“I often feel unequal when I go into meetings,” Cheryl said. As Vice President of Consumer Products at a Hollywood studio, Cheryl was getting feedback that when she spoke she was hard to follow and appeared scattered in her thinking.“Tell me more about feeling unequal,” I said.
She told me about meeting with the division’s two senior executives to present a product line strategy. Suddenly she was telling me about a meeting with Wal-Mart execs in Bentonville, Arkansas. Those two meetings didn’t seem connected but I wasn’t sure. Then she was telling me about delegating a complex project to one of her direct reports and how she manages that woman. We were about seven minutes into her answer. I called a time out.
“Can you remember what I asked you originally?”
After a second she said, “You asked me about feeling unequal in meetings.”
To be honest, I was surprised she remembered. “Great,” I said. “Help me understand how delegating to Marsha is about feeling unequal in meetings.”
She turned her eyes up to the ceiling and began to rewind her thinking. She thought for quite a long time before she began to smile. She looked at me, nodding her head. “Okay. I give up. I have no idea how it relates. That’s me being scattered, isn’t it?”
Indeed it was. So I introduced a game I call, “What are we talking about right now?”
When I play this game in my coaching, I ask for permission to pop this question out at any time. Whenever I ask it, the person has to try to answer it by getting to the very highest level of thinking. To understand “the highest level of thinking,” imagine the hierarchy of folders on your desktop. You might be working on a document that’s in a folder four levels down. If I were to ask, “What’s that document about?” I wouldn’t want to know the name of the document or its content; I’d want to know the name of the folder at the first level of the hierarchy.
This game is often difficult for people because the path their thinking has led them down is completely apparent to them. Take Cheryl. She begins with a clear sense of connection to the main topic (feeling unequal in meetings). As she talks, a side road branches off in her mind (a meeting in which she did feel equal). To her this connects clearly to the main road, so she takes the branch. And on that branch is another branch (a time when she felt more than equal) which she also follows. It all makes sense to her.
But to me, the listener, the branches are invisible. I think everything she says is on the main road the entire time. So as Cheryl’s ideas come in, I’m trying to put them in the main topic folder, a folder called “Feeling Unequal in Meetings.” When an idea doesn’t fit, I struggle like one of the step-sisters jamming her foot into the glass slipper, straining to force the idea into a folder where it doesn’t belong. And of course Cheryl is still talking and I’m now way behind, most likely never to catch up. Not a good moment for Cheryl or whoever is talking.
In order to be dynamic when you speak, you have to stay on track. To stay on track you need to filter your words before letting them pour out of your mouth. As your ideas bubble up, put them through a filter that asks, “Is this idea on topic?” Then, in your spoken words, refer to the topic regularly. That way, if you decide to take a branch, you can tell people you’re branching off and how it relates to the main idea.
For example, Cheryl might have said, “I didn’t feel very equal in that meeting with Doug and Eileen but there was a meeting in Bentonville, with Wal-Mart, where I did feel equal.” That would have been easy to follow.
And if at that moment I had asked, “What are we talking about right now?” I hope she would not have said, “The meeting at Wal-Mart.” That answer is not at the highest level of thinking. The highest level answer is “Feeling Unequal in Meetings.”
To this day Cheryl and I continue to play “What are we talking about right now?” in our coaching. In the beginning it exhausted her brain because it was such a different way of thinking. But like any sort of workout, mental or physical, she’s building her strength around it. And she’s becoming much less scattered when she talks.
If you can keep that one question in your head (“What are we talking about right now?”), you’ll have gone a long way down the path called The Look & Sound of Leadership™.