Ah, the motherboard. While most of us could not explain in great detail exactly how it works, we do know this. It’s one of the most essential parts of a computer system, holding together many of the crucial components of a computer, including the central processing unit (CPU), memory and connectors for input and output devices.
When we put that in people-terms, it sounds like something that would be uniform – factory-line identical. But anyone who has more than one child knows that despite the homogeneous gene pool from which these new humans are launched, they are no-way-no-how assembled the same. They each have their own unique means of processing, then reacting to the world. And God help you if you try to democratize your approach. (You heard it here first.)
My three each responded to life’s circuitry vastly differently – from hormonal crying jags to sullen silences to verbalizing every feel as it was felt. Navigating the variable emotional landscape required (still does) a finely tuned emotional divining rod. Timing, word choice, tone and body language all involved (still do) custom crafting to avoid any permanent damage caused by a mom-triggered psychic melt down.
I learned the hard way that despite nurture, individual nature always prevails and the responses are hard-wired. As mothers, we become adept at reading the emotive pathways and building positive reactive systems. It’s a skill that is often overlooked. But it’s one of our greatest super powers, and translates beautifully to communication style in leadership.
In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “As Long as We Associate Leadership with Masculinity, Women will be Overlooked,” the author posits that the emotional intelligence women naturally possess sets them up more advantageously as future leaders:
“While overall gender differences in leadership effectiveness are generally non-existent, meta-analytic studies show that men tend to perform better when the focus is on managing tasks, while women tend to perform better when the focus is on managing people, which includes attending to people’s attitudes, values, and motivation. (These differences are predominantly attributable to cultural constructs, not biological differences.) Since AI is expected to automate most of the task-oriented elements of leadership, particularly if they involve data-driven decisions, one would expect there will be an even bigger premium for leaders with strong people-skills and higher levels of EQ. That is because people will always crave human attention, empathy, and validation, which machines will not replicate anytime soon.”
Attention. Empathy. Validation. Sound familiar?
As leaders, we need to recognize that despite our quest for common goals, we must adjust our communicative frequencies to spark positive response and avoid short-circuiting motivation. Tuning in and mastering those capricious frequencies necessitates a bespoke approach to communication.
Learn to read the room, and adjust as you go.
When presenting to a large group or just having a one-on-one, it’s important to constantly pay attention to non-verbal cues. They are always your most authentic indicator on how you’re being received.
You vs phone. The luxury of someone’s undivided attention is elusive, when everyone carries so much distraction in their hands wherever they go. Who can compete with all those texts and emails? But if you notice that there’s more eye contact with a screen than with your face, you’re probably losing them. You may need to rethink your content or presentation style.
Energy level. Do you need to dial it up or tone it down? Dead room? Don’t take it too personally. Could just be the post-lunch food coma time slot you got. But you need to adjust accordingly. You may have to pick up the pace, or work in some audience participation to make the presentation more interactive. Or if they’re squirrely and chatty, call on someone to answer a question, or play off what you’re hearing to keep them engaged.
To joke or not to joke. Did that opener fall pretty flat? Humor is subjective, and often linked to corporate culture, so what may have gone over like gangbusters at one meeting could very well be a dud somewhere else. Don’t be afraid to re-script yourself on the fly. You don’t want them to get hung up on the humor element, and miss the core of what you’re saying.
Body language*. Are you getting anything back?
Eye contact? An inability to make direct eye contact can indicate someone’s bored, disinterested or even deceitful.
A nod? A slow nod, unlike a slow clap, is a very good sign. It typically means the person is interested in what you are saying and wants you to continue. Fast nodding, on the other hand, signifies the person has heard enough and wants you to wrap it up or give them a chance to talk. Mind the tilt, however. Head to the side can denote interest while a backwards tilt connotes suspicion or uncertainty.
How about the feet? Feet pointing toward you means they’re into it. Pointing in another direction means that’s where they’d rather be.
Hands? Nervousness, boredom and affinity can all be revealed with the hands – hands in the pockets might indicate insecurity while hands resting on the chin could indicate someone’s checking out. If someone is resting their head with one hand, however, it usually means they’re interested and trying to focus on what you’re saying.
What about the arms? The arms are a tricky lot. Crossed arms can signal anxiousness, vulnerability, or a mind made up. But if they’re accompanied by an authentic smile and overall relaxed posture, that can indicate confidence and relaxed attitude.
Any mirroring happening? Yes? Exxxxcellent. If you see your verbals and non-verbals being repeated and mirrored, that usually means you’re establishing good rapport. Well done. Carry on.
Facts vs. Framework.
When I was in Journalism school it was all about the 5 W’s: who, what, where, why, when. Just the particulars laid out in precise order. [Sigh] I miss those days. So simple and orderly. But people are far more complex than that. Some have little patience for preambles and are content with the 5 W’s. (“Lay it on me straight up. No soft-peddling. I just want to know.”) They’re annoyed by too much context. But when dealing with most humans, it isn’t always “Just the facts, ma’am.” Some require a little emotional on-ramping when receiving news – both positive and negative. And the weight of the news on you may be nominal, while the impact on the other personal may be monumental.
And lastly, time it right.
Keep in mind that good timing for you (news deliverer) may not always be the best timing for the other person (news receiver). I’ve learned this lesson the hard way on both fronts, but one particular event finally made it stick. We had a tradition of taking a Spring Break vacation every year, but when I bought my business I knew there would need to be a period of fiscal prudence – “tucking in,” as my Dad called it. So the plan that spring was more stay-cation than va-cation. In my rush to tick things off my list, I decided to tell our 10 year-old in the morning while he was getting ready for school. Did. Not. Go. Well. He burst into tears and went off to school in a fit of mad.
What seemed like disappointing (but not earth-shattering, sky-is-falling) news to me, was devastating to him. Remember that getting it off your chest sooner may not always be the best strategy. When considering delivery, a little forbearance goes a long way.
Here’s an office version of that scenario. Early birds (already 3 cups of coffee in) tend to initiate intense conversations with non-morning-people colleagues who are still trying to shake the cobwebs and get their wits about them. On the flip side, those who hit their stride late in the day may want to solve a complex issue with the early bird who has already put in a long day and is fading fast. It doesn’t work. You have to find middle ground when you’re both in the zone.
Recap (because I’m a recapper):
Unique human motherboards call for a tailored, thoughtful approach to communication.
Consider your audience (if it’s a known entity) and prepare accordingly.
Tune in to non-verbal cues and adjust as you go.
Provide some framework when addressing “context people.”
Timing is everything.