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Managing Your Emotions in Tough Times


Critical Communication SkillsThe reality is, times are tough. While there’s some evidence the economy is beginning to turn around, uncertainty still prevails in most business circles. Corporate leaders and small business owners alike are in a state of limbo, unable to make major business decisions until they have a better sense of where things are headed long-term. What is going to happen today, tomorrow, next year, and in the foreseeable future?

This is the question that causes sleepless nights, and the angst felt at the top trickles down through the entire organization. That, combined with incessant media hyperbole, creates a culture of tension and fear, leaving everyone with the deep, disquieting, single most important question: What about me?

Yet, from the executive suite to the plant floor, everyone is expected to show up day after day and do the job without complaining. It’s incredibly hard to remain emotionally intact in such circumstances.

At VoicePro®, we are toughing out these difficult times along with everyone else. And while we can’t give you strategic solutions to the monumental problems of the present economy, we can, from our own experience, offer suggestions for maintaining a sense of emotional equilibrium during these tough times. They include acknowledging your feelings and surrounding them with a healthy and positive framework.

Change Your Story

Your story is the internal narrative you have created about yourself. It’s the ongoing dialogue you have with yourself that defines you and controls how you handle triumph and how you face up to adversity. Just by changing your story you can impact what you feel—and in turn what you do.

According to Deepak Chopra, whenever you think, you are altering your brain chemistry. This means that your story, the story you tell yourself, creates neural patterns in your brain that become your reality. Negative thoughts over time turn into negative behaviors, and you become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Just as an athlete learns to perform physical feats through mental practicing, you can change your story by changing your thoughts and giving yourself new, more positive metal images.

Don’t Let Yourself Go Negative

Negativism will drain your energy. So when you catch yourself with depressing thoughts about yourself or your situation, stop. Go back and rephrase, removing the negative tone and replacing it with something more constructive. Keep it upbeat and in the present tense: I am managing my situation very well, right now, rather than, I will be able to handle it (in the future).

Surround yourself with positive people. Avoid the gloom-and-doom conversations at the coffee machine or in the lunch room. The moment people start talking about how helpless they are and how the deck is stacked against them, get up and go somewhere else.

Take the Time to Quiet Your Mind

It’s so easy to go into drive mode when you’re under pressure. In tough economic times, every sales pitch counts. Personnel issues take on an added dimension, because the lives of families are on the line. Even small changes in the bottom line are momentous. It’s tempting to give in to anxious thoughts and try harder and harder and harder, spinning your wheels until you’re emotionally exhausted.

Just as a parent does with a child, you need to give yourself a timeout. Take five minutes to sit quietly with your feet on the floor and your eyes closed. Relax the tension in your face, your shoulders, and your hands. Now, listen to your breathing. Breathe out, breathe in. Breathe out, breathe in. That’s all there is to it, just five minutes a day.

When we do this exercise at VoicePro® with workshop participants, the change in atmosphere is almost instantaneous. A calm settles over the room, and when the moment is over, everyone is focused and ready to concentrate on what’s coming next.

Act As If It Were True

In 12-step programs, it’s called “fake it till you make it.” The idea is that if you behave in a certain way, even if initially it feels forced, you will come to feel that way. Studies have shown that “faking it till you make it” can have an immediate—and surprisingly strong—impact on your emotions. So If you act calm, confident and assertive, you will eventually feel calm, confident and assertive. The altered neural patterns in your brain will have given you a new reality.

So straighten up, square your shoulders, and stand tall. Move with purpose, and smile as if you mean it.

Yes, the reality is, times are tough. But we don’t have to give in to anxiety or sink into despair. At VoicePro®, we’re writing our own story. You too can write yours, however you see it, however you want.

Image by Piez

Learn the Business Culture Before Hitting Foreign Turf


International communication skillsMany Americans make four common mistakes when doing business abroad. They tend to react negatively to unfamiliar customs. They expect to do business “the American way,” no matter what. They often misinterpret the nonverbal behavior of other cultures and then treat that faulty interpretation as reality. And they tend not to do their homework, barging into a country without the foggiest notion of what that culture is really like. Even if unintended, the result of this miscommunication can be hurt feelings, damaged relationships, and stalled negotiations.

The global economy is ever expanding, and those of us who do business abroad can’t afford to jeopardize our foreign relationships through inexperience or lack of knowledge. Here are some tips to help you avoid these pitfalls.

  • Be mindful of how meeting and greeting differs from country to country. Knowing exactly what to expect in an initial introduction will eliminate the potential for embarrassment.
  • Learn when and how to “get down to business.” It’s customary for North Americans to want to make the deal, shake hands, and move on. In many countries, acting this way is offensive; moderate your preoccupation with deadlines and take the lead from your hosts.
  • Be mindful of nonverbal signals. Americans are often considered too open and expansive. To counteract this, maintain an initial reserve and observe the customs of the country before jumping in.

In addition, before you leave home, find the answers to the following questions.

  • What is their concept of time? Do they like small talk or do they want to get down to business? How long does it take to make decisions? Are they punctual? Other countries move at a much different pace than the United States. It’s best to check this out before leaving home.
  • What is the importance of hierarchy and authority? Some countries are team-oriented, others are individualistic, and others much more formal.
  • What are their rules of interpersonal behavior? What do they consider a violation of personal space. Do they make eye contact? Is a firm handshake a sign of self-confidence or an overt use of power?
  • What are their core values? How much importance do they place on family, social status, income? What is their code of honor? How does this code impact their way of doing business?

While this information can enhance any business relationship, it’s absolutely critical when doing business in other countries. Observe the business practices of your foreign business associates, respect their customs, and adhere to their practices with courtesy and understanding. Following this advice may well smooth the path to lasting and lucrative relationships abroad.

Image by NASA

Leadership! Are you working like a CEO?


Ok, so maybe you’re not a CEO…just yet. But you don’t have to hold the title to think and act like one. Whether you’re a manager, a senior consultant, or even a management trainee, you can make a difference to your organization by adopting some of the best practices of top leaders. These interesting (and actionable!) ideas I found in articles this week can help anyone at any level build a stronger, more effective team.

In a great piece by Inc Magazine, CEOs were asked for their best productivity tips. One of my favorites was this one from Kevin Ryan, founder of DoubleClick and now head of internet start-up AlleyCorp. He says he’s always interviewing because he believes 80% of business success is in the people. That includes talking on a regular basis with up-and-comers in his organization who are two or three levels down from him. Why? “I want them to know I’m paying attention,” he says. How could you reshape your organization by thinking of communicating with others as a productivity booster – not a distraction?

Similar advice is found in an article from The Chief Executive titled: You’re Always a New CEO. Carlos M. Gutierrez, former chairman and CEO of Kellogg Co, may have said it best: “You need to over-communicate, to be willing to walk the talk and to make sure the actions are consistent with the messages.” How well are you communicating with the people in your circle of influence? Do you want to make those interactions more productive? Start with few ideas on effective communication skills from VoicePro®.

Here’s another suggestion, this time from the global business arena. In a CNN article titled What Bosses Can Learn from Indian Business Leaders, one core suggestion was “act as a role model.” Are you modeling the behavior you value in others? Does your behavior align with your words? Actions do, as they say, speak louder than words.

Here’s one more tip that reminds us what CEOs know: listening is as important as talking for good communication. On the website of The Center for Social Leadership there’s a great member post for new CEOs that applies to all of us. The writer suggests spending the first six months on a “listening tour.” Isn’t that the truth? How else can we be clear on how well the company’s (and our own) goals and expectations are being understood? Unless we listen to people first, our communication is likely to be a scattershot, not on target. As important as listening is, our experience at VoicePro® suggests it demands an incredible amount of concentration and self discipline.

No matter where you are on your career ladder, try these ideas out in your own workplace. See how acting like a CEO can take you, your organization and your career to the next level.

Image by KovaZg

Where Does Your Finger Point?


relationships and communicaton skillsThroughout my career at VoicePro®,I’ve continued to be amazed at how skilled people are at finding someone to blame for the problems they’re having with other people. When I ask clients to describe their current conflicts and what they think are the causes, it’s always the other guy’s fault. He is argumentative. She is always complaining. They don’t do things the way they should. The finger always points outward. If they would just change, everything would be fine.

The reality is we can’t change other people, no matter how much we want to. No matter how much they need changing. No matter how much they’re disrupting the way we lead our lives and the way we do business. The moment we try to make other people change, they dig in their heels and resist with all their might.

In any relationship, patterns of behavior are set up that tend to repeat themselves—over and over again—much like a dance. The finger-pointing method of resolving interpersonal problems implies that it’s up to the other person to break the pattern. If and when that happens, we’ll be happy to dance along to the new step. However, if we wait for someone else to take the lead, the dance is unlikely to change, and we’ll bumble along as always, forever stepping on one another’s toes.

A much better way is for us to change our behavior, to interrupt the dance by altering our steps. We’re likely to experience some stumbling around at first. But with a steady resolve, we’ll gradually draw our colleague into a new pattern, and eventually we’ll have begun a new and more satisfying dance.

The big question is: How is that done? Consider approching scenarios such as these with a mindset of personal responsibility. It goes like this: I am responsible for the success of each and every one of my relationships. This means that if you are clashing with another person at work or if you’re dealing with a “difficult” personality, it does no good to play the victim and spend your time moaning and complaining. It’s up to you to take the first step in mending the relationship.

A simple philosophy, yet profound. One that requires skill and great determination to accomplish. And a lifetime of attention. Here are some steps that will get you off to the right start.

  • Embrace this VoicePro® philosophy. Repeat out loud to yourself, “I am responsible for the success of each and every one of my relationships.” Print these words on a card and tape it to the wall of your office, your kitchen, your bathroom mirror. Carry it in your wallet. Read, think and say these words to yourself over and over again. Embed them in your mind.
  • If you’re engaged in ongoing conflict with someone with whom you must work closely, pay close attention to how you’re playing out the dance. Note where your actions reinforce the patterns of chronic negativism that seem to define the relationship.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. How would he describe what’s going on? Would she point her finger at you and tell you what you’re doing wrong? What exactly would he or she say?
  • Examine those imagined words about you for the nuggets of truth that will likely be there. Are you so results-oriented you forget to check with other people before you take action? Do you shut down, hiding your feelings so no one has a clue what you’re thinking? Or do you display other “difficult” behaviors that keep you from working cooperatively with your colleagues. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll be able to identify those traits that get you in trouble.
  • Then quietly, without a lot of fuss, alter your own behavior accordingly and begin a new dance. Watch your colleague closely and reward even a hint of an encouraging response with positive reinforcement of your own.

This practice may take time and many repetitions until your colleague recognizes the different approach and responds with a new dance of his own. It’s well worth the effort, however, and will reward you with meaningful and satisfying relationships throughout your professional career. Guaranteed.

Image by mario zucca illustration

Relaxation: the silver bullet in communication


Remember the showdown scenes in the old Westerns? Two gunslingers facing off at high noon? You knew the good guy was going to win by the squinting eye, the clinched jaw, the taut muscles.

Ever feel like you’re starring in that scene – except that it’s set in an office or conference room instead of a dusty street? Take your communication tips from John Wayne and you’re going to end up the loser. It’s a fact. Studies show that when two strangers meet, the one who is most physically relaxed is perceived by both as having the higher status. In a group setting, the most relaxed person is most likely to ultimately become the group leader.

So, you see, personal power doesn’t come from being so intense you seem wound tight. And it certainly isn’t conveyed when you’re being nervous and fidgety. Power comes from being able to relax. When you’re comfortable with yourself, you telegraph confidence and self-esteem. Stay calm physically, mentally and emotionally and you’re in control.

Relaxation is one of the Five Great Skills® at the core of VoicePro’s approach to effective communication. They’re skills anyone can learn, practice and use to present themselves and their ideas. What are the other four skills? Let’s take a quick look.

  • Energy. When you communicate with authentic conviction, people see confidence.
  • Expression. It’s in your face, your voice and your body language, and it’s crucial to the understanding of your message.
  • Organization. When you put together your message in a powerful way, you create strong personal influence.
  • Focus. It shouldn’t be on your message or your own concerns. Your focus needs to be on others. That’s how connection is made.

Want to know more? Visit us at www.voiceproinc.com and even watch a video on the topic with our own Luanne Paynick. Just register to for a free membership – it only takes a minute.

And the next time you find yourself striding into your own OK Corral , take a moment to settle yourself. Take a deep breath and loosen up. Relaxation may be just the silver bullet you’re looking for.

Getting Ahead of the Beat


 Leadership Communication skillsThe other night, I watched a short biographical sketch about Gene Kelly on Turner Classic Movies. According to Wikipedia, “Along with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly was the most successful song-and-dance man in film history, a towering figure in the development and enduring success of the movie musical.” Singin’ in the Rain, which Kelly choreographed and in which he starred, has stood the test of time and is still one of my personal favorites.

In this biographical sketch, the narrator commented that a poor dancer falls behind the beat, a good dancer stays on the beat, and with the masters—of which Kelly was one of the best—their steps come before the beat. This hit home with me. As a musician, it’s been drilled into me to anticipate what’s coming in a song. In other words, I need to sing just slightly ahead the beat. According to my guitar teacher and friend Paul Kovac, this is the hallmark of the outstanding bluegrass and old-time mountain singers of our time.

Now, I have to say I’m not the greatest guitar player in the world. I’ve spent most of my life in the business world, not in the hills of North Carolina soaking up the playing styles of the old-time experts. In the overall scheme of things, I haven’t been at it very long, and I still struggle with getting the fingers of my left hand to play the chords correctly and the pick in my right hand to hit exactly the right string at exactly the right time.

So, while I was dismayed by a recent conversation with Wayne Erbsen, it didn’t really surprise. Wayne is the leader of The Log Cabin Band, a group I play with once a week. When I asked how I could speed up my playing, he said, “Carolyn, you don’t have to play any faster. You just have to stay ahead of the beat.

What does it take to stay ahead of the beat? In music? In business? In life in general? The first thing it takes is confidence. If I weren’t so worried about hitting the right strings, I wouldn’t lag behind. By the same token, if you have honed your selling skills, or your speaking skills, or your leadership skills, you’re more likely to speak up and lead others to where you want them to go. Otherwise, it’s too easy to sit back and wait for someone else to grab the spotlight—and the prize.

Second, you need to be willing to take risks. This means putting yourself into situations where you’re forced to deliver. The perfectionist in me abhors even the idea of looking inadequate in front of my peers. But if I want to take my skills to the next level, I have to play in groups who are better than I. Sooner or later, all of us must give up sticking just our toes in the water and dive in. In a sink-or-swim situation, you will learn to swim.

And third, be a strong support for other people and their ideas. An old-time string band is made up of four, maybe five instruments: fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, with an occasional bass player added to the mix. The fiddle, banjo and mandolin are all solo instruments, so it’s the job of the guitar to back up the others and keep a steady rhythm. A string band can’t succeed without a strong guitar player, who (you guessed it) stays ahead of the beat, thereby driving the ensemble forward. In the same way, your strong, judicial support for those around you will put you in a position of influence and power. They won’t be able to get along without you.

Here, then, are some specific things you can do to stay ahead of the beat:

  1. Check your skill sets, and master the ones most important to you and your career. Never stop learning.
  2. Be aware of what’s going on around you. Listen between the lines to what both your colleagues and your customers are saying. Get a feel for trends, both economic and cultural. Compare reality with rumor, and make your own judgments about what to believe.
  3. Make the first move. When you’re asked for your opinion, give it. Then take the lead in inviting others to comment. Volunteer for the tough jobs, the ones nobody else wants. Use them to develop new skills or perfect existing ones.
  4. Be a good back-up player. It’s the way leaders are born.

The great hockey player Wayne Gretsky said it best: “A good hockey player skates to where the puck is. A great hockey skates to where the puck is going to be.”

A great leader is ahead of the beat in music, in sports, in business, and in life. Let me know where you are.

Image by Matthieu A.

Getting Your Ducks in a Row–The Art of Facilitation


America’s eyes and ears were on the health care summit that took place in Washington last week (Thursday, February 25, 2010). Political affiliation aside, I believe President Obama did a heroic job of facilitating the day-long session, as he struggled to bring two incredibly polarized groups together in some kind of consensus.

While the outcomes of the summit, and its ramifications for the country, won’t become clear for a long time, I also believe it has given us a great opportunity to review the principles of facilitation. At one time or another, almost all of us find ourselves charged with facilitating a group session, and it can be a wonderful experience. At the same time, it requires a clear understanding of your role and a willingness to go out on a limb to assure a satisfying conclusion for everyone involved.

As the facilitator of a group you are more than the guardian of an agenda. You are the coordinator and the director of the discussion. You are the keeper of the process. You must make clear what’s expected of each individual and make sure everything proceeds as planned. Even though you will be working with a diverse group of personalities, it is up to you to keep the group focused so that objectives are met. In short, it’s your job to keep your ducks in a row–everything and everyone on track.

Getting Things Started

Your opening remarks provide you with an opportunity to set an energetic and positive tone. Build rapport with the group by stating your own objectivity; you’ll sabotage the whole affair if they think you have an axe to grind. 

Here are some guidelines for getting off to a good start:

  • Announce the topic of discussion is and explain why it’s important.
  • State the goal of the session: We’re here to determine whether or not to go forward. Or: When we’re finished here, we’ll have a new contract. Or: By the end of today, we’ll know what we agree on and what we don’t. Ask for agreement on the goal; watch for nods that signal acceptance.
  • Lay out the framework and ground rules. Explain how you will make sure the rules are followed and that it’s your responsibility to do so. 

During the Meeting

To put it mildly, our legislators at the health care summit didn’t enter into the discussion in a neutral frame of mind. Rarely does anyone come into a facilitated session totally impartial. People come with their energy, expectations, interests, perceptions, concerns, and emotions on the line. Drawing such disparate individuals into a cohesive group allows the facilitator to draw on the collective diversity of each member.  For a cooperative and highly interactive environment that yields successful results:

  • Involve everyone. Recognize their diversity, value it, and encourage open communication.
  • Establish listening as an important part of everyone’s responsibility. To keep the process moving smoothly, it’s important to reinforce the fact that points of view can (and usually will) differ. At the same time, recognizing and respecting the other person’s view does not require you to agree with it.
  • If something is unclear, ask for clarification, then occasional summaries of what has been said.
  • When it seems you have agreement on a topic, test for consensus.
  • Recognize and manage disruptive behaviors by not permitting excessive examples, time domination, digression to personal agendas, interruptions or intimidation.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize.

If things get tense and emotions erupt, keep your cool. Sit back, relax your shoulders, and breathe. Remind the group what they’re working for and the value a good outcome will have for everyone. It sometimes becomes evident the stated goal won’t be reached in this meeting. If that’s the case, stop, regroup, and set a new goal—one that’s more realistic and can be achieved. At the end of the session, summarize succinctly, indicate next steps, and thank everyone for his or her respectful participation.

The strength of your leadership can be a huge influence on the success of a high-stakes facilitated session. By keeping your eye on the prize, you can mold and shape a process that leads to outcomes beneficial to everyone involved.

 I’d love to hear your stories. Keep me posted.

Image by Jocelyne H

The 10 Percent Rule for Top Sales Performers


In any sales organization it’s tempting to congratulate top performers and focus development attention on the lower tiers. The best salespeople are, by definition, at their peak. Right? They’re already delivering all they can to the bottom line. Aren’t they?

Not necessarily. In my work with sales organizations across the U.S., clients have found that while top sales professionals are doing a lot of things right, there’s virtually always opportunity for improvement.

Think about the impact a boost for the best could have. If your top sales people could deliver 10 percent more to the bottom line, the incremental dollars could be much bigger than the combined total of three, five or even ten lower-level salespeople.  

In developing custom programs with clients, I’ve found that the strengths of the top sales executives are generally robust product knowledge and a large base of clients and prospects. Experience and a well-developed Rolodex have taken them a long way. So where’s the room for improvement?

One of my clients asked each salesperson to make a product presentation to a small group of the company’s corporate executives. The results were startling.  The communications skills of the best performers were often not markedly better than lower performing colleagues. This client realized if they could super-charge their best, the impact would be immediate and impressive. Post-training presentations showed remarkable improvement with a mesurable increase in sales. That’s not just the opinion of participants; it’s a measure in significant sales growth.  

Now multiply the effect. How? The salespeople we worked with are now more effective mentors to the people they supervise. Their new leadership skills in teaching, inspiring and reinforcing more successful communications have created a pyramid of higher sales performance.   

How can you invoke the 10 percent rule in your own organization? Here are some tips:

  • Don’t change your sales process – just develop better ways to execute it.  Recognize the success of what’s working. The goal is incremental improvement by developing better ways of communicating within the existing process.  
  • Ask a better question – get a better answer. Listening–really listening–to customers opens up a world of opportunity. Ask questions that touch on pain points. Then be prepared to shape your response to address that need. Ask, listen, then respond.  
  • Consider the emotional elements of the sale. Humans are emotional creatures. For example, in finance, they may be preoccupied with security issues or the need to hit a monetary goal.  In manufacturing, it may be low productivity or excessive maintenance costs. In professional services, the need for image and expertise is always paramount. A single story, analogy, or example can touch the heart, distilling an entire message into a more memorable picture than pages of data can.  
  • Organize information for powerful interactions. Whether it’s in your computer, card file or personal memory, have information organized for easy reference. Maybe it’s by industry, or competition, or some other factor. Quickly review it before a meeting or call. When you have accurate information and appropriate stories at your fingertips, you’re ready for a 10 percent more successful interaction.
  • Learn to sell in all market conditions.  You can’t control the economy, but you can adapt to it if you’re ready to meet people where they are. In a tough or down market? Be prepared to respond to anger and frustration with new ideas or ways of looking at their businesses. Consider ways to bundle products or add on a low-cost service that creates an advantage.  Remember that service, convenience, trust, and peace of mind count for a lot.  

In my experience, the top performers often gain the most because they have the strongest foundation. As role models and mentors they strengthen the rest of the team. And the bottom line results are the proof.

Image by Jabroni181
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