Almost thirty years ago, when my friend Alan and I left the world of theater and came into the business world doing our ‘presentation skills program on rocket fuel’ (as one client called it), we were, essentially, training participants how to implement our tips and techniques.
“Stand like this and you’ll look impressive.”
“Move your arms with these gestures and you’ll appear purposeful.”
Because our clients loved these easy fixes – and assumed them to be long-lasting – it took me a while to work out that there was a deep flaw in this approach.
The reality is that all communication is inside out, and not – as we were teaching people – outside in.
Any visible and external output of communication is born from the thinking and feeling that gives birth to the desire to communicate.
The confident, even charismatic, speaker at a conference is not showing up as confident and charismatic because they are standing in a certain way and using a flexibility of tonal color – these are just labels that we, as audiences, use to describe our experience. Rather, they are standing in a certain way and using a flexibility of tonal color because it couldn’t be any other way for them. Those external manifestations come from a thought. Maybe that thought is ‘I love sharing this message,’ or maybe that thought is ‘There is nothing stopping me being fully here.’ That’s not for us to know (unless we ask them). But it is undeniable that it is the thought that gives rise to the action of communication.
That meeting you went to last week – you know, the one where the presenter showed up with 48 slides and insisted – against the call of reason – to try and get through them all in the 30 minutes he’d been allotted? That person is doing that from the thought that ‘Content is king!’ or, on a more personal level, ‘If I share enough information then, eventually, I’m bound to say something smart.’
That time you are anticipating with dread – because you know you need to have a clear conversation with your teenage child – because you’re concerned about something they seem to have got caught up in? That dread is a thought. And so you show up, at that time, full of dread, and that dread manifests as stumbling and mumbling and beating about the bush, when at the same time, you can hear your best self saying ‘Just speak the raw truth that is in your heart!’ But you don’t speak that truth because you fear that neither of you will be able to handle what comes after that. All of that is a thought. The communication – or the lack of it -is not a skill being practiced well or otherwise, but the result of a way of thinking.
If you want to have a different conversation with your child, or improve your business presentations, or if you want to change the world, then you will always need to start with your own thinking. There is no skill you can learn that is more powerful than the thought you are believing inside. That’s why when Alan and I got our participants to ‘Stand tall and speak firmly,’ the result was only temporary because we hadn’t changed their internal thought – which was that they’d much prefer not to be standing there at all.
And as we’ll explore later in this book, the inside-out approach is not always an easy path to take, because we often find out that (a) our thinking is not always on our side and, (b) we nevertheless seem reluctant to change it.
Here in the States, the Democratic presidential race is well underway, and the TV debates are a good lens for looking afresh at the nature of communication.
Politics is steeped in what I call conditional communication. The condition – the tacit agreement – in place is very clear, and we all subscribe to it. If I’m the candidate, I am going to speak so that you vote for me. Whatever it takes to get that vote, that’s who I’ll be for you. I’m not going to tell you my truth; I am not going to speak from my heart. I am going to try and look genuine, of course, because I know that you know authenticity is important. But it will be a designed authenticity, a presentation of it. I’ll be looking for every opportunity to get my soundbite out there, or my tagline, or my carefully rehearsed story. One of the two candidates from Colorado, John Hickenlooper, is an example of this. Whenever I heard him speak in his previous incarnations – Mayor of Denver, Governor of Colorado and, most importantly, founder of the Wynkoop brewery – he always used to show up as a nice, normal guy. Now he sounds like a product of his professional speaker coach and media team. And like many in his field, it’s creepy.
So there is a cost to conditional communication: the best of you disappears. I believe we pay our politicians to make that deal so that we don’t have to.
Politics: ‘Poli’ a Latin word meaning ‘many’
and ‘tics’ meaning ‘bloodsucking creatures.’
Politicians are an easy target, but, just as having a terrible boss at least shows us what not to do when we get to be one, so we can use times like these to reflect on our own communication as parents, spouses, citizens or leaders.
I work with people on their Unconditional Communication, which shows up when they are fully present, and unmistakably themselves. It’s incredibly powerful. Their audiences love it, because it is precisely what their audiences are looking for. Human beings crave authentic connection; we can sense it, we can feel it. We know what is real, and we know what is false. When we, as audiences for communication, don’t need to do all the work of sifting through the false – the half-truths, the misdirection, the hidden motives, the managed and approved official statements – we can relax and be more of ourselves too. And that only expands the experience of connection and trust.
One of the things that makes Unconditional Communication so effective is that it stands out in a world of conditionality.
If you care about why we have become so fractious (internal state of anxiety) and fragmented (external state of separation and suspicion), and, more importantly, what you can do about it in your world, then this is the book for you.
Because you know that’s it not supposed to feel like it does right now. And there has to be a better way.