Roddy was telling me about his latest encounter on Zoom with Craig. “Right at the beginning, when he first started in on me, I had my same old reaction. My heart rate jumped, like Craig was right there in the room with me.“
Craig was head of the private equity firm that owned the company where Roddy was CFO. One goal for Roddy’s coaching had been to master his panic response to Craig’s bad behavior.
Normally, Roddy would only see Craig four times a year at board meetings. But now, with the pandemic and downturn, Craig was agitated. Roddy and his CEO were having to report every week. Roddy’s panic response was getting a lot of exercise!
Roddy said, “You know what saved me from full-on panic this time? Being on video! If I had been in the room with him, I think I would have been as panicked as ever. My brain would’ve been screeching away at a million miles an hour trying to figure out how to defend myself.”
“But not on video?” I asked.
“No! Not this time! I could’ve spoken up and defended myself. I could’ve taken myself off mute. But I could see, he wasn’t going to stop talking for a while! I suddenly just relaxed. I stopped preparing my defense. And, in a snap, it looked completely different to me.”
“Different how?” I asked.
“From a distance, I guess. Craig was suddenly this little yapping head in a little window on the screen of my monitor. He looked like he was having a tantrum. That was what occurred to me. He was a three-year-old pitching a fit. There was no reasoning with him. He wasn’t rational. The best thing I could do for myself, and for the company, was to make sure I didn’t become a three-year-old myself! I remember thinking, ‘I guess the grownup in the room is going to be me!’ And the panic went away.”
“Because you were on video?” I asked.
“That sure helped! Look, I think I’ve been better with Craig anyway. The coaching has given me a lot of tools. But, yes, being on video made it different for me.”
“So what’s the end of the story? What ended up happening with Craig?”
“I was on mute, you know? So I did a little pantomime for him. I picked up my pad so he could see it, and I made it plain I was taking notes. I wanted him to know I was taking him seriously.”
“When he ran out of steam, I told him I would get with his two team leaders and we would address his concerns, which we did.”
“What did they say?”
“They didn’t share any of Craig’s concerns. It was all fine.”
“This sounds like a success story, Roddy. Congratulations. I’m glad that happened. So how do you make sense of this new experience on video? What’s one takeaway?”
He laughed, saying, “I knew you were going to ask me that! I’ve actually thought of three takeaways from that little encounter.”
“Great!” I said.
“First is about that time out. Being on mute made me slow down. It gave me distance I’ve never felt before. I could step back and not get stuck in my old reaction.”
“A mindfulness moment,” I said.
“It was! I’ve wondered whether I’ll be able to hold that distance when I’m back in a room with him again. I won’t have a mute button then!”
“But you could be just as mindful,” I suggested.
“True! I could!” he said with a laugh. Then, “My second takeaway is still about distance, but it’s different. It’s a good news/bad news thing.”
“Okay!” I said with a laugh.
“The good news is that, on video, we all get reduced. We all become a little talking head inside a little Zoom windowpane. When Craig got reduced that way, he wasn’t particularly threatening. That’s the video giving me distance. That’s the good news.”
“But…?” I said with a grin.
“But the bad news is that if he gets reduced to a little head inside a little Zoom box on my screen, then I become a little head on my team’s screens. Or on any one’s screen when there are more than two people. I ask myself, how do I make an impact when I’m shrunk down to a postage stamp?”
“What have you come up with?” I asked.
Impact even when shrunk
“It depends on the setting. If it’s my meeting to lead, I always worry about keeping people’s attention. That was important to me even when we were in person. When attention flagged I could see it, and I would change the tempo. I was pretty good at keeping people’s attention. Now? Man, it’s hard to read the room, don’t you think?”
“I do,” I agreed.
“Sometimes what I’ll do in my meetings is ask a question and then wait a long time. Or even put myself on mute. There can be some long silences. But I’m willing. I’ll wait.” Then he shrugged and made a face. “As if this all isn’t awkward enough!”
I laughed. “No kidding!”
“Other times, I move it along.” He snapped his fingers. “I drive the agenda. I tell a tight little story, then push us right into the work. Not a lot of silence in those cases. At least not at first.”
“It sounds like you think about pace,” I said.
“Do I? I’m not sure. What I do think about is a model I have in my head about meetings. ‘D.A.I.’.”
“Which stands for…?”
“Decision-making. Action. Information. In every meeting, at any moment, you’re doing one of those three things. D. A. or I.”
“I like that, Roddy. It’s nice and simple.”
“You hadn’t heard it?”
“No,” I said.
“Wow. For me it’s old. I’ve been using it for years. I think it’s even more important now, on video. I do think it helps hold people’s attention. But do you know what I’ve noticed?”
“What?” I asked.
“I’m way more annoyed on video than I ever was in person. Not all the time. And not even so anyone would notice, but, now and then, whoo, boy, I feel it.”
“What kind of things annoy you?” I was curious.
“Oh, let’s see. How about … Anne Marie. I’ve asked her more than once to please not be backlit, so we can see her face. But just yesterday, I couldn’t see her face at all. And I just don’t really want to ask again. That annoys me.”
“Why do you think she isn’t listening to you?”
Taking things personally
“I don’t know. Maybe the internet slowed down when I asked. Both times!” He laughed.
“She’s not just trying to piss you off?” I asked with a smile.
“Well, whether she’s trying or not, I am annoyed.”
“What about Craig?” I asked. “Is he trying to make you panic?”
“Until the other day, I used to wonder.”
I said, “Will you play a game with me?”
“Sure,” he said.
“This is an imagination game.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Imagine yourself talking in front of a group. Maybe one of the conferences you go to. A room full of chairs set out row after row. Seats are filled. And you’re in front talking. All eyes are on you. You with me so far?”
“Yup,” he said.
“You’re about ten minutes into your presentation. It’s going great. Suddenly, this woman, right in front, rattles something under her seat. You look over. She pulls out her purse, stands up and walks out of the room. Straight up the middle. There is no way any one missed this woman walking out. And the door bangs behind her!”
After pausing a second, I asked him, “What do you think just happened? Why did that woman walk out?”
He shrugged, saying, “The information wasn’t relevant to her.”
I gave a little laugh. “Oh! That’s a different answer than I’m used to!”
“Why? What do you usually hear?” he asked.
“Well, this game is about whether you take things like that personally. So I usually hear people say one of two things. Either they say things like, ‘she hated me,’ or ‘she thought I was boring.’ They make sense of what happened by making that woman’s story about them. They take it personally.”
He laughed, “Instead of like, ‘She left because she had a kidney infection.’ Or ‘She had to answer a call from her second cousin.’ Nothing to do with you.”
“Right,” I said.
“My answer was sort of in the middle. It was kind of about me. Or about my information, at any rate.”
“I didn’t hear it that way, Roddy. I heard it being completely about her. It wasn’t relevant to her. The ‘it’ could be anything. But it’s not about you.”
“I suppose,” he said.
“I think that’s what happened during this whole exchange with Craig. You stopped taking his attack personally.”
“Ha! You’re right! I stayed a grownup. I didn’t take it personally. I love this!” Then he said, “I want to play that game with my daughter. I think I know which side she’d come down on, but I’m not sure.”
“How old is she?”
“What do you think she’ll say?”
“I think she’ll feel that woman walked out her personally. I could be wrong.”
He told me at our next session that his daughter had surprised him. She responded with a ‘kidney infection’ sort of answer. He was glad. He felt her optimistic bent would give her a better shot at The Look & Sound of Leadership.