Archive | February, 2014

Celebrities & Their Vacation Homes: Is It, or Can It Become Common Practice for Celebrities to ‘Give Back’ to the Places that Welcome them with Open Arms?

25 Feb

Last summer, I went to the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, Bahamas, just minutes from Nassau, and it was a blast. I delighted in the water slides; I marveled over the incredible sea-life; I will be forever touched by my afternoon with Atlas, the dolphin; and the list goes on and on. Thousands of other people were also there, presumably having a grand time as well.

One evening, my husband and I decided to venture outside of the walls of the Atlantis Empire into downtown Nassau for dinner. What we observed on the cab-ride to and from the restaurant, coupled with what our cab driver shared with us, was disturbing, to say the least.

Just a half-mile from the Resort, the poverty was palpable. Housing that shouldn’t be considered housing. Schools that I couldn’t believe were schools. We passed a home for homeless infants and toddlers that had no less than 5 broken glass windows.

The fact that there are plenty of other locales across the globe where people are living in far worse conditions did nothing to quell my discomfort. What we were seeing and hearing about was (just a dose of) the reality of poverty in the Bahamian City of Nassau, and it was upsetting.

We learned from our cab driver that night (and heard it again from another cab driver as well as our boat-guide later in the week) that residents of the City of Nassau (and surrounding areas) who are not employed by one of the resorts or upscale hotels in the area generally live in poverty, some making as little as $55/week and supporting a family of five.

For many residents employed by Atlantis and the other resorts and hotels, it is not their hourly wages that keep them out of poverty. Rather, it’s the tips we give them for their efforts on our behalf, combined with their wages that enables them to make ends meet. The kind woman at the concierge desk; the people we see scouring the massive waterways filled with sea life; the people who clean our sometimes very messy room; those who serve us dinner; etc.

Low-wage jobs, and a very high cost of living (because everything must be imported) combine to make life a struggle for many residents of Nassau.

*****

Later in the week, we left the Resort again, this time to rent a boat and tour the island from the vantage point of the sea. Much to my husband’s disappointment, the camouflaged shallow waters and the reefs deceivingly close to the surface meant that we had to let someone else drive our boat and guide our journey. The disappointment vanished as soon as we met our jovial guide, Bally, who was born and raised in Nassau.

Bally was not only a kind man with a great sense of humor and an inspiring passion for his island. He was also generous (but not at all overbearing) in sharing his deep knowledge of the island’s history and current situation from a social, political and environmental perspective. With statistics and other hard facts, coupled with stories of his family and friends’ experiences on the island, we learned so much about the physical assets of the island and the extent to which so many are withering beyond repair. We learned about the area’s social and economic challenges, political structure, etc. He also told us about several local leaders who have done so much for the community, as well as those who have used their power and influence in damaging ways.

Bally was careful not to weigh us down with the struggles of the community, making sure to share fun island lore and excite us with the natural wonders of the area as well. The mood was light, with jokes and silliness in abundance and excitement about all that we were learning running high.

Then, everything changed for me. What Bally shared with us next sent my compassion into overdrive and also perplexed me beyond measure.

Towards the end of our boat ride, Bally took us on a tour of some of the celebrity vacation homes that abut the shoreline of Paradise Island and the Cays nearby. Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Sean Connery, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Eddie Murphy, John Travolta, Chuck Norris, and many other celebrities have vacation homes in Nassau. Some celebrities actually have two.

It stunned me to see such extraordinary wealth sitting so comfortably against a backdrop of a City in which poverty is so high. But, my stunned feeling was a cakewalk compared to the feelings that hit me when Bally told us that less than half – he thinks it’s more like a quarter – of the celebrities who own homes on the island support the local community through direct financial donations.

Bally was quick to tell us that some celebrity homeowners in the area have been very generous, mainly letting their name be associated and in some cases attending special charity events. But, according to Bally, most celebrity homeowners in Nassau don’t ‘give back’ in the form of financial support to their host community.

*****

It would be foolhardy for me to take one person’s perspective, a sample of only one, as fact. It could certainly be that many celebrities with vacation homes around Nassau, and other Cays in the Bahamian Archipelago, give generously to help the community. It is absolutely the case that celebrities with homes in other locales support their host community in a substantial, lasting way.

The question I was left with, however, which still lingers in my mind more than 6 months after my trip to Atlantis (and which compelled this post), is whether or not it could somehow become standard practice for celebrities – from any industry, anywhere in the world – to ‘give back’ in a financial way to their vacation home community. Can celebrities who already have a demonstrated commitment to philanthropic giving in their vacation home communities encourage thousands (millions?) of other celebrities to do the same?

Imagine the multiplier effect if even just a handful more celebrities started giving (or, for those who already give, opted to award more) to their vacation home community. It would unearth millions in additional philanthropic dollars directed to meet the needs of communities the whole world over.

Based on my novice research, it appears that a growing number of celebrities are not only building vacation homes but also buying entire islands throughout the Bahamian Archipelago. It’s exciting to think about the positive impact that celebrities could have on social and environmental needs in just the Bahamas alone. Add to that the many other communities where celebrities own homes (or so adore vacationing) and, well, you can do the math at this point.

*****

This piece is not meant to imply that celebrities, from all different industries and all over the world, are not already incredibly generous with their philanthropic giving. So many are, and they deserve our praise. My point here is to draw everyone’s (celebrities as well as the rest of us) attention to yet another, exciting opportunity that celebrities have to make an even greater lasting, positive difference in the lives of millions.

The good news is that this opportunity is not just for celebrities. All of us who own vacation homes and/or go on vacation each year can have a lasting positive impact on the communities we come to care about, the places that welcome us with open arms and ask for little in return. While my discretionary resources pale in comparison to celebrities, and I don’t happen to own a vacation home, I am emboldened to give a modest donation to each of the places I visit on vacation, not just because I see the multiplier effect that is possible if others do the same, but also because it feels good.

On a final note if, upon reading this piece, you – celebrities and common folk alike – are inclined to give (even more) to your vacation communities, you should know that there are some great on-line resources you can use to identify high-performing nonprofit charitable organizations in the communities you visit, and you can make your donation safely through their site. My favorites are GlobalGiving and Kiva Their search engines allow you to search by locale, and then by a particular cause you care about (homelessness, adoption, hunger, the environment, education, etc.). They will also keep you updated on the impact of your gift.

 

Can Hugh Jackman & Debora-Lee Furness’ Relatively Modest Grant to a Montreal Hospital Unearth Millions in New Philanthropic Capital?

15 Feb

Dear Debora-Lee Furness and Hugh Jackman,

I am writing to thank you for the generous grant you awarded in September 2013 to the Montreal Children’s Hospital on behalf of the entire X-Men: Days of Future Past film cast and crew while you were in Montreal, Canada shooting the movie. It was such a genuinely kind effort that will invariably help very ill children served by the Hospital.

While your $10,000 grant clearly benefits the Hospital, equally exciting is the potential your gift holds to unearth millions more dollars and benefit countless other nonprofit organizations in countless other communities the whole world over.

You see, by giving a grant in your film shoot location, and on behalf of the entire film making cast and crew, you have role-modeled for the rest of the motion picture arts industry just how easy and also how meaningful it can be for the entire film making team to say ‘thank you’ with a modest financial gift or, as I have dubbed it, to offer a ‘give back’ to their host community.

What if other actors (and/or producers, directors, other members of the film crew) followed your lead and awarded a however modest ‘Give Back’ grant the next time they are on location for their latest film?

Imagine the multiplier effect.

If even a third of all of the films that are shot out on location each year made it standard practice to award a relatively modest grant to a local nonprofit organization in the main location in which the film was made, it would unearth millions of dollars in new philanthropic capital, money that would be spread across the globe and help address countless different social and environmental issues. Even better, the organization that receives the grant in each film-location community will be able to use their high-profile ‘Give Back’ grant to leverage funding from other sources, thus making the pool of new philanthropic dollars even greater.

From Zimbabwe to Philadelphia, Mumbai to New Orleans, Cambodia to the Alaskan Frontier, so many places, people, natural habitats and causes could benefit in some way from the motion picture arts industry’s philanthropic investment in locales in which movies are made.

The types of investments could be as wide and varied as the places they touch: the introduction of fiber optics in a remote, resource-scarce village in Papa New Guinea; an international social media campaign to draw attention to the need to improve the conditions of orphanages in Australia; replication of the telemedicine model for providing healthcare to medically underserved rural communities in the Southern Plains States in North America; a sustainable water quality improvement project in Uruguay; etc.

It doesn’t have to be a complicated or time-consuming process to select the cause and the nonprofit and make the gift. It’s understandable that cast and crew may not be able to participate given the long hours and pressure to get to the finish line as soon as possible when out on location. If the film team doesn’t have the time or know-how, there are experts out there (myself included) who can do all of the legwork, engage the film cast and crew as their time allows and make the entire process efficient and meaningful for everyone involved. Regardless of whether they participate directly, without question the entire film cast and crew still gets to walk away (after days, weeks, or months of exhausting work) with their heads held high, having left an indelible positive mark on the community that just hosted them without asking for too much in return.

Mr. Jackman and Ms. Furness, I applaud you for helping address the needs of very ill, vulnerable children in Montreal.  At the same time, I am excited by the prospect your thoughtful effort holds to make a ‘Give Back’ grant in film locations across the globe common practice within the entire motion picture arts industry.

All My Best,

Dara

What If Appreciation Always Accompanied Expectation In Our Daily Lives?

14 Feb

I just returned from a brief trek through the snow/ice/thunderstorm we’re having in Philadelphia, PA. I had no choice but to face the elements because I was out of coffee, and the headache was already raring its head.

The first person I saw was a man working very hard to free our sidewalks of what was clearly a very deep, very thick and very heavy combo of snow, ice and slush.  I said, ‘thank you’ and continued on my journey to the coffee shop.

Minutes later, I saw a woman outside a highly populated office building shaking the ice and snow off of what I’m certain were extremely cold and heavy doormats. She was clearly working hard to ensure that no one slips on their way in or out of the building. I made a point of catching her eye and smiling as I passed her.

Fast forward a few blocks, and I arrived at my beloved coffee haunt and purchased my latte. With fuel in hand, I was about to use all of my weight to exit through the shop’s ultra heavy door when a random passerby, who had no intention of entering the store, stopped and held the door for me. I gave him a huge smile and thanked him twice for his kindness. I am fairly certain we both walked away feeling a little lighter from our brief encounter.

When I returned to my condo building, one of the women who normally sits behind the desk in our lobby had stationed herself outside in the zero degree weather because the front door wasn’t opening automatically like it should, and she wanted people to be able to get into the building as quickly as possible. Yes, you guessed right. I thanked her.

With the exception of the man who held the door for me at the coffee place, all of the people I have mentioned here are paid to do what they were doing. In this way, it’s reasonable for us to expect it. But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also be grateful to them for their efforts, which in these instances must have been less than enjoyable. And, by grateful, I don’t simply mean we should feel it. I mean taking the millisecond that it takes to outwardly express your appreciation. A smile is certainly great, but to say thank you (or some variation thereof) is even better. If you make eye contact and direct your words at them, they will have no choice but to realize they are the intended recipient of your appreciation.

Having these moments during my 20-minute journey made me think about how often I spend my days in a state of expectation and forget to allow feelings of appreciation to enter my mind and, moreover, to express them. I’m referring here to the things that are so regular and so ingrained in our course of daily living that it is easy to take them for granted.

My mail being delivered to my door each and every day (with the exception of holidays, of course). My trash picked up every week (with the exception of holidays and massive snowstorms, which is understandable). My streets cleared of snow, litter and goodness knows what else on a regular basis.

We are quick to get annoyed – and often feel our world is being rocked – when the things that are part and parcel of our daily lives don’t happen the way we expect them to, but how often do press the pause button on our over-cluttered, often racing and high expectation-oriented minds and take a moment to let ourselves feel genuine appreciation for ordinary things when they do happen? How often do we skip right over a well-deserved level of appreciation due to our (over-heightened?) expectation that something will be done?

What if we all operated with the mindset that appreciation should always accompany expectation, that there is, without a doubt, a naturally occurring symbiotic relationship between expectation and appreciation? I have no doubt that our individual and collective frame of mind would be all the better for it. Moving forward, I aspire to live much more fully in this manner and hope that upon reading this ever so simplistic piece I have encouraged you to follow suit.

Can the Clinton Global Initiative Showcase for the Rest of Us the Philanthropic Power of Special Events?

14 Feb

 

The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) held its 2013 Annual Meeting at the end of September 2013. By all accounts, it was a spectacular event, drawing more than 1000 people from across the globe. According to the CGI’s Blog, over the three days of the 2013 Annual Meeting, an array of Heads of State, CEOs, non-profit leaders and other global luminaries made over 160 new commitments, valued at more than $10 billion and expected to impact nearly 22 million lives.”

In case you’re not familiar with it, former President Bill Clinton established the Clinton Global Initiative in 2005 with a mission to ‘turn ideas into action’. The Initiative’s hallmark is its Annual Meeting, which is held in New York City each year, and convenes leaders from across the globe to work together to create innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing issues.

The Annual Meeting provides a safe, neutral and stimulating forum for people from diverse backgrounds and professions, and vastly different, in some cases conflicting interests and ideologies, to come together. Many of those who attend the CGI Annual Meeting would not have the occasion or, in some cases, the inclination to come together otherwise to discuss and work together to conceive shared goals and strategies and a common plan for action to address a wide range of issues.

Through the CGI Annual Meeting, leaders learn from both panel experts and from each other; engage in healthy, hearty intellectual debate; forge new relationships; and create new and also determine how to build on existing promising strategies to address problems plaguing our world. From each Annual Meeting comes a series of both macro- and micro-level initiatives that are ready for implementation.

Without question, the CGI Annual Meeting as it stands now deserves our attention and praise. It is, at its core, a philanthropic endeavor, one that seems to be making a difference.

But, what if the Clinton Global Initiative took its Annual Meeting one simple step further by harnessing and in turn showcasing the philanthropic power of special events at the event itself?

What if part and parcel of the CGI Annual Meeting was a philanthropic gift that was collectively generated by, decided upon and awarded at the time of the event by the event’s attendees, speakers and organizers to a high performing nonprofit organization that is addressing a major social or environmental need, either in the event’s host community, or in another locale decided upon by the event’s attendees?

The significant pool of philanthropic funds could be generated through a modest add-on to the event’s registration fee (as little as $50-$100), and an entirely voluntary ‘grant committee’, composed of event attendees and speakers, would be established to decide the social or environmental need and the high performing nonprofit to receive the grant, and then the award would be presented as part of the exciting conclusion of the event.

Isn’t that a win-win-win?

You, the event attendee or speaker, are not only all the richer for the knowledge you have gained and the insights you contributed at the event. You also get to walk away with your head held high, knowing that your relatively modest donation, pooled with the modest donations of the event’s hundreds of other attendees and speakers, leveraged a sizable pot of philanthropic funds that wouldn’t have been generated otherwise. You (along with your fellow attendees and speakers) then get to personally award the funds to a carefully vetted, high performing nonprofit organization that is addressing a high priority need.

Event hosts and organizers will benefit in myriad ways, depending on the type of event (educational or industry conferences, award ceremonies, corporate retreats, membership association meetings, among others). They may garner positive media attention that the event would not attract otherwise; membership organizations may cultivate greater loyalty among members and expand their membership base; individual companies, and in some cases industries as a whole can further build a reputation for having a strong social conscience and ‘giving back’; etc.

The nonprofit organization that receives the grant will not only benefit from the generous pool of funds you and your fellow event participants leveraged through relatively modest donations from individual participants. It can also use your grant to leverage additional funding from other sources, thus making the grant dollars you leveraged exponentially greater.

A key question, however, is whether those of us paying the already steep registration fees for events (whether we are an individual, a company, a grant making foundation, or another entity) would resent the additional fee, regardless of its charitable purpose. Would we also take an exception to the registration fee add-on when many of us already have specific charities that we support on our own each year and don’t want to feel ‘pushed’ to support another?

What do you think?

As a consultant to nonprofits, philanthropies and companies for the past 25 years, I’ve certainly attended my fair share of professional conferences, association meetings, annual retreats, award ceremonies and the like. I’ve paid for many on my own and also had many underwritten by clients. Whether I’m writing the check myself or giving the event billing information to my client, either way I often grimace at the cost of the event.

And, yet, I’m 100% in favor of seizing what I consider an incredible opportunity for events of all different types, which take place by the thousands each year, to help us unearth a significant level of additional philanthropic capital and truly maximize the power of collective philanthropic action. It makes sense from both a business and a social conscience perspective.

With just a modest donation, I can become part and parcel of generating and awarding a significant pool of philanthropic dollars, most likely more money at just one event than I could afford to give in my entire lifetime. The multiplier effect of each of our modest donations is palpable. If just 25% of the events held each year generated a pool of funds and awarded a philanthropic gift, it would increase the level of philanthropic dollars committed to address social and environmental needs literally by the millions.

Especially for events that are already organized around a social mission, such as the CGI Annual Meeting, the National Council on Foundations Annual Conference, etc., it seems only logical that they would use the event itself as an opportunity to showcase their social values and commitment. But, it is also logical, not to mention the right thing to do for all kinds of conferences, conventions, corporate retreats, award ceremonies such as the Motion Picture Arts’ Academy Awards, among countless others, to do the same.

Now back to the Clinton Global Initiative.

Given its high-profile, excellent reputation, the diversity of human talent and intellectual capital it draws, and its philanthropic mission, the CGI Annual Meeting is especially well positioned to showcase for the rest of us the role that events can have on addressing social and environmental needs.

My hope is that the Clinton Global Initiative will embrace this role at its 2014 Annual Meeting and, in so doing serve as a game-changer when it comes to unleashing and capitalizing on the power of collective philanthropic action through events. Let’s learn from CGI’s Annual Meeting how it could work, the positive imprint it could leave and the fabulous ripple effect it will (hopefully) have with special events the whole world over.

Caution: Don’t Let Anxiety Drive Your Next Presentation

7 Feb

Many of us have had this experience. We get so nervous about a presentation – a pitch to a major investor prospect; a keynote address at the foremost international conference of your industry; your first board meeting as the company’s new CEO; and so on – that we decide this particular presentation is the performance that defines whether we are great or not, the performance that will make or break our career. We don’t sleep because of it. We get blocked when trying to compose it and help from others feels useless.

Our nerves takeover, and then the worst happens: We get so hyper-focused on addressing our nervousness that we go on autopilot during our presentation. We let our adrenalin lead the way. We become fixated on just getting through the presentation.

Why is giving your talk in autopilot mode such a problem? Because several of the strategies that are essential for a stellar presentation will likely be missed. If your (private) goal is simply to get through the presentation, you will lose your capacity to:

  • READ YOUR AUDIENCE IN ADVANCE. It is essential to make every effort possible to interact with your audience members before you give your presentation. This may sound silly and obvious, but it is neither.

Especially when the audience is substantial, but even when it is just a small group, presenters often reserve informal conversation for after their talk. Even those who do interact with audience members beforehand often limit it to the people they know. If you don’t speak with your participants right before your presentation, you won’t know their mood, expectations, concerns, distractions, etc., on that particular day. Getting a read of your audience just moments before you go on stage gives you the opportunity to ensure that your presentation style is in keeping with the ‘pulse’ of your audience. Reading your audience members, in this context, refers to both verbal and non-verbal cues, e.g., the look in their eyes, their tone and posture when speaking with you, their negative or positive attitude when speaking, etc.

Informal conversations with individual audience members immediately prior to your presentation can also substantially reduce the adrenalin running through your body and help prevent you from going into autopilot mode during your presentation. Even a small amount of familiar, relatively light-hearted interaction has the power to distract you and lower your anxiety before all eyes turn to you.

  • BE FLEXIBLE. Flexibility is essential, yet nervous energy can make us inflexible and diminish our capacity for spontaneous creativity during our presentation. 

You need to be flexible and open-minded to be able to read the tenor of your audience. Flexibility positions you to adapt your presentation style prior to going on stage and/or at any point during the presentation. Be flexible in your responses to questions and comments. Give the impression of flexibility and comfort through your body language, tone and inflection in your voice, eye contact, etc. Your audience will pick up and may respond negatively to both verbal and non-verbal cues, in some cases without even realizing it.

  • LISTEN, NOT JUST WITH YOUR EARS, BUT ALSO WITH YOUR EYES, BODY LANGUAGE AND FACIAL EXPRESSION.

In the same way that our nerves can impede our ability to craft and prepare for our presentation, they can also limit our capacity to pause, take a deep breath and listen authentically to the questions people pose once we have finished our song-and-dance. More than anything else, people need to feel heard and that you deem their question important. They may be as nervous asking their question as you were before or during your presentation.

Use eye contact, an open posture and a warm (never speculative or judging) facial expression to give affirmation (even when you think their question is completely off the wall). Repeating their question is an especially good strategy to make them feel heard. It also gives you the opportunity to sharpen and crystallize their question in a way that makes them feel especially smart and also ensures the rest of the audience understands it.

  • NOT KNOWING THE ANSWER IS FINE. GIVING AN OFF-POINT OR SHALLOW RESPONSE SIMPLY BECAUSE YOU WANT YOUR AUDIENCE TO THINK YOU KNOW THE ANSWER IS NOT.

Given your role as the resident expert on your presentation topic, it’s natural for you to feel you need to have an immediate and incredibly provocative answer to every question posed. I’m here to tell you that this is not the case. In fact, just the opposite is true. A lofty or even slightly off-point answer can leave a lasting negative impression and diminish your credibility.

By the same token, you can earn more credibility and gain greater appreciation (and increase your likability quotient) if you pause for a moment to consider their question, affirm it was a good one and then tell them (and the rest of the audience) that it deserves more thought and you would like to get back to them at a later point. You can use such lines as, “That’s an interesting question. Thank you for making all of us think about it. I don’t want to give you a shoot-from-the-hip answer. Let me think about it and get back to you.” You can commit to speaking with them right after the presentation or get their email to respond in writing, which obviously buys you more time.

  • SILENCE WHEN YOU INVITE THE AUDIENCE TO ASK QUESTIONS IS NOT A SIGN OF FAILURE. 

You may have an especially shy audience. You may have captivated your audience so fully with your presentation that they didn’t dare get distracted with generating their own questions. Who knows why they are not deluging you with questions. It doesn’t matter.

Simply have some questions at the ready to throw out to your audience. Posing questions to them will transfer some of the power back to your audience and encourage them to use their voice. It will also help keep your anxiety down because you will be in control, at least to start, of the scope of the questions asked.

***

Below are some strategies to help control your anxiety on the day of your presentation. These may sound obvious or like ‘fluff’ to some of you, but I promise you they are neither.

  • While it is certainly fine to review your notes on the day of, you also need to set a cutoff point to your prepping efforts that is well in advance of stage time. Your mind needs a break so it can regenerate and give you fresh energy for your presentation. Go for a walk; do something you excel in (professionally or personally); call someone who makes you laugh; or whatever works for you.
  • About 30-60mins before (or preferably even closer to the time of) your presentation, force yourself to sit down for 15mins, close your eyes (or, for those of you who think that’s too hokey, focus your eyes on something in the room), and draw on the mental ‘toolbox’ of effective distractions that you have established for yourself when you’re at the height of anxiety. Effective distractions vary for each of us, depending on our personality, anxiety level and the types of thoughts about people, places or things that bring us joy or at least some positive energy. Distractions may include: the award you won last year that made you feel so proud; the new business deal you just closed; how much all of the kids on your daughter’s soccer team love having you as their coach; the vacation you have coming up with your loved one; the hilarious thing your dog did yesterday; etc.
  • Definitely don’t engage in anything professional or personal on the day of that heightens your anxiety. I know that some of you are thinking that this suggestion is shortsighted on my part and unachievable on yours. But, even if you’re the CEO and your schedule is overloaded with critical decisions, meetings and tasks, you still owe it to yourself and to your company to lighten your work schedule and/or limit it to only meetings and tasks that makes us feel especially competent, confident and accomplished on the day of a big presentation.

Have any more suggestions to offer? I hope this post has been affirming and also helpful to you. Most of all, I hope it helps you realize that it is not only okay but actually human to feel anxious, and that your anxiety doesn’t need to dictate the fate of your presentation, or anything else in your life for that matter.

 

What’s Your ‘E-Style’? Effective Email Communication Skills are Essential to Your Success

7 Feb

I have seen it happen so many times. I have been the recipient, and I must shamefully confess that I have also caused it a few times as well. It goes something like this:

An employee sends an email to a coworker that is meant to relay benign, purely factual information about an important project they are working on together, a project that is about to be presented to the client and can make or break their advancement within the company.

Because the email begins with little or no context for the message, and/or because the sender uses a particular word incorrectly or structured a sentence so poorly that it altered the meaning or the tone of the sentence, the message is not well-received.

Tension between the two employees mounts as a result, tension that could have been avoided if the sender had what I refer to as effective ‘e-soft skills’, namely the set of skills needed for effective and appropriate email communication in the workplace. Because those skills were lacking, just one email caused a misunderstanding and negative feelings that could impact the quality of their joint presentation and ultimately threaten the project and their opportunity for advancement.

An ‘e-soft’ skill as simple as knowing to include a few sentences at the start of the email that sets the tone and provides context for the purpose of the email might have prevented the recipient’s upset. An otherwise well-composed, thoughtfully worded and straightforward email might have allowed the reader to recognize that it was entirely unintentional and overlook the fact that just one sentence with poor structure gave a paternalistic tone to what should have been a neutral statement.

Without question, technology-based communication, particularly email, has fundamentally improved the way individuals, nonprofit organizations, companies, governments, etc., interact, and we are all the better for it. This post is anything but an argument against the use of technology-based communication in the workplace (or for personal use). We should continue to use and in turn benefit from email and the many other forms of technology that increase our company’s ability to compete and increase marketshare. To do this, however, you need to ensure that your employees have soft skills specific to email communication, not just in-person and phone communication.

There is a strong evidence base showing the direct correlation between employees’ soft skills, often referred to as emotional intelligence, and the performance of individual employees and teams, organizational culture, and the overall success of a company. To date, our understanding of the soft skills necessary for optimal communication and interactions and, likewise, the types of soft skills coaching available for employees has largely centered around in-person and phone communication. Skills include tone, explicit and implicit attitudes, body language, word choice, eye contact, active listening, reading behavioral cues, and other skills.

While these skills, and the coaching offered by my consulting practice as well as others in the field will continue to be needed, our increasing use of technology as an essential form of correspondence calls for all of us, at all levels of the organization, to ensure we are also equipped with a somewhat different set of soft skills, namely e-soft skills that are specifically tailored to technology.

For technology-based communication, soft skills that employees need still include many of those we understand to be essential for effective in-person interaction, such use of tone, word choice, etc. But, the definition, teaching and application of these soft skills take on a whole new light when it comes to communicating through email and other forms of technology. It is not just the greater use of the written word, but also the specific writing styles needed for email and other forms of technology-based written correspondence to be most effective in a professional context.

Essential e-soft skills for the workplace also include logical flow, sentence structure, the ability to communicate information in a brief, cogent manner using bullet-points, among many other skills. These and other e-soft skills enable employees to communicate most effectively with one another and with customers, clients, competitors and other external parties, through technology.

With technology-based communication has come a greater emphasis on brevity, and the use of bullet-points or what I refer to as ‘articulate sound-bites’. The highest quality professional emails are mainly composed of short key points in list format and contain only a handful of brief paragraphs of text. Writing in a bullet-format is now generally accepted professional etiquette for emails. Twitter and other soundbite-only, fast-paced forms of communication also require a high level of comfort and proficiency as relates to vocabulary, tone, word-choice, logical ordering, etc.

Including e-soft skills as a criterion in your hiring (and firing) decisions, and providing ongoing professional coaching in this area for your new hires and prized employees is essential for your company to compete and thrive.

What If We Softened Our Judgments With Curiosity?

7 Feb

It’s happened to most of us at some point. You’re waiting patiently for a prime parking spot on a busy center city street, idling several feet ahead of the space, ready as ever to back your car right into it. Then, all of a sudden, completely out of the blue someone from behind the departing car jumps in and nabs YOUR space. A typical reaction might be something like:

“What an [insert expletive here]! How could he be so rude? He should be banished from the streets or, no, better yet, banished from this world! I want to pound him. He’s ruined my day for sure.”

But what if, almost immediately following your initial, reflexive reaction of anger and incredulousness, you then let a hint of curiosity about what compelled the space-stealer’s actions permeate your rock-solid conviction that he is a complete jerk? What if your judgmental thoughts were combined not only with curiosity but also a modicum of empathy, which in turn allowed you to consider that maybe, just maybe, there was a legitimate reason for his poor behavior?

What if the conversation in your head went something like this instead:

“What an [expletive]! I can’t stand him! Hmm, I wonder why he stole my space. Is it possible that he had a legitimate reason? Could it be that he was late for a job interview that would prevent his family from being evicted from their apartment? Or, maybe his wife was in labor at the hospital around the corner?

Maybe he was so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he honestly didn’t realize I was already in line for the space? I’ll never know the real reason, and it was definitely a really crummy experience, but what’s done is done. Time to find another parking space and move on with my day.”

At the very least, if you can interrupt the negative emotions you’re experiencing for just a few seconds it will keep your anger from building further and take some of the sting out of your bad experience. If you can open your mind to curiosity and compassion for 30 seconds or more, there is a good chance that you will drive away no worse for the wear and actually forget about the experience.

Thanks to experts in the field of neuroplasticity, we now have a substantial base of research that shows that we really can shift not only our mood in a particular situation, but also our recurring patterns of thought on an ongoing basis. The first conversation above would invariably leave your anger festering. Equally upsetting, your bad mood following the incident could lead you to treat a colleague, friend or someone else, who is entirely undeserving, in a way that causes you to feel ashamed later, thus perpetuating the cycle of negativity.

But, what if you let your thought patterns follow the course of the second conversation above, the one that takes your thinking from entirely angry and upset, to still a little sore but also a bit curious and open to the possibility that there could be legitimate reasons for this man’s ‘undesirable’ (a less negative word than ‘rude’) behavior?

By allowing some positive thoughts to enter your mind, there is a very strong possibility that your entire mood will shift. Heck, there’s also the chance you might even recall the time you stole a prime parking space from some unsuspecting soul (for a legitimate reason, of course).

The positive effects of shifting from a mindset of exclusively judgment, to one that also includes curiosity and allows for a level of empathy and open-mindedness applies to far more than a stolen parking space. Some other possible scenarios that might hit closer to home for you:

  • An employee still hasn’t sent the email that you asked him to send to a client the day before. It’s totally understandable that you may feel annoyed and concerned about it. But, can you also inject some curiosity into those thoughts? Can you say to yourself, “I wonder why he didn’t send the email? Could it be that he didn’t know what to write but felt like I might be upset with him if he asked me for input? Is he overwhelmed with work and doesn’t know how to prioritize? There’s always the chance that he wasn’t being insubordinate.”
  • You see a woman walking down the street in an outfit you think is hideous, and it triggers a snap judgment, something to the effect of: ‘What an outrageously hideous outfit! She clearly has no fashion sense! How about turning your conclusion about her lack of style into a question instead: “Yikes, I really don’t like her outfit. While it’s definitely not my style, maybe she’s ahead of her time and knows fashion trends that I’m not yet aware of? Maybe she’s on her way home from a costume party where the theme was ‘standout fashion’? Clearly, I have no idea.”
  • You are already in a bad mood from a stressful day at work, and on your drive home you see a larger than life-size sculpture that you don’t like. Perhaps if you verbalized your reaction, it would sound something like, “Wow, the artist who made that thing must be nuts. It’s awful. Whoever decided it should be located in a public setting is also crazy.” What if you shifted your thought process to one that’s not so closed and judgmental? How about a more open-minded mental state that allows for the possibility that it could be that you don’t know a lot about this type of art. Or, maybe this particular piece is ‘simply over your head’ (a phrase I use when I can tell that I am making an unreasonable presumption that my opinion is the only opinion and everyone should agree with me).

The next time you realize you’re judging someone (stranger, friend, relative, colleague, etc.), or a particular situation or issue, try changing some of your (verbalized or not) thoughts to questions rather than statements and see what happens. Try being curious about the reasons why someone did or didn’t do something that bothered you rather than viewing it only in a negative light and assuming your judgment is accurate and your perspective is the only one possible.