Search Results for: tension

How to Argue Better

 

Every group aspires to be the kind of place where the best idea wins.  The reality is, most fall short of that goal. 

The problem is, it’s really hard to argue well. Like any collision, every argument brings risk — will it damage our relationships? Hurt our status? As a result, many of us tend to avoid arguments, or (worse) engage half-heartedly, surrendering our position at the first sign of pushback.

Which raises a question: is there a better way? 

The key, I think, is the way you think about the argument.   We instinctively see argument as a negative — a tension that needs to be resolved. Strong cultures, however, flip that on its head. They view argument as a continual exercise, part of the never-ending process of getting feedback, locating the truth, and getting better.  Argument isn’t the disruption to the status quo — it is the status quo. It’s not a problem to be solved; it’s a craft that you practice together. 

I remember listening to a high-ranking member of the San Antonio Spurs front office argue with a coach over shot selection — basically, whether it was smarter to shoot open two-pointers, or to always try for a three-pointer. The two went at it, hammer and tongs, for half an hour — a loud, energetic volley of argument and ideas and numbers, each side pressing its case, offering evidence, appealing to reason and emotion. Then, when it was finished, they made plans to get dinner together. It was awesome.

So here, in no particular order, are a few tips borrowed from successful groups for the craft of arguing better:

1) Be open about it. Don’t hide behind closed doors; instead seek to hold arguments in public places, where it becomes normalized.

2) Aim to be energetic and civil. Sarcasm and personal attacks are off limits.

3) Keep it focused on the issue at hand, and don’t let one argument expand into other areas.

4) End by affirming your connection. A lot of the arguments I witnessed ended with some version of, “I’m glad we can talk like this.” This is not just a nice sound-bite; it also happens to be true.

Steve Kerr’s 30-Second Master Class on Building Relationships

We all know that great groups are powered by strong relationships. But here’s a question: How are great relationships really built?

For a behind-the-scenes look on how to do that, check out this video. It captures a series of interactions between Warriors coach Steve Kerr and all-star guard Steph Curry.

https://twitter.com/jasonrmcintyre/status/956927218856480768

At first glance, this is a bit over the top. Curry already knows he’s good. Shouldn’t Kerr be challenging him? Pushing him to new heights?

The key is to realize that Kerr isn’t coaching; he’s building a bond. Let’s look more closely at how Kerr does it. Here’s what he says in one of the exchanges:

Love it. One of the things I love about you is you’re two for 11, and you have no hesitation about shooting a sixty footer… nobody in the league does that… You have so much confidence in yourself, and within games like this, you turn it on like that. That’s awesome. Amazing. I wish I had your confidence.

The first to notice here is the timing. Kerr delivers this signal in a moment of tension, just after Curry attempts an insane sixty-foot shot when he is having a bad game.  It’s a moment when a lot of coaches might be questioning that decision, or perhaps joking about it — Come on, sixty feet, are you crazy? Kerr does the opposite, because he understands that these moments of tension are exactly when the bonds are built, not in the easy moments of victory.

The other thing to notice is how specifically and personally Kerr shows his appreciation. He describes Curry’s impact in detail while signaling his own vulnerability. Nobody in the league does that… I could never do that. I wish I had your confidence. He also delivers one of the most powerful signals a leader can deliver, a burst of pure delight. (And it connects: check out at the expression on Curry’s face at the 27-second mark.) 

The final thing to notice is the repetition. Kerr knows it’s not enough to say these things once and presume Curry gets it. Kerr sends this relational message all the time, over and over and over, because that’s how bonds are sustained. Over-thanking and over-appreciating is not accidental — it’s required.   

And here’s the cool thing: None of this is complex, or dependent on technical knowledge of any kind. It requires only an alertness for the opportunity, and the ability to deliver simple signals — we are connected. I see you. I care

The Queen’s Method: How Oprah Communicates So Well

 

By now, you have heard how Oprah’s Golden Globes speech triggered a tsunami of emotion across America and the planet. In eight minutes, she achieved what every speaker and leader wants to create: an indelible, inspiring, and defining moment. What’s interesting, however, is to look more closely at precisely how she did it. Specifically, how she used a simple narrative technique to build this moment.

The usual explanation for moments such as these goes as follows: Oprah succeeded because she’s Oprah — queen of communication, force of nature, empath supreme.  This is partly true.  But when you look more closely at why her speech succeeds, it has little to do with her personality, and everything to do with how she uses the oldest and most underrated communication tool in the book: the power of opposites.

Opposites are the secret jet fuel of narrative. They work according to a simple rule: If you set two polar opposites next to each other, they generate energy that drives connection, meaning, and interest. For example: Which of these two sentences is more compelling:

1) A big, broad-shouldered man walks into a bar and yells in a loud voice, “Hello, everybody!”

2) A big, broad-shouldered man walks into a bar and whispers in a soft, childlike voice, “Hello, everybody.”

See what I mean? It’s not even close. The answer (2), because it contains a tension, a question we crave to explore.  This is not an accident — it’s storytelling physics. Our minds are inescapably drawn to narrative tension. In fact, if you want to get geeky about it, the word “interesting” comes from the Latin roots “inter,” which means “between” and “esse,” which means “to be.” When something is “interesting,” it literally means “to be between.” And nothing creates more in-betweenness than a set of opposites.

Oprah’s speech starts with a rich set of opposites: Oprah as a kid, watching TV, seeing an awards show where Sidney Poitier is being honored. Here you’ve got: 1) Oprah young and poor (opposite from today); 2) watching TV (opposite from being on TV, as she is now); and 3) being transfixed by a moment of when white Hollywood was turned upside-down by a black man (Sidney Poitier accepting his Oscar). With these tensions established, she pulls her narrative camera into a wide pan, and talks about the anonymous women like her mother, whose names we’ll never know. Then she tells a story.

In 1944, Recy Taylor was a young wife and a mother. She was just walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped and left blindfolded by the side of the road, coming home from church. They threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone, but her story was reported to the N.A.A.C.P., where a young worker by the name of Rosa Parks became the lead investigator on her case and together they sought justice. But justice wasn’t an option in the era of Jim Crow. The men who tried to destroy her were never persecuted. Recy Taylor died 10 days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived, as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. And for too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.

It’s a remarkable moment, pairing the brutal, painful story of Recy Taylor to the soaring justice sought by the civil rights movement; pairing a woman who just died and her message, which is living on. Oprah ends her speech by linking back to the original scene — girls watching TV — except that now they are hearing a call to arms: fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say, ‘Me too’ again. One more juxtaposition — the pain of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow —  that has people standing on their feet and cheering, experiencing the power of the moment.

Let’s be real: none of us can deliver these moments like Oprah can. But nevertheless, there are some useful ideas that might be worth borrowing, especially for leaders of cultures that depend on story and communication (which is to say, all of them). Call them Oprah’s rules of storytelling.

  • 1) Seek opposites, and place them next to each other. If you have a story about your biggest success, pair it with a story about your biggest failure. If you have a story to tell about your youngest, newest employee, seek to connect it to a story about your oldest, most veteran employee. They will frame and contextualize each other, and make each resonate more powerfully.
  • 2) Don’t shy away from the painful stuff — lean into it. There’s a natural tendency to gloss over the darker parts of any story. This is like taking the engine out of the story. The pain is where the power is located, because it frames the other side of the story. And speaking of which:
  • 3) Tell a story. This is obvious, but worth mentioning. Stories aren’t the just sugar that helps the medicine go down — they’re more like the cannabis edibles of the whole experience. They generate the vibe.
  • 4) Make it personal. Don’t hold back your own emotional reaction, because it is proxy and permission for others to have a reaction too.
  • 5) Embrace refrains. Repeating a key phrase isn’t boring, if it’s done right. It’s the best way to make something memorable. Refrains work because, as Oprah shows, speaking isn’t all that different from singing. It helps to have a memorable lyric.

People call Oprah a magical communicator, but it might be more accurate to say that she’s a smart builder. She understands that moments like that don’t happen by accident, but by understanding and using the bedrock principles of good communication.

The Most Important Four Words a Leader Can Say

Leading through vulnerability: Pixar's Ed Catmull

When you think about great leadership, you tend to think about big moments: daring decisions and inspiring speeches; moments when a great leader shows the path forward.

But in my research, I kept seeing leaders deliver something different. They weren’t big moments, but rather little moments of confession, when they admitted to a mistake or a weakness. Dave Cooper, a Navy SEAL, put it this way: “The most important words a leader can say is, ‘I screwed that up.’”

At first, that seems strange. Shouldn’t leaders project unshakable confidence? Doesn’t admitting weakness risk creating more weakness? But when you look more closely, those words make deep sense. Because strong culture can only happen when its members feel safe enough to tell each other the truth. That starts with moments when the leaders show their fallibility.

There’s a name for this moment. It’s called a vulnerability loop, and it works like this: Person #1 vulnerable, and admits a mistake or a shortcoming. This allows Person #2 to do the same, creating high-candor exchanges that drive performance and build trust. Vulnerability loops determine whether a group is going to be about merely appearing strong, or about actually facing hard truths and learning together.

Vulnerability loops are most powerful in moments of stress — when something’s gone wrong, or when there’s a disagreement. “At those moments, people either dig in and become defensive, and start justifying, and a lot of tension gets created,” says Jeff Polzer, a Harvard business school professor who studies organizational behavior. “Or they say something like, ‘Hey, that’s interesting. I’m curious and want to talk about it some more.’ What happens in that moment helps set the pattern for everything that follows.”

For example, here’s Ed Catmull, president and co-founder of Pixar. The first time we met Catmull showed me around Pixar’s relatively new studio building, named Brooklyn. It is a sunlit box of glass and reclaimed wood, brimming with insanely cool touches like a speakeasy, a fireplace, a full-service café, and a roof deck. As we walked, I made an offhand remark — something like, “Wow, this building is amazing.”

Catmull stopped and turned to face me. “In fact, this building was a mistake.”

I leaned in, unsure I’d heard correctly.

“The reason it’s a mistake,” Catmull continued, “is that it doesn’t create the kinds of interactions we need to create. We should have made the hallways wider. We should have made the café bigger, to draw more people. We should have put the offices around the edges to create more shared space in the center. So it wasn’t like there was one mistake. There were really a lot of mistakes, along of course with the bigger mistake that we didn’t see most of the mistakes until it was too late.”

And here is Cooper, the SEALs master chief who trained the team that captured Osama bin Laden. Cooper constantly went out of his way to show his fallibility to his team, to admit error. A new team member who called him by his title was quickly corrected: “You can call me Coop, Dave, or F*ckface, it’s your choice.” When Cooper gave his opinion, he always attached phrases that provided a platform for someone to question him, like “Now let’s see if someone can poke holes in this” or “Tell me what’s wrong with this idea.” He steered away from giving orders and instead asked a lot of questions. Anybody have any ideas?

During missions, Cooper sought opportunities to spotlight the need for his men to speak up, especially with newer team members. He was not subtle. “For example, when you’re in an urban environment, windows are bad,” he tells me. “You stand in front of one, and you can get shot by a sniper and never know where it came from. So if you’re a new guy and you see me standing in front of a window in Fallujah, what are you going to say? Are you going to tell me to move my ass, or are you going to stand there quietly and let me get shot? When I ask new guys that question, they say, ‘I’ll tell you to move.’ So I tell them, ‘Well, that’s exactly how you should conduct yourself all the time around here, with every single decision.’”

By using vulnerability loops, Catmull, Cooper, and the other leaders are sending a crystal-clear message: we are about learning together. They are giving everyone in the group permission to tell the truth, thus generating high-candor exchanges that drive improvement and create a shared mental model on how to perform together. They shift the focus away from self-protective instincts, and toward the truly important questions: what’s really happening here? How can we get better together?

Tips: Vulnerability

Problem: Your Group Lacks Trust

Remedy: Get Vulnerable and Stay Vulnerable

  1. Make Sure the Leader Is Vulnerable First and Often

    Group cooperation is created by small, frequently repeated moments of vulnerability. Of these, none is more powerful than the moment when a leader signals their vulnerability. As one Navy SEALs commander puts it, I screwed that up are the most important words any leader can say.
    Laszlo Bock, head of People Analytics at Google, recommends that leaders ask their people three questions:
    – What is one thing that I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do?
    – What is one thing that I don’t currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?
    – What can I do to make you more effective?
    “The key is to ask not for five or ten things but just one,” Bock says. “That way it’s easier for people to answer. And when a leader asks for feedback in this way, it makes it safe for the people who work with them to do the same. It can get contagious.”

  2. Deliver the Negative Stuff in Person

    This was an informal rule that I encountered at several groups I researched. It goes like this: if you have negative news or feedback to give someone—even as small as a rejected item on an expense report—you are obligated to deliver that news face to face. This rule is not easy to follow (it’s far more comfortable for both the sender and receiver to communicate electronically), but it works because it deals with tension in an up-front, honest way that avoids misunderstandings and creates shared clarity and connection.

3 Simple Things Great Teachers Do

cartoon-fruit-apple-08Quick: take a moment to think about the single greatest teacher you ever had. Someone who inspired you, engaged you, and maybe even changed the trajectory of your life.

Perhaps it’s a coach, maybe a high-school teacher, maybe a relative — it doesn’t matter.

Now picture their face.

(Got it?)

When you think about that person, which of the following comes to mind:

  • A) A life lesson that person taught you
  • B) A goal that that person helped you achieve
  • C) The way that person made you feel

If you’re like most people, it’s no contest.

The answer is (C).

The lesson of this little exercise is simple: the greatest teachers aren’t great just because they deliver information. They’re great because they create lasting connections. They’re not about the words they say; they’re about the way they make you feel.

I’m not talking about mere social skills. I’m talking about the ability David Foster Wallace was talking about when he wrote this:

A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority…. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

Which leads us to a question: how do we find teachers like this, both for ourselves and our kids? How do we develop this quality in ourselves?

I thought it might be good to start a conversation by identifying a pattern I’ve seen in my research and the related science: three simple things that master teachers tend to do.

1) They are exceptionally good at small talk.  

Most master teachers don’t start sessions by teaching. They start by connecting. They want to chat, to engage, to figure out where you are, who you are, and what makes you tick.

A few years back, Dr. Mark Lepper of Stanford organized an extensive video-based study on the habits of the most successful math tutors, and discovered a curious fact: the best tutors started each session by engaging in idle chat. They talked about the weather, or school, or family — anything but math.

This seems nonsensical, until you consider the role small talk plays in building trust. We do not naturally give our trust to people; small talk is the doorway to trust and learning.

2) They ask LOTS of questions.  

We instinctively think of great teachers as repositories of knowledge, and deliverers of brilliant speeches and lectures. This is hugely wrong. From Socrates to John Wooden, great teaching is about asking the right questions, not about providing the answers.

Lepper’s study showed that the most effective tutors spent 80 to 90 percent of their time asking questions. They weren’t dictating the truth, they were doing something far more important: creating a platform where the learner can struggle toward  the answers.

Geno Auriemma, coach of UConn’s nine-time national championship women’s basketball team, is particularly good at doing this. From a recent profile:

Here’s the phrase Auriemma utters most often to his players at practice. “Figure it out!” he bawls.

If he says it once, he says it a hundred times. He halts practice every time a kid looks at him quizzically, and asks, “What do I do here?”

“Figure it out,” he insists. “What do you think you should do here? Why do you need me to tell you all the time what to do here?”

3) They have a good sense of humor.

Yes, there are a few ultra-serious teachers out there who rarely crack a smile (I’m looking at you, ballet teachers), but the vast majority of master teachers use humor the same way you might employ a Swiss Army knife: as a multi-purpose social tool. Humor can defuse tension, create common ground, and build bonds. In other words, being funny isn’t just funny — it’s also smart.

Which brings us to the next question: what other skills should we add to this list? What fundamental skills did your best teachers possess, and how did they make you better? I’m eager to see what you think.

3 Words to Improve Pressure Performance (and 3 to Avoid)

pha156000069resizeOne of the most fascinating areas of science is the study of pressure performance. It’s fascinating partly because we’ve all been on both sides. We’ve all succeeded, and we’ve all choked. (Well, except for Derek Jeter.)

The question is, why? Our instincts say the answer lies in our character — with our innate cool, our grace under fire. But is that true?

A Harvard professor named Alison Wood Brooks recently gave us new insight into this mystery. She didn’t study the Super Bowl or the stock market — instead she performed an experiment using perhaps the most terrifying pressure known to humanity:

Ambush-style karaoke.

It went like this: Brooks brought a group of volunteers together, then surprised them by informing them that they would be soloing the first verse of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” A short time before they performed, subjects were told to repeat one of three phrases out loud.

1) I am calm

2) I am anxious

3) I am excited

Then Brooks used voice-recognition sofware to measure the quality of their vocal performance — pitch, volume, and rhythm. The results:

  • “I am calm” performers scored 53%
  •  “I am anxious” performers scored 69%
  • “I am excited” performers scored 81%

Here’s why: the mantras functioned as psychological framing devices. The “I am calm” group performed poorly because the words denied the reality of the situation. Their words claimed they weren’t nervous, even while every cell of their body was vibrating with nerves. The disparity created tension, so their performance suffered.

The “I am anxious” group told the truth, but it wasn’t a useful truth. The negativity hurt their performance — though it’s important to point out that they didn’t do as poorly as the “I am calm” people.

People who said “I am excited” performed better because the frame was both useful and accurate enough. They acknowledged the heightened emotion of the situation and funneled it in a positive direction. It wasn’t the truth, exactly, but it was aligned with the truth, and thus proved useful in dampening nerves and enabling better performance.

“When your heart is already racing, you can use that high arousal in a positive way by being energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate,” Brooks says. “People’s intuition is to try and calm down. You are better off running with your high arousal and channeling it in a positive direction.” (You can find out more about her study here.)

For us, I think the lessons are useful.

  • 1) Mantras are useful
  • 2) Don’t BS yourself. Embrace the excitement.
  • 3) When in doubt, be positive (duh, but still)

Anybody got any other pressure-coping methods they’d like to share? Please feel free.

How to be More Creative

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MckHLBWuz7E&feature=player_embedded

This is the single best speech on creativity I’ve ever seen. It’s from Jack White, rock star and former upholsterer. I love this because it shows that creative work is not about magic and mystery. It’s about designing an environment that helps you make new connections in the brain you already have. (The whole clip is useful, but if you’re short on time, skip ahead to the 40-second mark.)

Here are the takeaways:

  • 1) Inspiration is hugely overrated. Don’t wait for the clouds to part and rays from heaven to come down. Do the work, every day.
  • 2) Scarcity is fuel. Luxuries of time and space don’t help creativity; they strangle it. Constrict your time and choices; it creates clarity.
  • 3) Avoid comfort. Don’t settle into patterns, but seek ways to create tension

“Force yourself into it. Force yourself…. Deadlines and things make you creative. But opportunity and telling yourself, “Oh you have all that time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in your palette you want, anything you want…” —  that just kills creativity.”

 

How to Get Better? Be Like Evolution

I got an interesting note the other day from reader Will Newton from Toronto. He told me about a wildly addictive videogame called StarCraft.

If you want to get really good at StarCraft, you have to do the usual deep-practice stuff: put in the hours, focus like a laser on your mistakes, and mimic the best players. But when it comes to making progress, StarCraft learners have a tremendous advantage: a massive database of millions of game replays they can access and watch, where you can search out the best players and go to school on them. In other words, the game has a built-in platform for stealing, mimickry, and, thus, intensive practice and fast improvement.

The deeper point Will makes — the truth that applies not only to videogames but to every skill under the sun — is that all techniques are Darwinian. Meaning, every skill is like an ecosystem filled with competing techniques. Weak techniques disappear; strong techniques thrive; refinement never ends.

We instinctively think of our technique as being personal — a unique extension of ourselves. But as Will points out, this is mostly an illusion. It’s not about us; it’s about how we navigate a giant, invisible decision tree of choice and possibility. To improve technique, then, it’s best to behave exactly like evolution would behave — that is, be quick, clear, and ruthless. To experiment and copy. To replicate what works best. To quickly discard what doesn’t work. And to never, ever stop the process.

It also poses an interesting possibility: can we, in our own lives, use this idea to help our own techniques evolve? Could we, for instance, create a cache of “replays” were we capture the best techniques, the best decision-making, and use them as a learning tool?

  • For instance — in an English class, would it be possible to create a “game replay” of the best writer in class as they built a prize-winning essay?
  • Or in tennis — could you have a “replay” of someone learning how to hit a good backhand?
  • Or in music — a “replay” of someone learning a tough new song?

The thing I love about this idea is that it flips the way we normally think about our success. We usually think of defeat or victory as personal — as a verdict on ourselves our our worth, our potential. But that’s not true. What we think of as a personal problem is often more of an information-access problem.