At a cocktail party, five executives engage in chit-chat with each other and assorted guests. It is a very typical kind of affair. Hors d’oeuvres and martinis and harmless social banter. Entirely unexceptional. Three days later the same executives appear, one at a time, before a panel of judges to present a business plan. The winning plan will be fully financed by a team of venture capitalists. Sandy Pentland and Daniel Olguin, researchers at the MIT Human Dynamics Lab, closely monitor the behavior of the five executives at the cocktail party. Without reading or hearing their pitches to the panel, without any inkling at all of what the executives will propose, they forecast who will present the winning plan.
Accurately, of course.
Powerful stuff, I think to myself. So what the heck did Pentland and Olguin monitor? They outfitted the executives with devices that recorded data on their social signals – not what they said, but their tone of voice, gesticulation, proximity to others, personal energy, and more. All that is not spoken. Pentland and Olguin call these unspoken signals honest signals (Honest Signals, MIT Press, 2008). A biological term, honest signals describe the nonverbal cues that social species use to coordinate themselves – gestures, expressions, tone. Humans are unusual in that their honest signals will cause changes in the receiver. Clear, biological changes. When asked in an interview in Harvard Business Review which kind of honest signals are most clearly identified with successful people, Pentland’s answer was emphatic: “The more successful people are more energetic.” (HBR, January 2010)
So what do I do, you may ask? Turn on my energy faucet a little more?
Let me take you to another event. On a balmy November evening, 800 people cram into the hulking Chapman Conference Room at Miami-Dade College in downtown Miami. Several hundred others hover outside the doors, waiting in vain to claim a seat. A languid autumn breeze wafts through the building’s courtyard, and yet there is a current of excitement in the air. The occasion? Nobel-prize winning author Orhan Pamuk is the featured guest at The Miami International Book Fair, and folks have come to see and hear him.
When Mr. Pamuk takes the stage he recounts his evolution as a writer and reads from his latest novel, The Museum of Innocence. My friend Letty Bassart and I sit in the tenth row. The moment Mr. Pamuk starts to read I suddenly connect with memories of my childhood, part of it spent in Istanbul, the setting of his book. I connect with memories of the 1970s, the time period when the main action of the book occurs. I connect with the characters as they navigate their way through sexual exploration and first love. I connect with things I had not contemplated for quite a long time. I connect, if you will, with parts of myself that I had temporarily forgotten.
A few minutes into Mr. Pamuk’s reading Letty gives me a nudge. We look at the audience around us and marvel. Folks are sitting with their bodies lurching forward. Heads cupped. Eyes closed to better absorb the words. Arms reaching for a loved one sitting next to them. The body language of intense engagement is all around us. At the same time this physical spell is imbued with a remarkable stillness. There is an absence of rustling or nervous coughing or buttocks shifting in seats. The energy in the room is palpable, as if it could be touched. It is the sort of energy that comes with rapt attention and surrender.
Irony has it, the moment Mr. Pamuk uttered his first words I noticed his accent. Mr. Pamuk’s command of the English language is impeccable, but English is clearly not his native tongue. When he reads from his book, he reads the English words as translated by someone else, not the original Turkish words he wrote. And since we are in Miami, much of the audience around us does not claim English as its first language, either. It doesn’t matter. Connection is a gift that happens in a realm other than words. The imagination of the author stirs our imagination, well beyond the literal meaning of language. We connect at the level of all that is human, universal, timeless. We connect at the level of the cellular and the unspoken.
The event with Orhan Pamuk lasts 90 minutes at best, but Letty and I leave feeling immensely satisfied. Stirred. Alive. And yes – dare I say it – strangely connected to all of the other book lovers around us.
A reading is a formal event, of course. Roles are defined. The author shows up with the intent to communicate, and the audience comes with the intent to receive the communication. Yet we all have attended equally formal events where we couldn’t wait to bolt out of the room. What made this a memorable evening? Was it the beauty of Mr. Pamuk’s writing? The collective curiosity of the audience? Each of these elements, no doubt, contributed to the unfolding of this delicious event. But the real connectors, of this I am certain, were all the intangible qualities that emanated from Mr. Pamuk. His inexorable charm. His wit, his warm personal energy. More so than the seductiveness of his writing, Mr. Pamuk himself was the conduit who created the possibility of connection.
Connectability is Mission Critical
Why does Mr. Pamuk’s ability to connect matter? Well, I trust that Mr. Pamuk’s skill as a personal connector instantly spiked his book sales that evening. The line of folks waiting for him to autograph a book ringed the entire back of the conference center and spilled out into the lobby. Increased book sales benefit Mr. Pamuk personally and make his publisher happy. But more importantly, they help him to affect more readers, touch more people, and create more connections that reach well beyond the ephemeral experience of this Friday night. They magnify his impact on the world.
Here’s how the connection conversation unfolds in my firm. The most common request we receive goes something like this: “Marjorie is a Senior VP and one of our brightest stars. She is highly respected by all of her colleagues. But Marjorie lacks executive presence. Can you help her?” Executive presence is a marvelous code word that encapsulates a lot of unspoken signals and messages. In plain English, it always boils down to this: Marjorie doesn’t engage or inspire folks. Her energy doesn’t spark the imagination of others. In high-stakes situations, Marjorie fails to connect.
The other request we often hear is a little more direct: “Ricardo is really bright and a great asset to our company. But people who work for him get frustrated with his rambling style and lack of clarity. Eventually they just tune out. Can you help him be more effective?” This inquiry is commonly framed as a need to tweak a person’s communication style. That is, in many instances, accomplished with relative ease. What is almost never said, however, is what lies beneath: Ricardo doesn’t connect with people, and they certainly do not connect with him.
For anyone who wishes to succeed in business – whether you’re an entrepreneur building your own company or a professional in a large corporation – the ability to connect is vital. Not just vital – essential, mission critical. Without it every one of us eventually hits the glass ceiling. Glass ceilings exist in nearly every aspect of business life. Connectability – the ease and consistency with which we connect with others – is the least talked about yet in many ways most daunting of these ceilings.
It never fails. When I receive the phone call for help, I am not asked to assist the professional who somehow fails to generate results. No, it is invariably because a fast-rising superstar has hit this ceiling. More often than not it is the high producer. The one who excelled at school, the one who can outsmart the rest of the team at the drop of a dime. His inability to meaningfully connect in high-level business situations suddenly becomes the deal-breaker. The first time it happens is the moment when everything suddenly turns. When being very good at what he does isn’t good enough anymore.
Mind you, I am not talking about your personality, your likability, your manners, or the constellations of your Myers-Briggs profile. They are all a part of this conversation, yes – but just a very, very small part. We are simply talking about the ability to forge a resonant connection with another human being. HR professionals do not like to talk about this. Connectability doesn’t show up on performance reviews. It is deemed too difficult to quantify. “The inability to forge collaborative relationships” is as close as we get to describing the problem. Yes, we have created lots of code language to dance around this pretty self-evident truth: Individuals who know how to consistently connect get rewarded. Individuals who don’t – well, they are shipped to the expert graveyard. They don’t get called back for the second interview, in spite of their exceptional qualifications. They don’t get the promotion they have worked so hard to earn. They simply aren’t invited to the party.
Our Habits Inhibit Connection
Here’s the vicious part about connecting: All of us operate within a confounding cultural paradox. At work, we spend more and more of our time communicating with people. We have access to technology that accelerates our ability to reach others. We complain about the amount of emails we send and receive. We attend one mandatory meeting after another. In person, via phone. We talk pretty much non-stop. Add to this what we do in our private lives. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that half of American teenagers – the next generation of our workforce – send 50 or more text messages a day, and that one third sends more than a 100 a day (Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 3/12/2012). Two thirds of the teen texters interviewed by the center asserted that they were, in fact, more likely to use their cell phones to text friends than to call them.
We’re busy doing lots of communicating. Lots and lots of it.
Top this off with the fact that us grown-ups have been trained to speak in corporate-speak that doesn’t offend. We have attended Business Writing classes that teach us to be concise. We abhor emails that get detailed. Much of our daily communication is reduced to the exchange of quick bits of information. We have stripped communication down to its bare bones.
We communicate at a furious pace – yet we connect less and less.
I believe that, at times, a routine conversation about absolutely nothing can be very satisfying. In that moment, with that particular person, it may be all I desire. I believe just as strongly, however, that a deep, spine-tingling connection is an inherently good thing. I believe that it is an age-old, primordial experience. I believe that such a connection creates good feelings in us and others. It accelerates our success in the world. I also believe that in an increasingly complex world, circumstances conspire against genuine connection while connection becomes more critical than ever. Something that a generation ago seemed simple doesn’t seem so simple anymore.
Remembering the Possible
Sometimes we get lucky, and we stumble into a moment that gives us the proverbial goose-bumps on the skin. Such a moment reminds us of how simple a connection really is – and how we can know it, with every part of our body.
I remember a drive I took with Ane and Baba – my Mom and Dad – on the German Autobahn, sometime in the spring of 2002. Germany is the country where I was born, and this was a quintessentially grey German morning, the sky hanging low with thick, lumpy clouds. I was returning from a pilgrimage to one of my spiritual teachers, Mother Meera, and Ane and Baba were chauffeuring me back to the Frankfurt airport. We sat in the car, and we chatted about absolutely nothing as we headed down the Autobahn from Limburg. It was, in fact, an utterly ordinary drive. Yet, as I sat in the backseat of their old ’93 Mercedes, I felt a delicious sense of peace and calm. Waves of joy washed over my body. It is hard to put it into words, but somehow my body knew that for this moment all was well in the world, that this ride with Ane and Baba was the most perfect ride that could unfold just then. The faded brown leather of the car seats, the scratched veneer of the formica dashboard, the curled up carpet at the tip of my shoes – they all seemed to vibrate with a flickering energy. Everything, and every one of us in the car, was touched by this energy. It was as if all of our molecules were plugged into one large cosmic energy plug.
Such moments with my parents were a rare occurrence, that’s why I remember this ride so well. When I strip away the outer circumstances of that particular morning, I am left with this: Locked into that old Mercedes of theirs, Ane and Baba and I were, in a way, returning to an original state of being. A state of ease with others. A state where connectedness is tactile, vibratory, and enormously satisfying. Where, within every fiber of our being, it feels darn good.
What if we actually knew how to make such spine-tingling moments happen? What if such moments were not mere lucky accidents? Better yet – what if we could make them happen in our business relationships, day in, day out?
Here’s what I know. Folks who connect really well connect on four levels. These four levels move from the visible to the invisible realm, from the surface to the core, from the small moment to the cosmic one. We all play on all of these levels all the time. Thing is, most of us don’t play with any measure of consciousness. We don’t play the levels, the levels play us and every interaction we have. At times, this may work nicely. Just as I did during my car ride with Ane and Baba, we all stumble into the occasional moment of grace. Often, we connect on just one or two of the levels. That’s fine. But when we habitually don’t play well on one or several of the levels, we actively inhibit connection. We do so, day in and day out. We always run smack up against our own glass ceiling. We never get to the infectious connections – not even the accidental ones.
In Infectious, we will immerse ourselves in exploring the 4 Levels of Connection (Table I). I will make each level as accessible as I can for you. I hope that as you explore the pages of this book, you will find, at each level, concrete tools that will assist you in fine-tuning how you engage with others. This is the work I do with my cherished business clients. In the pages that follow I place all of my tools at your fingertips. Try them out. Explore. And please have fun!
Level 1 is the Talk Level
We have been told that creating a connection depends on our ability to have a conversation. That’s what is taught in corporate communication programs and, if you arefortunate, your university. How we ask questions, how we listen. If you studied neuro-linguistic programming, you learned the advanced version of this material: how to notice and match the communication signals of those with whom you engage. Good stuff. The folks I coach, however, know this and are often still not as compelling as they would like to be in a one-on-one chat. So I have reduced surface conversation skills down to six very, very simple principles. Of this I am certain: These principles work. They are simple, and that is their beauty. When we apply them with rigor, they make a palpable difference in how we show up and how others experience us.
Pentland and Olguin clearly show us that what we say is only a tiny portion of our personal impact. Agreed – but a lack of finesse at the Talk level is a deal-breaker in any conversation. When we don’t play well at this first level, we never get to taste the richer levels of connection.
Level 2 is the Power Level
I remember the moment Reverend Mona called me a doormat. Well, it really pissed me off! I was on a six-week long personal discovery retreat in Rimrock, Arizona, and it was the first time in my life I had taken time off to look at myself. I was in my mid-thirties, a successful theatre director in New York, recognized for my work. Very sure that I was “somebody.” Cocky, and at the same time also full of doubts. Then Reverend Mona, the facilitator of my desert experience, had the audacity to call me a doormat. How dare she?
Once I stopped reeling from Mona’s remark, I quickly began to see all the ways in which I was not very powerful at all. I realized that I had no idea what personal power actually was. I certainly did not know how to channel it in a manner that might fortify my connection with others.
Powerful connectors have a conscious and helpful relationship with their own power. They also play well with the power of others. They enjoy power rather than fear it. We will break the experience of power into five power plugs that we can turn to – and turn on. These plugs recharge the quality of our connection with anyone we meet.
If we don’t know how to invoke our personal power, our connection with others will always be impaired. We will show up with a diminished self – which in turn, diminishes the potential connection with anyone else. If we are willful creatures we’ll don the alter ego of the diminished self – grandiosity. It matters little; the outcome will be the same.
Level 3 is the Intent Level
It’s one of the first things an actor learns in acting class. When I learn my lines, I don’t just say the lines, I play the objective. The objective defines the impact my character wishes to have on another character. A clear objective changes the way words flow out of my mouth – it sharpens their focus and impact. It heightens the reality of a scene, makes it crackle and shine.
And this is the beauty of an objective: It is silent. It lives in my brain and is my little secret – but it so brazenly changes the way every moment plays out.
Intent is the everyday-language equivalent of an actor’s objective. Great connectors show up alert, with awareness and clear purpose. They don’t just fall into conversations, they help shape them with conscious intent. What fun!
We will examine three different aspects of intent as we dissect this third level of connection. Conscious intent will shape the impact I have on another person. Conscious intent may define the quality of the encounter I have with another person. And conscious intent will show up in the social role I choose to play.
If this still sounds a little abstract, never fear. It is great fun to explore intent and discover how it instantly changes our encounters with others. But beware: Our 4 Levels of Connection are – pardon the pun – interconnected. When we don’t play well at the Talk and Power levels, our Intent will be thwarted and derailed. . Level 4 is the Energy Level
I saved the best for last – even though it is often the first thing we notice in a person. Energy is the heart and soul level at which connections either do or do not happen. Without personal energy – energy that vibrates within us and viscerally touches others – our ability to connect will always be constrained. Without such energy, every social effort will be reduced to a more or less routine exchange. It will lack spark, flow, dimension. It will be – arrrgh – forgettable. My goal is to analyze the often mystifying experience of energy and demystify it for us. We will look at how we access our energy. Contain energy. Release it. Remove energy blocks. And play with the energy which others send our way.
Great personal energy alone, however, is just that – great personal energy. We may admire it. We may even be uplifted by it. If it is to have form and impact, it needs to be supported by our ease with the preceding three levels. Infectious connections happen in that magical moment when the conversation skills, sense of personal power, intent, and energy of two people converge. I am sure you can remember a moment when you were speaking with someone who spoke well and had interesting things to say, who seemed comfortable in her own skin, who seemed to really want to talk with you, and whose personal energy was, well, infectious. If, in that same conversation, you also spoke well and had interesting things to say, were comfortable in your own skin, truly wanted to speak with that person, and were bursting with personal energy … Wow, what an amazing conversation that must have been. I sure would have enjoyed being a fly on that wall!
You will find many tools in Infectious that you can put to practice immediately. Any small change you make in how you play in any of the levels of connection will affect the dynamic of a relationship – be it professional or personal. Before we start to tinker around with the tools, however, let us examine some common misconceptions about social conduct. I think of these misconceptions as the hidden rules to which we have never agreed but which we nevertheless follow, every day. They are pervasive and persistent, and they really get in our way. They are limiting beliefs – and really now, why the heck would we wish to limit ourselves when it comes to connecting with a fellow human being?
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