knowing things; we watch others (parents and teachers especially) act as though grown-ups are supposed to know everything…and our openness to and enjoyment of new learning gets squashed.
I used to work with someone who simply refused to acknowledge when she was hearing new information. Whenever I would tell her something that I was nearly positive she didn’t know, based either on things she had said or ways I’d observed her behaving, she had one of two responses. The first was, “Yes, that’s just like this other thing (that I’m very familiar with)” – even if it wasn’t at all like that other thing. I believe her deep aversion to admitting that she didn’t know something caused her to unconsciously shoehorn new information into old frameworks, just so she could claim prior knowledge. Her other response was simple rejection; she just wouldn’t accept the new idea or information. Sometimes she would voice her disagreement, but more often she would simply purse her lips and look disapproving. Over the years, I came to understand it as her “this is a crock and I’m not buying it for a minute” look.
Both of those responses kept her effectively blocked from learning. Over the many years we worked together, I saw how painfully slow and difficult it was for her to open up to new colleagues, acquire new skills, change her mind, see another’s perspective, acknowledge changes in other people or the business. In fact, she finally left the organization because she was unwilling or unable to make a major change that was being asked of her.
Are you in touch with your own wonder? Here’s a way to find out. Reflect on how you felt as you were watching the video above, and then answer these four questions:
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Whatever, dude,” and 10 being “Holy crap!” how impressed were you by what you saw?
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “I pretty much knew that,” and 10 being “I had no frigging idea,” what were you thinking as you watched this? (Recuse yourself from this question if you’re a) a physicist, b) a glassblower, or c) the maker of the video.)
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Huh,” and 10 being “I can’t wait to show this to somebody,” how excited were you about sharing your learning?
• On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not at all, and 10 being a lot, how happy/excited were you to find out there was such a thing as a Prince Rupert’s Drop?
Because, in my mind, these are the key elements of childlike wonder: being impressed and charmed by new learning; being willing to admit that it’s new to you; and wanting to pass it on.
But why does this matter? I think it’s key to success in the world today. If wonder is your primary reaction to new skills, new knowledge, and new possibilities, you’ll be much more likely to thrive in this time of ours where massive, disruptive change is a constant, and where roughly 95% of all human knowledge has been discovered since World War II.
So: re-engage your inner two-year-old, and have at it.
A friend once told me I was a genius. When I demurred, he added, “Genius is about seeing patterns where others see only chaos – and you’re really good at that.”
In the years since, I’ve seen similar definitions. My favorite is by the literary critic and author Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:
Genius is vision, often involving the gift of finding patterns where others see nothing but a chance collection of objects.
So: if a core element of genius is an unusual capability for pattern recognition — can we cultivate that?
First, let’s talk about why it’s so useful. Even before we talk about genius, it’s important to recognize that being able to see the patterns in our experience is the key catalyst for learning. My almost-three-year-old granddaughter is relentless in finding and using patterns. For instance, after trying a variety of approaches (including demanding and fake crying) she’s learned that saying “please” will almost always get her what she wants. So “please” is quickly becoming a standard item in her vocabulary.
Take that basic human learning tool and ramp it up to “seeing patterns where others see nothing but a chance collection of objects,” and you have the core of all innovation and new understanding – what people call genius. It’s also an essential quality of good leaders.
And yes, we can get better at it. Here are three simple tools for stretching those muscles:
Get curious: Curiosity is that deep internal impulse to investigate. We all have it in abundance as children: it’s the source of their endless “why?” and “then what?” questions. Unfortunately, by the time we get to be adults, it’s been largely socialized out of us; we think we’re supposed to know everything and it’s seen as either rude or naïve to be too curious. But if you want to access and develop your innate ability to see patterns, you have to first re-ignite your curiosity. One great way to do it is to consciously ask “Why is that happening?” or “How does that work?” in day-to-day situations that you’ve come to take for granted. For instance, I recently encouraged a client to reflect on why her relationship with an employee had gotten strained. She came back to me a couple of weeks later, saying that once she started looking at what had changed, she realized that she had fallen into the habit of disagreeing with his ideas in meetings because his way of presenting those ideas was irritating to her – and that she was both ignoring some potentially useful ideas and hurting their relationship as a result. Voila – pattern recognition!
Be objective. My client’s recognition of that unhelpful pattern – and her part in it – required not only curiosity but also objectivity, which is the ability to look at all sides of a situation with openness and dispassion. If you go into a situation with deeply held pre-conceived ideas about what you’ll find, it’s unlikely that you’ll see anything new. The key to being objective is to cultivate the skill of being a Fair Witness, which I’ve blogged about regularly. The essence of being a fair witness is to observe your own self-talk (your internal monologue) to see whether what you’re saying to yourself about a situation is neutral and accurate. And if it’s not, to change it. For example, if my client had gotten curious but not objective about the situation – with slanted self-talk that supported her pre-existing beliefs, she might have come to the conclusion that her employee was simply an irritating guy, and that there was nothing she could do to improve the relationship. Being a fair witness quite often allows you to see things in new and unexpected ways, as my client experienced, to her benefit.
Pull back the camera. Once you’ve gotten curious and put yourself into an objective, fair witness mindset, it’s critical to step back mentally from the situation so that you can see the whole: that’s when patterns emerge. Years ago, I was at MOMA in New York. When I walked into the room where Monet’s single-panel Water Lilies hangs, I was first struck by its size: it’s over six feet high and almost twenty feet long. You have to stand across the room to take it all in at once; from a distance, you can see how wonderfully Monet captured the tranquility of light-suffused water, floating Japanese lilies, clouds overhead. But when you move in close to the painting, the pattern dissolves, and all you see is a collection of seemingly random brush strokes, in a variety of colors: your ‘camera’ is pulled in too close to make sense of it.
If you ‘get caught in the brush strokes’ it’s nearly impossible to access your own genius. For instance, let’s say that sales are down at a particular company, and the head of sales is desperate to figure out why. If she ‘pulls in the camera too close,’ she might focus, for instance, only on one or two formerly high-performing salespeople who are missing their targets. Just looking at that one part of the situation, she could assume any number of things: that they’ve somehow lost their edge or are slacking off; that firing them will solve the problem; or, conversely, that if she really leans on them, they’ll get better. Based on those assumptions, she might let them go, offer them training, read them the riot act, etc. – but never see the whole picture and the real patterns inherent in it.
If, instead, she “pulls back the camera,” she might (for instance) find that an important new product line isn’t performing as promised because there’s a slight manufacturing glitch. The high return level is affecting both current sales numbers and customers’ willingness to reorder. The broader view gives a very different perspective, and will almost definitely lead her to a different, more effective, more genius-like response.
The beauty of these approaches – getting curious, being more objective, pulling back the camera – is that they’re all practical, developable skills. In other words, you have genius in you…it’s time to let it out.
I have to admit, the general attitude toward strategy – as boring, soulless and impractical – is a puzzle to me. In my work and in my life, I see the real power of operating with a strategic mindset every single day. And when we teach our framework for thinking and acting strategically, participants report that it provides a great way for them to bring their focus up out of the weeds, and helps them and their teams stay focused on their vision for success, and on how to address the most critical issues confronting them.
But I digress. Most people would rather do their taxes than think about strategy. In fact, when I wrote my second book, Being Strategic, a dear friend of mine in the business book world, for whom I have a great deal of respect, told me he thought it wasn’t the right book for me to write. “You’re so warm and personal,” he said, “and you have such a great way of connecting with your readers. Strategy just doesn’t seem like you: so heady and cold.” It turned out he hadn’t actually read the book yet.
I believe his assumptions are widespread. So, without further ado, here are my top 5 reasons why people think strategy is boring:
5) No agreement about what strategy is. I have a google alert on the phrase “being strategic.” It’s astonishing to me how little overlap there is among the various meanings people ascribe to this phrase. For instance, some people use it to mean “acting only for your own benefit,” while others think it means “staying mono-focused on destroying the competition,” and still others use it as high-falutin’ way of saying “thinking like I do.” In this welter of conflicting definition, I believe people just think, I don’t know what it means – and I don’t care.
4) As practiced in most organizations, strategy IS boring. Have you ever sat in a ‘strategy’ meeting at your company? I bet you have. Complicated charts, Ben Stein clones droning on about some obscure algorithm having to do with market share as a function of cycle time, blah blah blah. And then fat binders get created, and sit on shelves, and get pulled out and referenced (maybe) in excruciating detail once a year. Oh my god, let’s all just shoot ourselves right now.
3) Mind-numbing language. As above. Somehow, most people think they’re “being strategic,” if they’re saying obscure, intellectual-sounding stuff. Here’s a quote from Michael Porter, probably the world’s best-known strategy guru: “Strategic positions emerge from three distinct sources, which are not mutually exclusive and often overlap. First, positioning can be based on producing a subset of an industry’s products or services. I call this variety-based positioning because it is based on the choice of product or service varieties rather than customer segments. Variety-based positioning makes economic sense when a company can best produce particular products or services using distinctive sets of activities.” What, now? Oh, wait, I don’t care.
2) Practitioners who want to seem smarter than you. See the above. The charts and graphs, the language, the lack of clear definition – all support the strategy consultant’s implied contention that strategy is an arcane and complex body of ancient wisdom, able to be understood and practiced only by the anointed few. Many CEOs are taken in by this and pay kajillions of dollars to be told what to do and why. Most of us, again, are thinking, Whatever, dude. Can I just do my job now?
And the number 1 reason people think strategy is boring (drum roll):
1) They don’t see the connection to real life. Because of the way “strategy” is thought of, talked about and practiced in most organizations, it seem entirely disconnected from people’s day-to-day concerns: how to do a good job; how to build positive relationships with those around them; how to get good results; how to have a reasonably good time doing it. Even those who are passionate about their jobs or about the success of the company simply don’t see how “strategy” – again as generally practiced – is going to help.
It’s a shame really, because there’s actually something extremely valuable hidden in the midst of all this. And even Michael Porter (who I love to diss) has said wonderfully clear and accurate things about the value of strategy on occasion. My very favorite quote of his is “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
Because that’s it: strategy is thinking in a focused way about what’s most important and how to get there, and it can give you critical insights as to the things you shouldn’t be doing that won’t get you where you’re trying to go. How about if we define being strategic simply as consistently making the core directional choices that will best move you toward your hoped-for future. In other words, thinking and acting strategically means figuring out the future you want to create for your enterprise; then getting clear about where you are now; then building a path with your colleagues – making core directional choices – for getting there. And finally, being consistent about walking down that path together.
That doesn’t sound so boring. That actually sounds reasonable and very useful. Let’s do that.
I read a great many posts and articles by and about entrepreneurs. Lately it has seemed to me that there are two basic entrepreneurial mindsets. There may well be more, and there may be variations on these themes, but these two entrepreneurial types seem to cover most of the territory I’ve observed.
Flavor #1 is the “make a killing” (MAK) entrepreneur. His or her core motivation is to crack the code on becoming wealthy. This kind of entrepreneur wants to build a better mousetrap not primarily to rid the world of disease-creating vermin, or give people a more humane mouse-removal option, but to exit the mousetrap business altogether with a very fat check in hand, and retire to the South of France. Now, these folks quite often create wonderful new things – but what they really want to do is figure out how to build something that can be scaled up and sold.
Flavor #2 is the “richard branson” (RB) entrepreneur. He or she is passionately committed to bringing a product or service to the world that’s better, faster, sleeker, simpler, more sustainable, more delightful, easier, etc. This entrepreneur wants to build a better mousetrap because he or she can see so clearly how much cooler it would be than anything that currently exists. And this person can’t wait to see how it’s going to happen. Now, this kind of entrepreneur quite often also gets rich (as witness the actual Richard Branson) and sometimes even buys a house in in the south of France – but he or she probably keeps working on the next, even cooler version of the thing while sitting on his or her terasse. Getting rich is not the point – or not the main point.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately because I’ve been realizing that I’m about 95% RB, and my business partner is about 65% RB and about 35% MAK (I haven’t run this by him yet – he might assess himself differently). And I see that his infusion of MAK-ness is very good for me and for the business. Without him, the business wouldn’t be growing as quickly, and we wouldn’t be thinking as much (or as practically) about creating new revenue streams that are more self- sustaining and scalable.
But I’m also watching my son – who is heavily weighted toward the RB side – having lots of difficulty finding an operating rhythm with his business partner, who is a pure, unadulterated, 100% MAK. They have these frustrating conversations where Ian focuses (passionately) on brand and how they can build a business and a reputation by giving their customers an experience and food that are uniquely attractive in a very specific way. And his partner just wants to focus on reducing food and liquor costs, increasing operational efficiencies and getting people in and out quickly, so their restaurant will blow up and turn a big profit. They’re speaking two different languages entirely, with almost no overlap, and I know that each thinks the other is…not wrong, exactly, but just not that appealing.
And it seems to me that if you’re an entrepreneur, it’s important to become aware of your primary flavor. It will help you get clear about what success looks like for you, and it will also help you make sure that your partners share enough of your mindset to speak the same language and be excited about the same future.
Which may very well include that house in the South of France, whatever your flavor.
“O Wonder, How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in it!”
- William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act. V, Sc. I
courtesy of Wikipedia
People have been using this quote for 400 years, mostly ironically (in line with Shakespeare’s original use): the utterance of a protagonist who misunderstands a new world, thinking it wonderful, when it is in fact dystopic (probably the best-known example being Aldous Huxley’s 1939 novel, Brave New World).
However, I’m proposing today that we can also use it in a completely positive way. Just last week I had great time doing a podcast with a wonderful guy named Tanveer Naseer. Tanveer and I started following each other last summer on Twitter. Then he responded to a query from our publicist Kaila (all via email) and indicated that he’d like to interview me for his podcast show, Leadership Biz Cafe. Tanveer and I did our interview on Skype, and now it’s available on his site.
OK, so think about this. Tanveer lives in Montreal, and I live primarily in New York City. We have (as far as I know) no intersections of school, family or friends. Without current digital technology, we never would have run into each other. And now (I’m sure) we’re permanently connected, and will support each other’s work and success in whatever ways we can.
And you – who may never have met either Tanveer or me, and perhaps never will – can benefit from our interaction as well, where ever you are. If you hear something that resonates for you in our conversation, you can use it for your own benefit, and pass it along to whomever you wish. A truly brave new world, indeed.
I know technology can do all kinds of bad stuff, and that Huxley-esque aspects exist in this “brave new world” of ours. But we can also use all of these new capabilities that exist to learn, to create connections, to innovate, to grow.
Let’s do that.
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.