Intimacy with a stranger in 20 seconds

Ten thousand years ago, if you were rejected by your social group you would die. To improve our collective chances of belonging and surviving, we evolved highly sophisticated ways of tracking status of group members in ways that help us cooperate and collaborate. 

Deep in our brains, we still carry this instinctual need for belonging. It may no longer be life or death, but we feel pain when we sense we’re being rejected and we feel better when we sense we’re accepted and safe.

Knowing this can change how you relate to people.

Is it safe?

In The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, author Dan Coyle asserts that the cultures of the world’s most successful groups “are created by a specific set of skills which tap into the power of our social brains.” The first of these skills is to “build safety,” learning how to exchange signals that build social bonds of belonging and identity. These signals, or belonging cues, communicate three things.

  1. I see you.

  2. I care about you.

  3. We have a shared future together. 

When we exchange these signals, we feel safe and accepted. When we don’t, we feel uncertain and increasingly anxious.

A fundamental human skill

The phrase “psychological safety” may seem more suitable for the laboratory than the workplace or home, but Google’s research into effective teams lists psychological safety as the first of “five key dynamics that set successful teams apart from other teams at Google.” The belonging cues are even taught at elementary schools, using the SLANT strategy

“SLANT” is an acronym that stands for ‘Sit up, Lean forward, Ask and answers questions, Nod your head and Track the speaker.’ It is a simple technique to encourage and remind students on being attentive and active in class. 

The crux of the SLANT strategy is to enhance learning and student performance by creating a behavior incorporating the conscious use of positive body language.

Track the speaker and make eye contact. I see you. Nod your head and ask questions. I care about what you have to say. Ask and answer questions. We have a shared future together. If you think this seems silly or unnecessary, try having a conversation with your child or partner while they’re looking at their phone. How effective is that conversation? How do you feel?

Is it difficult to learn how to do this?

Recently, I heard Dan Coyle speak at a conference in Houston. He’s an insightful, intelligent, engaging presenter - and I had to give a talk after him! I related the exchanges of signals that Dan talked about to the giving and receiving that takes place as you Work Out Loud. In the workshop after my talk, I included an exercise of offering a contribution of appreciation, and a woman in the audience demonstrated how easy it can be to communicate belonging cues.

With a single sentence, she made it clear she was listening to what I had to say, was interested in it, and expected to use it in the future. Writing it took just a few seconds, and it led to a further exchange during the workshop.

But if it’s so easy, why don’t we have more successful groups and positive cultures? Because the hard part - the art of communications and good relationships - is to practice making these exchanges over and over again, reinforcing and enhancing social bonds. That’s the thing most of us struggle with. We forget to say what we feel, we avoid the risk of discomfort, we assume the other person knows.

The basis of human connection is an exchange of signals over time. What signals are you sending?

How to say no

This is, in part, a public apology to Martijn. I’m sharing it in the hope that the lessons I learned might spare you from some potential humiliation and suffering.

It started with a simple request. Martijn is a student in the Netherlands, and he sent me a message on LinkedIn.

“Currently am I writing a paper about the effect of Working Out Loud on collaborative working and sharing in organizations. If it's possible I really want to ask you a few questions about it…every answer is helpful and we are very grateful for your help and sharing your knowledge with us!”

“What a nice note!” I thought, and replied right away that I would be happy to help him.

“Thanks for your quick and enthusiastic answer! I just sent you the email with our questions.”

That was in March. Then, I had a few business trips, and took a week off with the kids for Spring Break. 

In late April he sent me a gentle reminder. “Do you still have time?” At this point, I was embarrassed. I was also in the middle of a project. I looked again at his questions and figured it would take me an hour to answer them. Not so long that I couldn’t find the time, but long enough that I didn’t do it right away.

More time passed. Week after week, I thought about Martijn and my failure to do what I said. Finally, in June, my mounting guilt drove me to write him an apology and ask if my answers would still be useful. In a gracious reply, he told me they already completed the paper. I felt terrible.

Right around that time, I came across this post from Seth Godin from 2009 titled “Saying No”:

“You can say no with respect, you can say no promptly, and you can say no with a lead to someone who might say yes. But just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.”

It made me realize that, like the now-ubiquitous “Yes, and…” exercise, my saying “no” could feel different and lead to better outcomes if I reframed it slightly. Instead of viewing “no” as a rejection of the other person, it could be an opportunity to offer something else, including attention, appreciation, and alternatives. Offering any of those to Martijn would have been better than my ill-thought-out “yes" that only led to disappointment and bad feelings on both sides. 

Next time you receive a request from someone, honor yourself and them by asking these three questions. 

How much effort will this require?

When will I do it?

What else could I do with that time instead?

Take a moment to really think it through before responding, and you’ll both be better off. “No, and…” is always better than “Yes, but I don’t really mean it.”

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Insincerely yours

It’s such a common practice at this point that most people don’t think about it. Even professional advice about the topic is misguided. As a result, well over 90% of the people who send me email make this mistake. Though it would only take a few seconds to correct it. they repeat the error over and over every day, missing an opportunity each time.

What is this egregious mistake? They don’t personalize the closing of their message.

Insincerely yours.png

Some people are the victims of technology. They use an automated email signature, and so the same bland phrase (and lengthy contact information) is appended to each and every email. Whether their note is an urgent complaint or a beautiful compliment, their message will end with “Yours faithfully” or some other banal phrase that sounds “business-like,” one they entered long ago and forgot about. (For my German friends, the favored choice seems to be “Mit freundlichen Grüßen / Kind regards.”)

Some do it out of habit. Perhaps they once read somewhere that it’s the professional thing to do, and they’ve been typing it ever since without questioning it. Others may be slightly lazy. Faced with an ever-increasing email burden, the thought of having to customize each closing is too much for them to bear.

Well, as my mother used to say, just because everyone else does it doesn’t mean you should do it too.

The final closing of your message is a signal. If it’s an automated or otherwise impersonal closing, it tells the recipient that they’re nothing special, not worth the trouble of a few seconds to sign off with something just for them.

Choosing to avoid the scripted “Kind regards,” on the other hand, offers an additional opportunity for a sense of connection and relatedness. Think of it as a small exercise in empathy. How would I feel if I received this? Your closing needn’t be long or intimate, and certainly shouldn’t be inauthentic. You’re just adding a few personal words relevant to the context of the message.

“Thank you again for your kind note. I appreciate it.”

“Have a wonderful weekend. Cheers from NYC!”

“I’m looking forward to our call on Thursday. I always enjoy our conversations.”

Be different. The world is already full of impersonal communications. When you humanize yours, you will distinguish yourself in a wonderful way. 

When it’s not a contribution

I don’t mean to judge you. If you recognize an item on this list as something you do, perhaps you have good intentions. Perhaps, contrary to my opinion, it is helpful to someone. Perhaps you simply do it without thinking.

All of these are things I’ve done myself, and yet they make me cringe now. I share this list in the hope that you’ll find it helpful and avoid the mistakes I’ve made. 

A partial list

I often tell people to “frame it as a contribution,” by which I mean the things you share should be be helpful to someone in some way. Here are ten of the more egregious ways I failed to follow my own advice.

Automated contributions -  You signed up for some on-line service and it starts spewing out how many people followed you on Twitter, that you Liked a particular video, or that you achieved a new level on a game few have heard of.

Impersonal contributions #1 - You hit a button to connect with someone and offer no explanation as to who you are, why you want to connect, or how the other person might benefit. 

Impersonal contributions #2 - You hit a button to share the latest news or blog post without adding why you’re sharing it or why others might care.

Complaints - You come across something that irritates you and you share it, amplifying your discontent in exchange for a feeling of validation that may come from others agreeing with you. 

Burdens #1 - You introduce people to each other via email without asking them first, thus forcing them to follow up or risk the embarrassment of seeming unresponsive. 

Burdens #2 - You send lengthy emails with requests hidden deep inside them, or  share lengthy articles without explanation.

Burdens #3 - You ask people you barely know vague questions via email or text - "How are you?" - that are just crude disguises to lure them into a conversation. 

Burdens #4 - You overwhelm someone with “helpfulness,” sharing a wild array of things - links, videos, articles, comments, feedback - that they didn’t ask for and can’t possibly keep up with. 

Purpose-less contributions - Your posts of food or cats or kids are too frequent (unless you’re in a food or cat or kid community).

Narcissism - Me, me, me, me. While sharing something you’ve done can be genuinely helpful, talking only about you and your accomplishments verges on narcissistic and creepy. 

I could go on, but you get the point. The theme throughout this list is that you make such mistakes when don’t listen. You think of sharing as a megaphone, amplifying who you are but at the expense of being sensitive to the people around you. Or, worse, you don’t think at all. Like the irritated driver honking in traffic, you see something and offer something without a thought as to how the other person might receive it.

The one technique you need

The trick to “framing it as a contribution” is to know that “helpful” is in the eye of the recipient. So to be genuinely helpful, you need to reflect and practice empathy, to put yourself in the position of the other person. 

Who might find this helpful? 

Why should they? 

How might I feel if I received this?

What’s my real motivation in sharing this?

Working Out Loud Circles make it easy to practice this. Week after week, you get the chance to make a wide range of contributions - from appreciation to visible work to vulnerability - with genuine generosity and empathy until it becomes a habit and a mindset. 

Over time, you develop a short pause before you send something, a tiny moment of reflection that can make a fundamental difference in what you share and how it’s received. It takes practice, but it’s worth it.

If it feels like you’re trying to get something in return

He felt uneasy about Working Out Loud. After a few weeks in a WOL Circle at work, he felt like he was trying to win people over by doing something for them, and it seemed wrong. So he posted his concern on his company’s intranet, along with a question.

“My understanding of Working Out Loud is that I should contribute and ‘do good’ without the idea of getting things in return….On the other hand, I consciously create a relationship list where I collect the names of certain people who can help me with achieving my personal goal. Then I specifically target them with my ‘contribution’ - attention, support, whatever it may be. Effectively, I am trying to get their support by doing them favors.
What am I missing?”
If it feels wrong.jpg

Some responses

His colleagues responded with their own opinions and experiences, and the person managing the community shared the discussion with me. Some responded that they don’t expect anything in return from a particular individual, and yet believed that, across their entire network, there would naturally be a benefit to them. Others shared how the listing of names helped them to go far beyond the individuals they already knew in a purposeful way, and gave them access to learning they didn’t have before. One woman said she didn’t see it as currying favor with people but rather  “improving the odds” or “creating one’s luck.”

Everyone agreed that intention mattered, that the core principle was to offer things without expectations. I had the chance to send in my own reply.

"If WOL ever feels like you're ‘targeting’ people or trying to manipulate them into reciprocating, you should stop. That's not the intention nor is it a healthy, sustainable practice.
Think of your relationship list not as a set of targets but as people who can help you explore. You're not doing something TO them but rather being OPEN TO them, to their work and ideas and more. 
Each person is like a door. The greater the sense of trust and relatedness, the more that door may open, giving both of you greater access to each other's knowledge, resources, and other people. Now, if a particular door never opens, if a person never responds or you never develop any sense of relatedness, that's okay. Your contributions, if offered in a positive, empathetic way without expectations, can still benefit them (in ways you may never know). As you contribute to more people on your list, you simply increase the chances that you'll develop genuine trust & relatedness with some of them.”

And another question…

As the discussion unfolded, the topic shifted to the relationship list. After all, he wondered, if you’re offering things without expectations, why do you need a list? I replied, “If the relationship list makes the practice feel artificial, don’t use it.” 

The reason I put the relationship list in Week 1 of a Circle is because it helps you attune your attention, opening you up to people (and thus ideas, resources, and more) related to your goal. Right from the beginning, that simple act can help you see things you may have never noticed before. But if I’ve been working on a goal for a long time, or if I find the list to be a barrier of some kind, I may stop maintaining it. 

A practice like any other

Though there is a reason for each of the exercises in a WOL Circle, what’s more important is whether or not you find the exercise to be helpful. I added:

“You can think of your initial relationship list as “scaffolding” that helps you set up your practice. Eventually, you may no longer need it if you feel your practice can stand on its own.”

And that’s true for much of Working Out Loud. Like any practice, there are guides and traditions and even rules, but those are really just meant to help you get started. There is no one right way. Rather, the best practice is the one that’s right for you at a particular time, one you discover and adapt through practice, feedback, and...questions.

FAQ: Can our WOL Circle meet virtually?

Last week, a member of the WOL Facebook community posted what turns out to be a common question:

“We are an organization with many remote employees, including myself. Has anyone done WOL using technology like Skype, Zoom or GoToMeeting? Eager to learn from your success.”

The community responded quickly with a resounding “yes.” 

“We've done 10+ circles all via Zoom. They've all been successful.”
“Conducted entirely by Zoom and it worked great.”
“I always had remote participants in my few WOL circles. Video calls were made with Skype, Zoom or Hangout.”
“I am currently in my third circle. All have been virtual on Zoom.”

While it was clear that virtual meetings were both possible and popular, were they as good as in-person meetings?

 A WOL Circle celebrating and reflecting in Week 12

A few tips for your virtual Circle

I’ve been in both in-person and virtual WOL Circles, and they worked equally well. In-person meetings can have a charm all their own. A meeting in a cafe, for example, feels different than a videoconference. But participating in a virtual Circle makes it possible to include people in other cities and countries. That can increase the diversity of your circle and make it more likely to be effective. Virtual Circles can also take less time, since they don’t require extra time to go to and from the meeting. 

How do you meet?

Almost all my virtual Circles met via video. Those that used only audio felt less intimate, especially at first, though I still enjoyed it.   All the popular video services work well enough. My personal favorite is Zoom as the quality of the sound and picture are remarkably good, and it’s particularly easy to use.

“It was like we were in the same room together. The conversations were just as real and emotional and inspiring as they could be in person.”

Communicating between meetings

It’s common for virtual Circles to maintain some kind of backchannel for communicating between meetings. This is a good practice in any Circle, and may be even more important in virtual groups to reinforce the bonds between members. 

“In my current circle we usea private Facebook group for information exchange and communication during the week.”
“We also share and communicate via Slack during the week. (Any non-email platform would work similarly.)”
“We also stayed in touch by email throughout the program and shared lots of links and ideas, and still check in from time to time even though it's been over two months since it ended.”

The most important tip for your Circle

Search the Internet for “how to run a virtual meeting” and you’ll find plenty of tips. There’s also a list of “Tips for a Successful Circle” in the Getting Started section of the guides. The best advice I’ve heard, though, is from a TED talk on “10 rules for a better conversation,” and they apply online as well as in person. 

The most important bit of advice? Pay attention. 

Your attention is one of the most precious gifts you have to offer. If you don’t pay attention, then none of the other tips matter much. It's when you give your attention freely during your meeting, actively listening and participating, that you can connect and grow. 

Do you have something else you would recommend? Or another question you’d like to see answered? Post a comment and I’ll include the best suggestions in version 4.0 of the Circle guides in 2017.

Working Out Loud over email or coffee

“You can’t do that!” he said.

I was explaining to a small audience that Working Out Loud doesn’t require you to use social media. It helps, of course, but I told them you could use traditional channels, including email and talking over coffee, to share your work in a way that helps others. The person next to me objected, somewhat emphatically. 

Here’s why he’s missing the point, and why it matters. 

The real reason you Work Out Loud…

There are many benefits to using social platforms, whether it’s your social intranet at work or Twitter, LinkedIn, and the many other public platforms. Sharing your work there amplifies who you are and what you do, extends your reach, and expands your set of contributions and how you can offer them.

But using social platforms is not the point of Working Out Loud. Rather, using the tools is in service of much more important things: deeper relationships and feelings of self-efficacy, even happiness. It’s why I extended the concept of Working Out Loud to include these five elements

  1. Relationships
  2. Generosity
  3. Visible Work
  4. Purposeful Discovery
  5. Growth Mindset

The real reason you Work Out Loud is that deeper relationships help you be more effective and give you access to more ideas and opportunities. Each step you take in building those relationships helps you feel more empowered and connected, tapping into your intrinsic motivation.

…and why your organization wants you to

The real reason your organization wants you to Work Out Loud is not to have a more active intranet. It’s to have a workforce and culture that are more open, connected, and collaborative, to create a place where work is more effective and fulfilling. 

Ultimately, Working Out Loud helps improve how people relate to each other and to the work they do. 

You can see this in these survey results, for example, from an organization that has close to 100 Working Out Loud Circles and asked participants about their experience. (A survey at another company in a different country produced similar results.)

  • 98% said it helps the organization develop into “a highly connected company in the digital age.”
  • 91% said it helped them build networks that are more effective and purposeful.
  • 91% said it enriched their daily lives.

Start where you are

So why is it important that people that people can Work Out Loud over email and coffee? Because that’s what most people are already comfortable doing. 

I was at a corporate event where Working Out Loud was the topic, and there was a demonstration of the company’s social intranet. The young woman began enthusiastically. “The first thing you do when you’re Working Out Loud,” she said, “is write a blog.”

I winced. The percentage of people of comfortable blogging is in the single digits, and more than 90% of those who start a blog abandon it within a year. By exhorting people to start there, you’ve alienated the vast majority of those you’re trying to help.

Instead, help people start where they are. If you’re already active on their organization’s corporate network, or you’re using Twitter and LinkedIn, that’s great. But if those things scare you off, then shrink the change and start by using what you’re comfortable using.

This way, you’re more likely to make progress, gradually developing the habit of Working Out Loud. Over time, you’ll start to frame your goals in terms of other people and contributions you can make to them. You'll cultivate the mindset of the five elements. You may even explore the use of other tools.

Small steps, practiced over time, with feedback and peer support, can lead to wonderful places. But only if you take that first step.

FAQ: “How do we get management support?”

This question often comes up when I do a Q&A session with an organization. Typically, they’re having early success with their first Working Out Loud Circles, and they want to go further.

“How do we get management support for Working Out Loud?”

I tell people there are three ways, plus one more that we’re piloting. I’ve seen all three be effective, and I’m optimistic about the pilot.

Here’s a key point: start small. Trying to get all managers to support anything is like trying to convince everyone of global warming. There will always be some who will sit there, arms crossed, and reject it no matter what you say or do.

#1. Leverage internal social proof

Instead of appealing to all executives, I rely heavily on social proof. I focus on finding and supporting managers who may be early adopters, help them succeed, and share their stories widely. 

“Social proof is also one of Robert Cialdini's six principles of persuasion, (along with reciprocity, commitment/consistency, authority, liking, and scarcity) which maintains that people are especially likely to perform certain actions if they can relate to the people who performed the same actions before them.”

For example, in a presentation to managers at a Bosch, we used photos and quotes of several leaders who had realized the benefits of Working Out Loud. That allowed managers in the audience to see, more than any facts or conceptual arguments I could present, that “people like me do this.” 

#2. Conduct a formal survey of circle members

Stories can be even more powerful when combined with data, and one way organizations are collecting that data is with structured surveys of circle participants. 

In an organization in Australia, for example, Michelle Ockers surveyed the first wave of circles. The results showed that participants overwhelmingly believed their Working Out Loud Circle improved their skills, made them feel more fulfilled at work, and would help their organization be more collaborative.

Data like this makes it easier and safer for a manager to endorse Working Out Loud or make time for employees to join circles.

#3. Leverage external social proof

When faced with a new idea, the most common question is often “What’s the business case?” and the surveys help answer that. The next most common question is “What do other organizations do?”

To answer this, I talk about the successes at Bosch that culminated in a full-day Working Out Loud conference. I talk about the range of organizations in which circles are spreading, from universities to governmental offices to other large corporations

Over time, there will be more case studies to share, and so more chances to see that “organizations like us” are realizing benefits of Working Out Loud Circles.

Pilot idea: Include them directly

Sometimes, people ask how they can get managers to work out loud themselves. More than getting their approval, how do you get their involvement?

Working Out Loud for Leaders is something I developed with Bosch and Postshift, and that Bosch is piloting now. It’s not circle-based, since many senior managers are unlikely to be vulnerable in a circle nor willing to set aside the required time. So the pilot uses different guides and a different peer support structure. Still, it’s designed to help leaders practice “small steps, over time, with feedback and peer support,” so they experience the benefits themselves.

Each step they take signals to other managers and to the broader organization that it’s safe to do so, enabling Working Out Loud to spread more readily.

Other answers. Other questions.

If you know of other ways to get management support for Working Out Loud, please leave a comment or send me email at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com. Over time, I’’ll update this post so it reflects the best answers of our community. 

I’ve been wanting to publish a proper FAQ section on the website, and I’ll put this post and others I intend to write there. (I’ll prepend “FAQ” to the posts and tag them so people can find them more readily. I’ll also include them in the LinkedIn group.) I have a healthy backlog of questions to answer, and if you have one you’d like to add, I’ll happily address it.

The Empathy Test

Imagine you’re driving on the highway in the middle lane. It’s a bit congested and you’re moving at about 50 miles an hour. Then a small, beat-up car with a young male driver zooms up from behind you and cuts into your lane as he shoots up the highway, going at least 80.

What do you do?

  1. Speed up and try to get close to him
  2. Curse at him or get angry
  3. Just keep driving
  4. Feel sympathy for him

 

Your immediate reaction

Close your eyes and picture the scenario. Put yourself in the moment. What are you feeling? What’s your immediate reaction?

Now think about why you would feel that way. Did the fact that the driver was young make a difference? Or that the car was beat-up? If so, why?

 

What I didn’t tell you

What I left out was that there was another person in the car that you couldn’t see. It was a young child, suffering from an asthma attack. The driver was the child’s father, and he was frantically racing to an emergency room to get help.

Now how would you answer the question above?

Practicing using your pause button

This scenario is more common than you think. Instead of being upset by someone’s driving, it could have been an email you received, or the way the barista handed you your coffee. When something irritates you, you can react almost instinctively with negatives emotions and a label.How rude! What a jerk! It can ruin a part of your day, and often you’re completely wrong.

Each interaction – in the car, via email, at the cafe – is a chance to take the Empathy Test, to pause and ask yourself “Is what I’m thinking absolutely true?” and “How might this look from their perspective?”

The more you practice using this simple pause button, the better you become at considering other possibilities and other points of view. You’ll be happier, and you’ll find your relationships with other will improve too.

***

A Different Kind Of Christmas Gift

I was in the elevator at work and someone I didn’t recognize asked me, “Are you John Stepper?” When I confirmed I was indeed me, she mentioned she had read Working Out Loud. Then she offered one of the best testimonials possible:

“I gave a copy to my husband. He could use it.”

She went on to say that her husband was looking for something different, something more in his career, and she thought the book would help him take a step.

I’ve given away a few hundred books to different kinds of people. People trying to build a business, or who want to change jobs, or are seeking to feel better about the job they have.

What I’m saying each time is this:

I hope this helps you discover even more possibilities.

If you want something more out of work or life, this can help you take a step.

If you already own the book, consider sharing it with someone. If you want to keep your copy, get one for someone you care about.

But here’s the important part. Write a personal note inside. Tell them how you appreciate them and want them to be happy and fulfilled. Tell them you support them. Tell them you believe in them.

That kind of encouragement is one of the most meaningful gifts we have to offer, and it’s a gift anyone would love to receive.

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