The Truth About Listening

If I were to ask you, “What part of the body do you use for listening?” most English speakers would emphatically shout ‘EARS’. Of course, that’s what gets drummed into us in our infancy. However, the Chinese symbol for listening embodies a far more complex and arguably more accurate reflection of what listening really involves.

Could it be true that we need all FIVE aspects of the symbol to truly listen?

Let’s take an example. Imagine a simple statement; ‘I’m fine’.

Imagine it’s said with a smile, a calm, warm tone. What you can see, hear and feel is congruent – so they probably are fine.

Imagine it’s said with a curt, loud tone. I’m FINE. The person’s body is tense, their face is pinched with pursed lips. You’d believe the exact opposite.

Imagine the emphasis is on the ‘I’m’. I’M fine. You’d immediately question if there was someone else who’s not fine?

The exact same words can convey multiple different meanings depending on what we can hear, see, feel and interpret. This echoes Albert Mehrabian’s finding that when we seek to understand and interpret another person, their body language and tone of voice are more significant than the words they speak. If the body language and voice match the words, then we listen to the words. If they don’t match, then we pay far more attention to body language and tone for meaning – we might even ignore the words.

Clearly, we need at least 3 of the symbol’s aspects to listen:

Ears – to hear the tone and words.
Eyes – to see the body language and facial expressions.
Heart – can we feel what they are saying and tap into our own empathy?

But what about the Mind and Undivided Attention?

Let’s think about a concept from Stephen Covey in which ‘most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply’. This means that whilst someone is still talking, we are busy formulating our response and readying ourselves to jump in with our own point. Or there’s mind chatter going on – a running commentary in our heads ranging from thoughts on what the other person is saying to what we might have for dinner. Both prohibit us from being truly focused on tuning into and absorbing what the other person is saying.

Therefore, we absolutely DO need the last 2 aspects of:

Mind – are we being objective or making assumptions?
Undivided attention – being completely focused on the other person.

But why bother improving our listening skills?

Think about the people in your life who are good listeners. How do you feel about them? You probably really like them or at the very least respect them. When we really listen to others it’s what Covey describes as giving someone ‘psychological air’. They are more likely to think highly of you without you trying too hard AND if they feel heard by you, they will more likely listen to and take on board your ideas afterwards.

HOW do we listen bearing the 5 points from the Chinese symbol in mind?

Listening is HARD. Most of us like to think we’re good listeners but given the above definition – are we really? The truth is that listening is a state that we need to consciously ‘switch on’. It doesn’t come easily to us as humans.

3 quick tips to immediately listening better:

• Actively DECIDE to listen to a person – you really must ACTIVATE listening mode.
• Dial down internal chatter in your head. Stay focused. If you notice your mind has started to wander – just bring the focus back to the person.
• Reflect what you’ve heard – it shows the other person you’re really listening.

So start right now. The next person you talk to today – activate listening mode and really give them your absolute full attention. Notice the impact it has!

By | September 30th, 2021|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Natural, Virtual or Blurred Backgrounds?

Our Head of Voice, Steven Maddocks, explores the various ‘background’ options at online meetings.

 

‘We can’t decide what to do about our backgrounds. What do you recommend?’

This question arose recently during an online communication workshop I was running for the senior team at a law firm.

I cast my eye across the framed faces on my screen. Most people were evidently sitting in a home office. Some, had blurred their background, so I couldn’t tell where they were. A few had opted for a virtual background: there were some tasteful interiors and a hip-looking coffee house. One person was apparently dialling in from space.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘there are three options, and we can see all three on this call. Let’s look at each in turn.’

1. NATURAL

PROS

(i) Visually, the least discordant. You are where you appear to be, in a real space.

(ii) The personal touch sets a relaxed tone and puts others at their ease.

(iii) Objects and decor stimulate small talk.

CONS

(i) Not everyone has a ‘professional’ working space at home.

(ii) If you are interrupted, you cannot cover up.

(iii) There is a lack of uniformity across a team.

2. BLURRED

PROS

(i) You can work from a convenient spot at home without doing a major makeover.

(ii) There is a degree of connection between you and your surroundings.

(iii) Others at the meeting can focus on you, not on your room.

CONS

(i) People might wonder what you are hiding.

(ii) It is rather artificial: you can appear somewhat floaty.

(iii) When you move, the blur effect ‘leaks’, so that bits of your room come in and out of focus.

3. VIRTUAL

PROS

(i) There is an opportunity to communicate a strong corporate identity.

(ii) A relevant background might stimulate conversation about the company.

(iii) A fun background could lighten the mood.

CONS

(i) Requires a green screen to work well; frequent glitches can be distracting.

(i) The artifice is usually evident, and you appear disconnected.

(iii) Can be somewhat clinical and impersonal.

 

As we weighed up the various options, the discussion opened out.

‘Clients love our old building with its traditional decor,’ one person pointed out. ‘Couldn’t we use different photos of our offices as virtual backgrounds?’

The senior partner thought for a moment. ‘I lean towards natural backgrounds, warts and all – or pets and all,’ she laughed as her cat jumped onto her lap. ‘It seems more honest.’

Another colleague joined in. ‘Yes, but consistency is important. Sorry, guys, but we are a bit of a jumble.’ Someone else agreed. ‘If we all have blurred backgrounds, the focus is on us.’

Another attendee had switched across to a virtual background, and now sat in front of the striking company logo. ‘We have such great branding. Let’s make use of it.’

At MSB Executive, we don’t believe that one size fits all. In this case, I offered a fourth option – and for this team, it seemed the best fit. I called it “Branded Natural”. Everyone on the team was to place an object carrying the company logo somewhere in their webcam view. That could be a picture hung on a wall or placed in a photo holder on the desk. It could be a standing banner somewhere in the room. They might all have exactly the same object, or all have different ones. It might not even be a logo – was there a company motto? An animal or object that represented their core values?

I’ll find out what they chose at our follow-up workshop in a few weeks. But the discussion was a reminder of how vital the visual message is. Online meetings present unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to saying who we are before we’ve said a word.

By | July 27th, 2021|Online meetings, Online video, Personal Profile|0 Comments

Kelly McGonigal on Stress at TEDGlobal: Our Response

An intriguing TED Talk on stress recently caught our attention at MSB Executive. In his latest blog, Steven Maddocks, our Head of Voice, shares our response.

Though we cover a range of disciplines at MSB Executive, a few core themes cut across all our specialist areas. Stress is one. The subject arises wherever we work, from executive coaching sessions to communication workshops.

So when Martyn, our founder, told us recently that he had watched a TED Talk that shed new light on stress, our eyes lit up.

The talk in question, called ‘How to make stress your friend’, was given by Kelly McGonigal at TEDGlobal in 2013. McGonigal, a health psychologist, starts with a confession. For the last ten years she has been telling people that stress makes you sick. She now realises that this advice might have been doing more harm than good.

McGonigal quotes a study showing that stress does indeed raise the risk of dying. However, this was true only for people who suffered from stress and believed it was doing them harm. Stress sufferers who did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die than the stress-free.

In other words, it is not the stress itself that kills you. What kills you is the belief that the stress will kill you!

We must change our view of stress

Therefore, McGonigal advises, we must change our view of stress. Stress symptoms – namely rapid breathing and a pounding heart – are usually viewed as signs that we are not coping. Wrong, she says: they are positive signs that the body is preparing itself to meet a challenge.

What McGonigal says is broadly reflected in our own practice at MSB Executive. We agree that stress should not be viewed as an ‘enemy’. This is itself a stressed response that traps mind and body in a vicious circle. We work with our clients on managing stress, not on crushing it.

Like McGonigal, we are enthusiasts for the increase in oxygenated blood that flows around the body under stress. We love the energy bonus it gives us as performers. As I used to tell my young drama students, ‘It’s good to be nervous! It means you know it’s important and you’re getting ready to do your best.’

Practical Changes

There are areas, though, where we would develop and refine McGonigal’s advice. At MSB Executive, we like to work practically. McGonigal’s instruction to ‘change your beliefs’ begs the question: how? We like to give clients specific tips, tools and techniques to help them cope with stress.

McGonigal’s talk doesn’t cover the mental effects of stress – such as sleeplessness, racing thoughts, the negative inner voice. This mental turmoil makes it extremely difficult to get hold of one’s belief in the moment and change them. Therefore, a vital first stage is to manage the symptoms of stress downwards, so that the mind is calmer and clearer.

Stress stems from a primitive fight/flight response (see my earlier blog on this subject). The modern stress response is poorly aligned to the actual threat faced (there is no tiger!). Armed with this knowledge, we already begin to put ourselves back in control.

McGonigal talks about the effect of stress on the heart, but its symptoms can be felt throughout the body. There is not much one can do about constricted blood vessels, but one can directly address tense shoulders, a churning stomach, or a dry mouth.

In fact we find it reassuring to know that the path to a calmer mind can lie through simple physical exercises, especially breathing. ‘Change your beliefs’ takes a little work. ‘Breathe out slowly for a count of eight’ – now that is something that can be done immediately.

By | June 17th, 2021|Performance, Presentation skills, Public speaking, Uncategorized|0 Comments

Nerves and ‘Fight or Flight’

In his latest blog, Head of Voice Steven Maddocks looks at the science of nerves to explain why they affect us in the way they do.

Lisa’s heart is racing. Her breathing is rapid and shallow. Her armpits are sweating, her hands are clammy, and her neck and face are red. Her legs are jittery, her mouth is dry and her teeth are clenched. Her brain is alternately racing, then going blank. She has pins and needles in her stomach, and she feels sick. She needs the toilet. Is Lisa ill? Is she dying?

No. She is on stage, about to deliver a workshop to two hundred senior industry figures. Lisa is nervous.

The Source of Nerves

As trained actors and performers, we at MSB Executive are familiar with pre-performance anxiety. Our clients often ask us for advice on the issue. We think it is important to understand what is going on in the body. Why do nerves put us, like Lisa, into such a calamitous state? The situation is not so serious. Lisa’s extreme response does not seem logical.

Indeed! Responsibility lies with a very illogical part of the brain called the amygdala. Located deep within the limbic system, it belongs to what Steve Peters calls the chimp brain (The Chimp Paradox, Vermillion, 2021). Lisa’s amygdala has detected a threatening situation and switched Lisa into ‘fight or flight’ mode. There is no nuance; for the chimp, every threat is a mortal threat.

Mortal Danger

Lisa’s body is behaving as though there is a snarling tiger a few metres away. Her adrenal glands are unloading adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine into her blood. These hormones are racing around her body, delivering instructions.

Her digestive system has been issued a shutdown order: the blood it uses is needed in her muscles. As the capillaries in her gut give up their blood, she feels a fluttering sensation – the butterflies. The digestive shutdown – which is giving her the urge to throw up or go to the toilet – extends all the way up into her mouth, which has stopped producing saliva. Her jaw has clamped shut. (Has the tiger seen her? She mustn’t make a noise.)

Lisa is breathing rapidly to take in oxygen, and her heart is furiously pumping the oxygenated blood. The large muscles in her legs twitch as they receive the extra supply. She is heating up (blood is hot), and her sweat glands have kicked in to cool her down.

Lisa’s amygdala wants her hyper-alert, so her brain also gets extra blood. The capillaries in her neck and face dilate: that’s why she’s blushing. She hops from idea to idea, trying quickly to make a plan. Fight or flight? Only those thoughts are permitted; if she attempts to think analytically or self-reflectively, she draws a blank.

Getting Control

Lisa’s workshop starts in two minutes! She needs to make a big impact with her opening words. How does she switch off her amygdala? She can’t close capillaries, seal up sweat glands, or reboot her gut. Is she trapped in fight or flight?

Good news for Lisa: she has worked with MSB Executive, so she has plenty of tools for dealing with nerves. Her favourite technique is to take a few slower and deeper breaths. As soon as she does that, her heart rate slows, her temperature drops and the butterflies ease.

In the words of breathing guru Stuart Sandeman, the Founder of Breathpod, ‘Calm your breath, and your mind will follow.’ It is true: by breathing better, Lisa feels as though she is soothing her inner chimp: ‘Sssh,’ she tells it. ‘It’s only a workshop. Everything will be fine.’

The workshop was fine – better than fine, in fact. It went so well that Lisa was invited to deliver it the following year as the keynote speaker at a prestigious international conference.

Feeling Nervous? – Good!

In his latest blog, Steven Maddocks, our Head of Voice Coaching, explores the upside of nerves and shows how public speaking might even be good for your health.

Public speaking gets a bad rap. One well-known poll places glossophobia, the fear of public speaking, at the top – making it a more terrifying prospect than spiders, enclosed spaces and even dying. (As Jerry Seinfeld wryly observed, at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.)

Many of our clients at MSB Executive report feeling nervous – in some cases, very nervous – before speaking to an audience. We are commonly asked for advice on ‘combatting’ or ‘getting rid of’ nerves. Our response takes people by surprise: we tell them, ‘Don’t try to combat your nerves. This is the wrong approach. Your nerves are important!’

If combat is the wrong approach, what is the right one? Our answer to this question involves three stages: understand, manage and appreciate.

First, understand that nerves are a fight-or-flight response trigged by a situation of extreme danger. Or rather, triggered when the brain perceives a situation of extreme danger. Because in the case of public speaking, the brain has got it wrong! You are not on the savannah facing a sabre-toothed tiger. You are in the fourth-floor conference room facing your colleagues in HR. The nausea, the blushing, the sweaty palms – these are all vastly disproportionate to the situation at hand. Don’t let your body fool you into thinking this is life or death.

The second stage is to manage nerves. We have plenty of tips and techniques for managing the dry mouth, knocking knees, racing mind and other symptoms of nerves that threaten to derail a speech or presentation.

When we come to the third stage – appreciate your nerves – we are able to draw on our performance training and experience. Nerves are a fact of life for actors: we depend on them. Feeling nervous before a show gets us in the game. Judi Dench describes nerves as ‘an actor’s fuel.’ We know how to put our nervous energy to good use by channeling it into our performance. That’s what gives good actors their unmistakable fizz and stage presence. At MSB Executive, we show our clients how nervous energy, properly managed, can power a business presentation in the same way.

After a successful presentation – particularly if we were very nervous beforehand – we feel a buzz, that post-performance euphoria when we know we ‘knocked it out of the park’. This is partly rational: we take satisfaction in having mastered a challenge. But a recent scientific study suggests that there is something deeper going on. The buzz could in fact be a direct consequence of having felt nervous beforehand. The study in question placed its subject into a situation of stress for a short time and then took blood tests at intervals. The remarkable finding was that soon after feeling stress, the subject’s body was flooded with white blood cells. The stress had actually boosted the immune system.

If you think back to the savannah, this makes perfect sense. If the tiger takes a bite but doesn’t kill you, your body needs to be primed to fight off infection and heal. The immune system needs a boost.

Though ongoing stress is bad for us, the study suggests that we should embrace brief bouts of stress. Perhaps we should take a thrill-seeker’s approach to public speaking. Next time the nerves strike, remind yourself of the health benefits. Public speaking could save your life!

Zoomed Out? Some Top Tips To Survive The Zoom Era

Among all the terms future dictionaries will inherit from COVID-19, ‘Zoom fatigue’ is certain to feature. (It applies to all video conferencing software, but ‘Microsoft Teams fatigue’ doesn’t have the same ring.) Citigroup employees are clearly fatigued: on 23 March, chief executive Jane Fraser announced ‘Zoom-free Fridays’.

But are there ways – short of a total switch-off – of making online meetings less exhausting? Considerable brain power has been applied to this question. Professor Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University offered four remedies for Zoom fatigue. How useful are they?

1. Reduce eye contact

Bailenson notes that eye contact on Zoom, with its sea of staring faces, is unnatural. Each face fills its box, so you are seeing colleagues or clients much closer-up than you would in real life. This can put the brain into a state of heightened anxiety. Bailenson suggests reducing the size of the Zoom window to shrink the faces. He also suggests increasing the distance between you and your screen so you are literally further away from everyone.

Our opinion: This is useful advice. We work with our clients on how to ‘frame’ oneself. Giving a good view of yourself to others can be vital to a successful meeting. (We don’t just mean having some ‘clever’ books in the background!) If everyone’s view of you – and yours of them – is approximately what it would be across a boardroom table, you have got it right.

2. Turn off self-view

The constant view of ourselves we have on Zoom (Bailenson likens it to being followed around all day by someone holding a mirror) can cause negativity and stress. Bailenson suggests we ‘hide self-view’. To do this on Zoom just right click on your thumbnail and you will be given this option.

Our opinion: This advice is sound, though we would point out some of the benefits of self-view. Without it, we can only guess at what others are seeing of us. Is the bright light in the background throwing us into silhouette? Are our excellent hand gestures ‘in shot’? We say, by all means turn off self-view, but only once you are confident that you look your best. Appoint a trusted colleague to keep an eye on you and let you know (privately!) if you have spinach in your teeth.

3. Move around

A day working from home is much less mobile than a day at the office. Bailenson recommends putting distance between yourself and the camera to allow room to ‘pace and doodle.’

Our opinion: The problem is correctly identified, but the solution is incomplete. We advise a maximum of fifty minutes before a break to stretch legs. Meetings should not be back to back. Lunch breaks should be long enough for some light exercise. We recommend using a standing desk (it could just be a kitchen worktop or a music stand) for at least part of the day. Why not designate certain meetings as scrums, with everyone standing? We think you’ll notice an uplift in positivity!

4. Have ‘audio only’ breaks

Bailenson identifies a downside of Zoom that we at MSB Executive have been talking about since the beginning: effective communication online is harder work. A virtual meeting strips away the ‘nonverbals’ that flow between us when we meet in real life. These subtle (and subconscious) eye movements, twitches, gestures and electrical signals clear the path along which our words travel. Our brains naturally seek them out, but – on a Zoom call – cannot find them. This futile hunt exhausts us. Bailenson suggests taking breaks from video by switching to audio-only and turning away from the screen.

Our opinion: This advice (avoidance) is somewhat negatively framed. It is true that some meetings would be better as ‘audio only’. So leave the laptop behind altogether, go to a different room and… pick up the phone!

The absence of nonverbals increases pressure on the voice, which has to work harder. That is why we offer voice coaching sessions with plenty of practical advice for keeping the voice bright and confident throughout the day. Our clients report back that sounding good makes them feel good – just the sort of positive outcome we always drive for.

Written by Steven Maddocks, MSB Executive’s Head of Voice Coaching

Top Tips For Setting Up A Webinar

There were a couple of questions at the CFA UK webinar I ran yesterday (03/02/2021) about how I managed my set up for the webinar. In particular people wanted to know about how I kept eye contact with the camera while using notes. Here is a photo of my set up. You will see:

  • The platform on my desk allows me to stand up while presenting. This is useful for longer presentations. It helps the voice sound more authoritative and the body language to be more expressive.
  • Camera above the screen. Most importantly it is at eye level.
  • Notes above the camera. This has some key words or phrases to keep me on track. I don’t need to look far from the camera to check what comes next.
  • Notes at bottom of the screen. If I need to read the notes in more detail looking down for a few moments is better than looking up or to the side.
  • LED ring light: balances the natural light from my window on the right.
  • Split screens: the lap top has the videos and the small number of slides that I used ready so I can make sure everything is correct before sharing the screen.
  • Cup of tea: essential.

Do get in touch of you have any questions about getting the right set up for your online meetings and presentations.

Why not set a communication resolution this year?

Feeling disheartened already setting new year’s resolutions? We understand. 2020 was an unbelievably challenging year. There is still so much uncertainty around what options will be available to us in 2021 which can make setting resolutions tricky. We can’t necessarily join that choir or take that trip we wanted to.

At MSB Executive we’ve been thinking about is how we can scale down resolutions to make them more manageable and meaningful. Our team has therefore decided to focus on our communication skills and what are the small things each of us could commit to improving? Having a bit of focus gives purpose and a feeling of achievement.

Here are some of the team’s individual communication resolutions to inspire you to think of your own:

Embracing the pause

Too often we can rush in to talk and fill a silence. It can lead to ‘filler’ sounds such as ‘umms and ahhs’. Practicing pauses and getting comfortable with silence is a great habit to develop.

Prioritising listening over talking

Regularly choosing to pay complete attention to someone without the intention of speaking at all until asked. Our team member has put a post-it note on their screen which says ‘shhhhhh and listen’ to remind themselves.

Remembering to SMILE at the start of calls/presentations

It’s too easy to get into our heads about the content of our presentation rather than remembering that when we smile – not only do we relax but we visually demonstrate to the audience that we are relaxed and happy to be there…so they can relax to.

Speaking directly

Omitting the ‘just’ out of communications e.g. ‘I was just wondering if…’ ‘I’m just getting in touch to see…’. It’s an easy habit to get into but it subtly diminishes your own importance. It’s ok to ‘wonder’ or ‘get in touch’ without tip-toeing.

 

We hope this inspires you to think about your own communication habits and pick something of your own to work on. Let us know what you might work on and we’d love to give you more tips!

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