PROOF: It’s Never Too Late to Change!

I’ve had some proud moments in my life – after all, I have a son who was a Yale student athlete drafted by the Cincinnati Reds – but my most recent session with a client is right up there among one of my proudest moments.

A firm in the financial industry engaged me several years ago to give a presentation for their staff and to work one on one with some of their employees on communication skills.  They are a successful firm that handles billion-dollar accounts. However, it was founded several years ago with a crunchy granola, mom and pop type sensibility. As they’ve gotten more and more successful, they have seen the need to level up all of their skills–communication being one of them. I did a group Communication Elevation workshop and one-on-one executive coaching sessions with several of their employees and was able to implement some immediate changes. However, one of the tasks I was given was extremely challenging and at times I thought it was going to be impossible.

I was asked to coach one of their senior employees, I’ll call him Alex. Alex is very bright and knowledgeable about the business. However, he has a regional accent with some related grammar issues. In addition, he tends to be what I call a “chain talker”–someone who rarely comes up for air and therefore dumps way too much information on unsuspecting listeners. I knew that I could give him tips and techniques to deal with his chain talking but the accent and grammar issues seemed daunting. After all, this was a 40-something-year-old successful businessman, and the issues mostly only surfaced when he was under stress. Fortunately, Alex was not someone who denied he had these issues. He was very receptive to feedback. But that doesn’t mean the normal resistance to change didn’t crop up.

Alex stated often in the beginning of our sessions that clients really liked him and that he is great at talking about the products. Translation: it doesn’t really matter if I drop a few –“ing’s,” if I get my point across and the client likes me. Alex’s belief is an example of the major myth people use to avoid certain changes.

  • MYTH: I’m a nice person: People will overlook my faults:
  • FACT: People might like you and be fine hanging out with you at a bar, but at the end of the day, they want to do business with people they respect and speech and grammar factor into the amount of respect a person has for you.

To top things off, the feedback the company was receiving from clients debunked the myth and supported the facts. Alex had to change the way he spoke or be faced with changing where he worked. That put some pressure on me as his coach and frankly, I wondered if I was up to the task. But because I have a tad of the Superhero in me, I refused to tell the person who hired me that “fixing” Alex might be next to impossible.  Part of the initial work I had to do with Alex was to convince him that this was serious business and that it would take a lot of work. I had some help in that area from the increasingly frustrated owner of the company.

Then we had a session that surprised me and turned things around. I had given Alex some general pronunciation drills and articulation exercises but we weren’t seeing a huge difference. I again stated the assumption that Alex was holding on to a little resistance to change but then Alex told me that the real problem was that he didn’t really know how to pronounce certain sounds. Because of a glitch in his rural education, he had simply never learned the correct pronunciations, and he needed me to teach him. I had spent several years teaching accent reduction to adult second language students, so I knew how to attack his pronunciation problems in a purely technical way. I realize that I might have shied away from suggesting these types of painstaking pronunciation drills earlier because I thought it would be tedious and might be embarrassing to him, but here he was asking for it.

So I did a diagnostic, and I pinpointed all of the sounds Alex had trouble with. Then, I created specific drills and exercises around those sounds. We spent time on each sound, and I helped him find the exact mouth, tongue, and lip placement that would help him pronounce the words that contained his problem sounds. He took extensive notes on all the tricks and tips I gave him. In addition to that painstaking work, we also worked on organizing and shaping his presentations so that they were more audience-centered and not pure data dumps.

The firm had a very important meeting coming up, and Alex was presenting along with the company’s owner. I really wanted to show a quantitative difference in Alex’s style. We spent three hour-long sessions leading up to the meeting working extremely hard on pronunciation and on organizing Alex’s part of the presentation. Before my recent session with Alex, I checked in with the previously uber frustrated company owner to see how the presentation had gone. The owner said that Alex did really well. Probably better than the owner himself had! YES! Then, during our session after the presentation, Alex and I went through his pronunciation exercises, and he NAILED all of the sounds that he used to have such difficulty with.

I have so much utter respect for Alex for putting in the work and being willing to change. Not many financially successful people in their 40’s (men especially) would take on such a challenge. I, too, learned a lot from this experience. I was very close at times to throwing in the towel with Alex and having a Que Sera, Sera moment (whatever will be will be). But I am so very glad that I didn’t. I learned that with mutual persistence and determination, change is always possible. I also learned that sometimes what we perceive as resistance, is actually a lack of knowledge.

Is there some change that you’ve been resisting? Is there someone in your life who is resisting change? Maybe it’s time to find out what you or that person may not know about HOW to enact that change. Let me know your thoughts.

Chain-talking – Hazardous to Communication Health!

boring_meeting (2013_04_21 17_36_32 UTC)Do you ever find yourself stuck in a “conversation” with someone who is technically delivering a monologue? Have you ever tried to join a conversation or discussion that is being hijacked by one speaker? I call those individuals Chain-talkers and they can be hazardous to healthy communication.  Chain-talkers are people who talk nonstop with absolutely no awareness of whether listeners have any interest in what he or she is saying? People who somehow don’t need to take a breath and move so quickly between sentences that you can’t find a place to interrupt. Raise your hand if you know what I’m talking about.

Once, I attended a full-day symposium on communication. There was an interesting keynote address by a marketing/communication VP for a major organization. I very much appreciated her message since she spoke about how important it is for companies to lead with their value – a message I try to always express in my workshops and with my clients. She also spoke about the importance of story and how communication is enhanced by the telling of interesting personal, relatable stories. One of her final tidbits was advice on keeping your message brief.

 After her presentation, there was a break and several people crowded around her to ask an additional question or express their appreciation for her message. Because I really appreciated her message and respected her organization, I joined that group. As I approached, I saw that there was a gentleman engaging the speaker in a story or anecdote. I stood among seven other people waiting for an opportunity to connect with the speaker. Two minutes went by. The man continued to ramble on. Another two to three minutes went by. The speaker began to exhibit body language cues that would indicate to most people that she was anxious to move on. Her body and feet were pointing away from this gentleman. She broke eye-contact with the man and made eye-contact with me and several other people waiting. He jabbered on. She touched his elbow in a way that indicated that she was amused but ready to end the connection. And still, the man spoke on.

The other audience members waiting began exhibiting body language cues of their own – deep sighs, eye-rolling, sharing furtive exasperated glances. The irony of this happening at a  symposium for communication experts was not lost. And the fact that one of the last things the speaker talked about was brevity was beyond ironic. SO… I took a deep breath, engaged my diaphragm which enabled my “big girl” powerful voice, extended my hand, stuck it into the crowd and said, “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your presentation.” There was a collective sigh of relief from everyone waiting. The tension had been broken. The chain-talker was forced to stop and acknowledge the interruption. The speaker was relieved and engaged with me thus breaking the chain that was binding her to him and two of the women who’d been waiting gave me a relieved thumbs up.

Afterwards, those two women, a gentleman and I spoke about the incident. The two women posited that it was a male/female thing. That because he was a man, the women were less willing to break in and/or because he was a man, he was less sensitive and aware of how he was inconveniencing the other people waiting. And because he was a man he was less likely to be able to pick up on the nonverbal cues the speaker was displaying.

 I’m not sure that this was 100% a gender issue. I have met chain-talkers of both genders. In my experience, chain –talkers fall into 3 different categories; The Narcissist, the Fact-ician, and the Oversharer.

 We all have met narcissists, people who feel like every word coming out of their mouth is brilliant – funny, informative, intelligent (fill in the blank) and that everyone is excited and interested in hearing that brilliance. They have most likely used up the patience of their nearest and dearest and are therefore eager to find a new set of ears to enthrall with their monologues.

The Fact-ician chain-talker, is a person who happens to love facts, data, and research and has the unique ability to retain all the information that he or she knows on a given topic. They know most people are not like them and are fuzzy about facts and details and they therefore feel that it is their obligation to dump all of that data on whomever happens to ask the simplest question.

The third type of chain-talker, the Oversharer, is similar to the Factician except that instead of facts and data, the Oversharer shares personal information and minute descriptive details that have no interest to the listener and no relation to the topic they are speaking about. They overshare because they feel that they will not be fully trusted or understood unless the listener knows every last detail about them.

Although these three types Chain-talk for different reasons, they all share an inability to pick up on non-verbal cues and gauge the interest level of their listener.

When you find yourself being shut out because of a chain-talker, feel free to do as I did – put on your best Barry White voice and interrupt them, steering the attention and conversation in another direction. No need to wait for a breath or a pause because there probably won’t be one.

And if, like the speaker, you find yourself directly trapped by a chain-talker, here’s what you can do: (frankly, I’m surprised our marketing/communication VP did not do this) Smile brightly at Mr. or Ms. Chaintalker and say: “I’d love to continue this but in the interest of time, I need to move on.” Or “This sounds like a great story but there are other people waiting. Maybe you can email me the punchline”  Or “WHAT PART OF MY TIPS ON BREVITY DID YOU NOT UNDERSTAND??” (Okay maybe not that)

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions. If you’re wondering how to cure yourself or others from Chain-talking… stay tuned. That’s for another post.

BONUS: For those of you who have read my book, Standing Ovation Presentation or taken my Discover Your ActorType Quiz, which ActorTypes do you think produce the Narcissist, the Factician and the Oversharer?

Five Communication Disconnects & How to Solve Them


The art of communication is the language of leadership. James C. Humes

No question about it, communication is an art. No matter how skilled or knowledgeable you are, if your communication skills are subpar, your leadership and management skills will be too.

Communication encompasses a broad spectrum: there’s email, memos, reports, phone, video conferencing, and, what I’d like to focus on here, the old-fashioned face-to-face.

I work with many individuals who are brilliant at what they do but become baffled by the fact that their direct reports don’t understand them or that their superiors are not recognizing them for promotions.

Here are five of the most common communication disconnects I see in the individuals I coach.


 1)      Muddled Messages:

Time is money and most people don’t like to waste time sifting through an avalanche of words to figure out what you are really trying to say. I always tell my clients to figure out their bottom line in any important communication. For any message you need to relay, ask yourself this question: “If my listener remembers just one thing, what do I want them to remember?” That “one thing” is your bottom line or core message.  You can then shape the rest of the communication around that bottom line (I suggest using a mind map). It also helps to use specific language in your communication to reinforce your message. For example, actually saying, “If you remember just one thing today…” improves the chances of that one thing being remembered. Other phrases to include: “The bottom line is…” “This is extremely important.”  And find ways to repeat your core message whenever possible. Statistics show that people forget 40% of what you say in one-hour!

 2)      Selective Listening:

I recently heard and saw experiments on the sobering fact that our perception is our reality. What this means for office communication is that sometimes we have a perception of someone we work with–a perception which may or may not have a valid basis–and that perception becomes our reality. Maybe your perception is “He hates his job and doesn’t want to be here” or “She’s after my position” That perception colors every action and every communication that that person makes. This results in our thinking that we already know what someone else is going to say so we let our own judgments/perception get in the way of listening to what’s really being said. And of course, while that person is speaking, we are thinking of what we are going to say based on our PERCEPTION of what it is we THINK they are saying. Let’s stop the madness! When you’re having an important conversation with an employee, breathe and focus. Take time to listen carefully and actively to your employees and try to leave old perceptions out of it.

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging prejudices” William James.

3)      Passive/Non- Listening

“Why would anyone listen to you if he felt you had not first listened to him?” -Dr. Xavier Amador

Of course, you might answer this. Because I’m their boss”, in which case I say good luck. You may get results but you will probably also get lots of passive-aggressive resistance and other negative behavior. In order to get anyone to listen to you, it’s important to make them feel that they are also being listened to. Here are some ways to listen actively:

o   Use an open body position: The torso is the most vulnerable part of the body and when it is “exposed” it engenders more trust and openness in your listener. So avoid crossed arms or sitting behind large desks when you’re looking to connect with a direct report.

o   Nod: People will talk three times as long if you nod while you’re listening to them. So, if you want your employees to really share what’s on their minds, nod in sets of three while you listen.

o   Reflect: It’s also helpful to show that you have heard someone by using reflective listening, paraphrase (NOT parrot) what you heard them say. “So if I’m understanding you correctly you want to…”  “Okay, so what I hear you saying is that …” This makes the person feel heard and gives them an opportunity to clear up anything you may have misunderstood or misinterpreted.

4)      Being tone-deaf

Very often, what you say is not nearly as important as how you say it. According to communication research by Professor Albert Mehrabian, 38% of oral communication depends on the sound of our voice. All the positive feedback in the world, spoken in an angry or dismissive tone will lead to mixed signals at best, anxiety, mistrust and poor morale at worst.

Two of the most common tonal issues I see are:

o   Asking instead of telling: This is most common in female leaders but it is becoming a more equal opportunity offense. This is a tone I call up-speak (making everything sound like a question) Managers who want to make sure that their peers and direct reports like them, really, really like them, will use this tone so that they don’t sound like they’re giving orders. Huge problem. Making declarative sentences sound like questions makes your listener wonder how confident and knowledgeable you really are.

o   Professional Monotone: On the other end of the up-speak spectrum, is the rushed, staccato flat monotone. Many people associate this tone with power and authority. Then use that tone for ALL their communication. Bear in mind that according to volumes of research, employees will respond to the tone of your communication, before the actual words. Make sure you vary your pitch, use inflection and intonation to emphasis words or phrases that are more important and pause occasionally to allow listeners to either take in what you are saying or ask questions.

5)      Mis-matched Styles:

By far the most common occurrence in workplace communication is the failure of people to comprehend that their preferred way of delivering and receiving information may be completely foreign and incomprehensible to their co-workers. Your communication style may be so completely different than someone else’s that it can be almost like you speak different languages. This disconnect creates huge communication log jams. Assessment tools like DiSC profile are extremely helpful for enlightening managers as to the communication styles of their peers and direct reports. As an executive coach, I often use the Everything DiSC assessment tool to help clients see their own style and understand why the way they are communicating is not working for an employee or colleague who uses a completely different communication style. I’ve also recently published my own book on communication and presentation skills, Standing Ovation Presentations, (Motivational Press, 2013) and have identified my own nine different communication styles which I call ActorTypes.

Whether it’s DiSC, Myers Briggs or my ActorTypes,  I feel it’s very important for managers to know what their personal communication style is as well as the communication style of their staff. With training and understanding, you can learn how to tailor your communication to be better understood or coach them to communicate in a way that is easier for you to understand.

It’s not enough these days to be skilled and knowledgeable. With an extremely diverse workforce, it’s time for leaders to become skilled in the subtle arts of communication if they want to succeed. Let me help you!

Five Business Lessons I’ve Learned from Reality TV

TELEVISIONReality TV has been the bane of existence for most actors and television writers since it first infiltrated prime-time television. And since I have spent 30-plus years as a professional actor and 15-plus as a TV/film writer I should rightly resent the onslaught of reality TV for taking away job opportunities from people like me. BUT,… I have to confess. I love watching shows like American Idol, Next Food Network Star, So You Think You Can Dance, Project Runway, and The Voice, because the communication trainer and coach part of me learns so much from them!

Those shows illustrate, support, and re-enforce so many of the things that I teach, train, and write about. And, for entrepreneurs and business owners, I’d like to point out some important lessons these competition shows can teach us.

First, let me point out the similarities as I see them. In the very early phase of your business, you probably had to win over a friend, a family member, or an investor and convince them of the validity of your product or service. That would be like the initial auditions reality contestants have to go through. In the next phase of your business, you may have to sell your concept to a larger investor, partner, bank, and, of course, your prospects & customers. In this phase, you need to show not only that you have a good concept, but that the concept can make a larger group of people happy and profitable. That’s like the phase where the reality contestants have to impress the larger TV voting audience (and the show’s producers) that they have what it takes to impress, entertain, and encourage audiences to tune in.  Then, as time goes by, you, like the reality contestants, have to prove that you are not a one-trick pony, that you have “Star Power,” and will be able to sustain the audiences/clients interest week after week, month after month, year after year. How DO they do it??

Here are FIVE business lessons I’ve learned from watching reality television that might help catapult YOUR business to super-stardom.

1) It’s not just about how great you or your business are.

In most of these shows, talent is rarely the issue. Unlike in the early years of American Idol, most of the contestants are immensely talented. Just like most entrepreneurs and business owners have really interesting products and services. What these shows continually illustrate is that likeability, relate-ability, and passion are often much more important than talent.

In my new book Standing Ovation Presentations, I identify nine different communication styles which I have dubbed ActorTypes. The nine ActorTypes,”  based on 9 character types you see every day in movies and on TV, are the Hero, Villain, Super Hero, Ingénue, Sex Symbol/Super Model, Comic, Whiz Kid/Nerd, &  Curmudgeon. (Take my ActorType quiz and find out what YOU are)

On a past season of The Voice, one of the contestants was a tried and true Whiz Kid. She was nerdy, wore glasses, was not conventionally attractive, had a distinct way of moving and dressing yet had an incredible voice. She clearly and easily became a judge and audience favorite because she was talented, likeable, AND passionate about what she stood for–giving a voice to the underdogs. She made all the underdogs in the world feel like they were enough. What does your company make people feel?

2) Be unique but authentic.

We’ve all seen the wacky folks at tryouts who do everything and anything for their 15 seconds of fame. In the above example: simply DRESSING or acting like a nerd would not have been successful if it wasn’t coming from an authentic place. There are branding and marketing “experts” who will try to sell you outrageously creative ways to brand and market yourself or your business. Some of them might be genius and you might indeed catch the public’s attention. But if those branding and marketing ideas are not consistent with the values that you and/or your business & brand represent, those creative marketing tricks will not create loyal fans and will not move you forward in the competition.

In fact, I once received a snail-mailed box of “stuff” from an entrepreneur whom I did not know. It was an invitation to help her launch her new book. At least I think that’s what it was because I have not read the whole thing (my son enjoyed some of the edibles included). It was a very expensive and gutsy marketing campaign, I admit, but not knowing the person, I don’t know that it was effective. For me, it was not. I was curious how they had gotten my home address, why I was selected to receive it. And the insert was very text-heavy so I did not care to take the time to read it all. Furthermore, the campaign did not seem to be consistent with the photo of the person sending it!

3) Take risks but don’t confuse us.

It’s great when the country artist nails an R&B tune. Judges and audiences love that. But when a contestant sings, designs, cooks a different style every week, they will inevitably get this feedback; “We don’t know what kind of (fill in the blank) you want to be.” or “We don’t feel like YOU know what type of (Fill in the blank) you are.” The same thing happens when businesses start rolling out services or products that might be interesting in and of themselves but may not align with the company’s mission. Offering a product or a service that does not match your company’s style will feel inauthentic and may, therefore, confuse your customers and fail to take off. Think Dell’s attempt to roll out fun MP3 players or Volkswagen’s attempt at a luxury car.

4) Express your passion & share your story.

Another related comment reality show judges give is, “I don’t see YOU in this” or “I don’t feel your passion…”  Whether it’s the type of food being prepared, the song choice, the design created, or the delivery style, if the contestant is not somehow baring a piece of their soul and expressing their truth, the judges and the audiences have a hard time connecting, engaging, and voting for them.

On an episode of Food Network Star, one of the contestants let it slip that he had overcome a substance abuse problem. That information instantly gave the judges a different perspective. They got to see a tiny window into his soul which made everything else make sense. And the chef himself, I’m sure, felt more at ease because he no longer felt he had something to hide. Is there something about you or the origins of your business that you’re still hiding or that you don’t think is relevant? I’m NOT suggesting you air out all your dirty laundry but sometimes sharing a deeply personal story is the one thing that will endear you to your customers and create raving fans. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with a client and had to take out my proverbial shovel and dig and dig and dig until I’ve uncovered a golden nugget of a story that we were able to mold into fabulous sales pitches, conversation starters, and presentation topics. But without that story, they would be just another… (Fill in the blank)

5) Don’t allow feedback to sway you. You don’t have to come in first to win!

As business owners, it’s easy to get discouraged. There are so many businesses out there and so much information vying for everyone’s attention. It’s easy to start comparing yourself with other businesses or business owners who seem to have “won” and cornered the market.  But don’t get swayed by competition and or negative feedback.  Looking back at the history of many competition shows, you will find that the person or act that eventually won the big prize, is not always the same person or act that went on to become the most successful or well-known. In fact, some folks who got harsh criticism and were sent home early, have gone on to shine the brightest–think Jennifer Hudson. There’s room at the top for all of us if we keep on our own authentic path.

There are many other business lessons to be learned from competition shows: How to learn the difference between confidence and arrogance; How to work through fear and shine under pressure; and How not to slack off even when you think you’re at the top. So, even though my husband and son make fun of me for watching; and some of my friends are SHOCKED when I confess my guilty pleasure, I insist that I’m doing it for educational reasons! (okay… so it is a tiny bit of a guilty pleasure) But I’m learning a LOT! So sit back, grab some snacks, pick up the remote, and let me know what you think.

Start YOUR Evolution

evolvingWe’re always Evolving! 

Here are 5 ways I can help you revolutionize your communication.

In case you’ve ever wondered… What can Robyn and SpeakEtc. do for me?

Let me count the ways:

1)     Problem: You dread people asking: …and what do you do?” because you have a hard time explaining what you do in a way that doesn’t make their eyes glaze over or you feel like a used car salesman.

How I can help: In one or two one-on-one sessions, I can discover what sets you apart, match what you do with your unique communication style, what I call your “ActorType,” and help you create a pitch to be proud of Within the first 20 minutes of one session, I had a client call me a “genius” for transforming his generic jargon-filled elevator pitch into an engaging, individualized, intro-mercial for his marketing business which he can now fold into a conversation, use on his website, or pitch to investors or prospects.

2)     Problem: You have an important presentation coming up and its success could mean recognition and more business and revenue for you and/or your company but you’re lacking confidence and don’t know how to pull it all together.

How I can help: I work with you and your presentation at any stage. I can organize and polish your existing material; help you write compelling content from scratch and/or help you hone your delivery skills (body language and voice) so that your presentation is engaging and reflects your unique communication style.  Within 3-6 sessions, I’ve helped upwards of 20 individuals organize, write, tweak, and learn to deliver presentations on: Dating; Owning one’s beauty; running a business; socially responsible portfolio investing; investing in Master Limited Partnerships; Developing better fitness and health practices; bringing specialty foods to the U.S. market; Spiritual awakening in Peru; and many other fascinating topics. My clients have used these presentations at TedX conferences, for videos on their sites and other major and minor stages.

3)      Problem: Your job security and effectiveness is being compromised because you have difficulty expressing yourself successfully at work. Or your advancement at work is being hampered by your inability to show executive and leadership presence.

How I can help: By administering Everything DiSC assessments, I can provide customized 6 session packages of one-one-one executive coaching. This past year I have helped, Senior account executives, Vice-presidents; CEOs, sales associates; teachers; lawyers, and others, learn strategies to communicate more effectively with supervisors and colleagues and have helped them earn the respect and recognition they deserve. Jobs were saved, promotions won, confidence and effectiveness soared.

4)      Problem: YOUR communication is great but you’re in charge of a team or staff of individuals who would be much more successful if they had more confidence communicating with and presenting to clients and prospects.

How I can help: I can create customized workshops and training sessions for up to 20 participants. This past year, I’ve created and delivered training to several different companies in several different fields from global marketing teams; advertising agencies & legal teams; financial advisors; sales associates; & classroom teachers. I’ve helped companies  -“Stop presenting, start engaging; learn listening skills; improve team communication

5)      Problem: You have an interview coming up for the media, a new job, or graduate school.

How I can help: In 3-6 one-on-one coaching sessions, I will research specific interview questions, role-play, and videotape mock interviews. I can help you polish your body language, vocal tone, and your ability to think on your feet and give answers that show you at your best. In the past, I’ve coached young adults into their first jobs, helped a medical student win a coveted internship and helped entrepreneurs shine in front of the camera.

If you are ready to start your evolution, let’s chat!

Are You Trying Too Hard? Learn the Art of Wu Wei – Effortless Action

lifting weight

Ever watch a presentation or have a conversation and come away feeling like the person was trying way too hard?

I take a lot of exercise classes at my gym. Recently, we have had a few new teachers sub or introduce new classes. Once, I took a new dance-based class with a new fitness instructor and found myself NOT enjoying it at all! I felt like I had a perpetual inner scowl and I couldn’t figure out why. I love to dance! I started blaming myself. “Am I just being pissy because the teacher I wanted to be here wasn’t here?” “Am I being ageist”(She was young and I’m not) “Am I being arrogant cause I think I’m such a hot dancer?” or ”Do I just hate and resist anything new?” All of the above could have been true, but midway through the class, the communication skills coach in me wanted to figure out what other dynamic might be playing out here. Maybe it wasn’t all me.

I reflected back on the fact that a few weeks ago, I’d taken the same class with a new teacher and loved her within two seconds. So instead of judging my feelings, I began to question where they might be coming from. As I watched the teacher smiling broadly and trying to encourage us to smile and pose and enjoy ourselves, I realized that she was trying too hard. She was trying to “make” us enjoy what we were doing instead of enjoying it herself and trusting that because she enjoys it, that enjoyment will infect us. Afterward, I spoke to a gym buddy who had also taken the class and she had concluded the same thing.

I decided to write a blog post about the difference between trying too hard and “just being” and then… low and behold, the next day, a friend of mine (I hadn’t spoken to her about this at all) happened to mention an article she’d read in the New York Times that she thought I would find interesting. It was called – A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying (John Tierney, 12/15/2014) and it specifically addresses what I had concluded! Amazing! So instead of having to write this whole post from scratch, I get to use Mr. Tierney’s article to support my ideas! Thanks, John wherever you are!

The article references the work of Dr. Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia and author of the book: Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity. Dr. Slingerland talks about a concept called, wu wei, the Chinese term for “effortless action” – (Pronounced ooo-way) There are differing theories about how to attain Wu Wei. There is one theory that goes that once you work really hard at something, you will eventually get to the point where you can perform that “something” effortlessly – similar to when people talk about athletes practicing a skill so that in the throes of the game they can perform without thinking. The other theory is that our gifts are innate and we need to relax and allow them to emerge. There are actual ancient text that speak about this type of Wu Wei:

“[…] it wasn’t enough just to be a sensible, law-abiding citizen, and it wasn’t even enough to dutifully strive to be virtuous. You had to demonstrate that your virtue was so intrinsic that it came to you effortlessly. These texts tell aspiring politicians that they must have an instinctive sense of their duties to their superiors: If you try to be filial, this not true filiality; if you try to be obedient, this is not true obedience.”

You can read Mr. Tierney’s article or Dr. Slingerland’s book to find out more about these different theories on attaining Wu Wei and where they originated.

I believe that you can attain Wu Wei both ways – by practicing a skill and then learning to let it go and by relaxing, going inward and then learning to let it out. In fact, this topic has been part of my latest obsession. I wrote a blog post and spoke on the radio show, What Women Want about the Impostor Syndrome – the fact that we tend to feel like impostors once we are successful because we have forgotten or we ignore the “intrinsic qualities” we have inside us that have contributed to our success. So in essence, in our efforts to strive for “effortless action” we often negate or forget our instinctive sense of our “duties.” Whether those duties are to be virtuous as referenced in the ancient text or whether those duties are to be successful, effective leaders or successful contributive human beings as in the case of those with the Impostor Syndrome.

The New York Times article goes on to say: “You cannot try, but you also cannot not try. Chinese philosophers were genuinely on to something,says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Particularly when one has developed proficiency in an area, it is often better to simply go with the flow. Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.”

As a mother to a professional baseball pitcher, I know that all too well. Once my son starts to think too much about the pitch he’s about to throw he’s in trouble AND once he totally forgets his innate gifts and training he’s in trouble.

My gym buddy had said after our class with the new teacher – “I just didn’t like her.” And it was true. There was no real reason not to like her but we didn’t. That may be because as Mr. Tierney’s article explains: “However wu wei is attained, there’s no debate about the charismatic effect it creates. It conveys an authenticity that makes you attractive, whether you’re addressing a crowd or talking to one person. The way to impress someone on a first date is to not seem too desperate to impress.”

The teacher who I had liked within two seconds, had achieved Wu Wei. She authentically loved what she did and trusted that we would too. What this newer teacher had done was let her desperation to impress, or in this case, I think it was her determination to impress, get in the way of any authenticity she had.

Again from the Times article “Some people, like politicians and salespeople, can get pretty good at faking spontaneity, but we’re constantly looking for ways to expose them. We put presidential candidates through marathon campaigns looking for that one spontaneous moment that reveals their “true” character.”

The above passage also supports my latest vendetta against the phrase: “Fake it till you make it.” Nobody likes a fake and nobody wants to trust someone “faking it.” I believe in the concept behind the phrase which is that sometimes we need to adopt values we may not think we have to help us feel successful. I just don’t like the idea of using the word “fake.” I believe it’s more important to convey the concept of trusting and/or uncovering our intrinsic qualities and letting them help us feel successful. So instead, I encourage people to adopt the phrase “Own it while you hone it.”

Mr. Tierney quotes Dr. Slingerland who says: “Our culture is very good at pushing people to work hard or acquire particular technical skills, But in many domains, actual success requires the ability to transcend our training and relax completely into what we are doing, or simply forget ourselves as agents.”

I will never forget very early in my teaching career when I was teaching at a city university here in New York, one of my students wrote in an evaluation after a class that I thought had been expertly taught. “Robyn, you are a great teacher but I don’t think you need to try so hard.” I was stunned! At first, I didn’t really know what she was talking about. I was hurt and I wanted to be angry and insulted but I couldn’t be. I instinctively knew that this was a good thing. What she was actually saying was, I see your intrinsic qualities and I want you to own them and trust them. I took that comment to heart and now, many years later, I am so thrilled that the feedback I most consistently get is more along the lines of: “You are so authentic” You make me feel so comfortable” “You are engaging” “I can tell you really believe in and love what you do.” That’s when I know that I’m being an agent of my skills and practicing the art of Wu Wei.

For me, Wu Wei comes about with a combination of:

  1. Knowing that you have obtained proficiency in the area you’re talking about.
  2.  Trusting that you are connected to your deepest truest authentic self and
  3. Being committed to helping the person(s) you’re speaking with for the sole purpose of enriching their lives.

That third part, not mentioned in the article, is extremely important, in my opinion, for those of us in business and leadership positions. These three parts of finding Wu Wei; Proficiency, authenticity, and generosity, is what I strive to bring out in the clients I work with and the companies I train.

So… let’s all stop trying so hard and become conscious of practicing Effortless Action – Wu Wei. If you need help, give me a call.


Coachiing Equipment

Is everyone coachable?  I often get asked a variation of this question. So I’ve been giving it some thought. By now I’ve worked with probably over a thousand clients. I’ve only had two who I felt did not make significant changes after working with me. In one instance, it was because the person really didn’t want to change, and in the second instance, the person really did want to change but had a hard time implementing my suggestions. Maybe I was the wrong coach for them. Maybe the timing was wrong. I know through my studies in Brain Science that our brain can develop new habits so why is it easier for some people to change than others?

Recently, I’ve been working with several clients who after less than two hours have made tremendous leaps in their presentation content, engagement factor, and delivery. It might be easy to pat myself on the back and call myself a miracle worker (okay, maybe I did that for a minute). But then I sat back and analyzed the situation.

Five of these clients were men working for the same company. So while working with the fifth gentleman and witnessing his quick progress, I mentioned to him how impressed I was that he and all of his colleagues made such significant changes so quickly. He told me that it was part of the company culture to be open to feedback and hungry for learning. He told me that the CEO models this and hires for that quality. I was thoroughly impressed. In the past few weeks I’d used the Chinese proverb “The Fish rots from the head down” to describe the problem with another organization I was working for. But here is proof that the opposite is also true. “The fish flourishes from the head down”

So that made me look at and categorize what goes into being coachable.

Willingness to Trust: The individuals in this organization were told that they would receive coaching on presentations skills. I do not know how much information they received about me or my company beforehand, but one day, I show up in their office with a video camera, asking them a bunch of questions about their presentations, videoing the way they are currently presenting and then, to quote one of my clients, “ripping them apart” (not completely true by the way. I gave him what I call my “compassionately frank” feedback on the engagement factor of his current presentation.)

Openness to feedback: of course, they did not all go gently into that good change. There were the usual excuses and “Yes, buts”: ‘I have an accent’, I like being informal and casual’, ‘don’t want to be a “presenter” “I like just hanging in the back and letting the slides do the work.” (???!!!) However, once I explained that an accent does not mean you have to be monotone. That there is a difference between being casual and uninteresting. And that sometimes too casual translates into not caring and arrogance. And that NO, it is not okay to hang in the back of the room while doing a presentation–they listened–really listened and did not push back.

Courage to try something new: In less than an hour, I gave these gentlemen, new ways to use their voice, new ways to sit and stand, new ways to start their presentations, new content to add to their presentations and slides, slides and habits that needed to be cut and destroyed, and new order for the information in their slides. And in each and every case, by the end of the two hours, they had implemented and tried on all of what I gave them, resulting in before and after videos the likes of which I rarely see.

So before you run out and hire a coach for yourself, make sure you exhibit these three qualities: Trust, Openness, and Courage. And if you are the head of any organization, team or company before you throw money away on coaching and training make sure you are modeling, hiring for, and valuing these qualities in your employees.

If you are ready to make your own changes, view my coaching programs here.