Connect Consulting Group

Why and how you need to help people pay attention

by Liz Guthridge on September 20, 2016 · 1 comment

Marcel and the geesePay bills. Pay respect. Pay attention. If you’re a responsible adult, you do these actions, often without prompting.

Yet, even when you want to pay attention to your leaders, co-workers, and trainers and learn from them, you may fail.    

Attention is necessary for learning, and it’s a very complex action requiring different brain regions and circuitry.

Paying attention depends on your ability to focus on specific input while resisting the urge to be distracted from other stimulation (Can we look at another texted pet photo? Sure!), as I learned in my applied neuroscience program.

Even more challenging, you can only pay attention for about 20 minutes before you need to rest and recharge. This is true even if you’re highly motivated to focus on the content. The brain’s pre-frontal cortex, often referred to as the executive function, is involved, and it tires easily.

These lessons came flooding back to my consciousness as I participated in the 2016 MidSouth ATD Conference and Expo earlier this month in Nashville.

When I learned about the science of attention a few years ago, different neurons in my brain had fired together and achieved synchrony, which changed my brain. The maxim that “Cells that fire together, wire together” from Hebb’s Law helps explain this aspect of the brain’s neuroplasticity, that is, its ability to change.

And because I was interested in the topic of attention and deemed it important, this information has stayed in my long-term memory. (But there’s a lot of other stuff missing, either because I didn’t pay enough attention or didn’t think I needed to remember it….)

How can you help yourself and others pay attention and learn, especially if you’re the one trying to train someone and the topic is technical?

Here are three actions that help:

  1. Make sure the environment is conducive to learning. If you’re meeting face-to-face, the room needs to be physically comfortable without distractions. If you’re online, make sure it’s easy for people to sign on. The more you can make things comfortable and easy, the more you can reduce their cognitive load so they can pay attention to the substantive content you want to share.
  1. Connect the content to something that’s immediately meaningful or relevant. To get someone’s attention, you need to provide information or a diversion that piques their interest in the moment. Show them why your content matters to them and their job now, and how they can apply it after they leave your session.
  1. Mix things up after 20 minutes. Change your learning format every 20 minutes. For example, switch from lecture to discussion or Q&A. Show a video. Or ask people to stand up and stretch, or move to another seat. Any of these actions helps the prefrontal cortex re-charge itself. When you show a video or involve others through discussion, you also add an emotional component, which heightens people’s interest level and keeps them more engaged in the content.

With so many competing priorities—our own and others—we cannot expect that we or our colleagues will pay attention when we’re exposed to new information and people.

Rather than take attention for granted, we need to work at getting it and keeping it.

And when people do pay attention to us and our content, we owe it to them to provide a high return on their investment.

That’s why my best moment at the conference was when a participant told me she got more value from my one-hour session on learning the skill of building habits than she did from a day-long workshop on productivity tips.

The 2016 MidSouth ATD Conference organizers worked hard to follow the science of attention and they succeeded. Kudos to them and to the keynoter, Julie Dirkson of Usable Learning, who kicked off the conference with a thought-provoking interactive session on the science of learning.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about the role attention plays in learning, check out this NeuroLeadership Journal article The Science of Making Learning Stick: An Update to the AGES Model. (AGES stands for attention, generation, emotion, and spacing.)

Meanwhile, good luck paying attention….it’s harder work than we think.

How to create energy, emotion, and edge in your meetings

by Liz Guthridge on September 11, 2016 · 0 comments

meeting-experiences-model-graphicDo your meetings have the energy, emotion and edge needed to keep you and others engaged, performing at your peak, and achieving the results you want?

If not, how would you describe your meeting experiences?

You probably will refuse, but I hope you will take a moment to answer a few questions about your meetings. The direct link is:

Your responses will help my colleague Scott Wigley and me as we work to help you improve your meetings as well as our own. Our goal is to share any survey results and observations with you before the end of November, which coincides with end of the Atlantic hurricane season.

You see, meetings are similar to the weather – something we all experience, complain about when they’re not to our liking, and often consider ourselves victims because we believe we can’t control the situation.

Yet, we can influence meetings regardless of our role.

Whether we’re a participant or a leader, if we take a broader perspective of meetings, we can make them feel less of an ordeal and more of a welcome experience.

In fact, “experience” is the operative word. Considering the percentage of our life that we spend in meetings, we deserve to feel like we’re taking part in meaningful events rather than going through the motions and marking time.

How do you change your perspective to first view meetings as more than a work obligation and then to create a meaningful meeting experience?

You need to take these steps, based on the brain science and our years of designing, facilitating, and sitting in meetings:

  1. Plan the pre-meeting and post-meeting steps just as carefully as you do the meeting itself. (And if you don’t do much meeting preparation, start.)
  1. Adopt brain-friendly principles to follow throughout your planning and the steps. These include:
    • Being open and positive. Depending on your meeting role, think of yourself either as a gracious host or genial guest who will do your best to welcome others and work to bring out the best in them. (See Let’s have a party for more about this.)
    • Chunk the content. Keep meetings as short as possible, preferably no longer than 90 minutes at a one time. And for any meetings longer than 15 minutes, mix things up to help people pay attention and focus. (For more on this, check out To improve recall, use social learning.)
    • Engage participants. To keep people interested in the meeting content and each other, encourage participants to interact with one another, ask questions, take turns talking, co-create together, and celebrate wins of all sizes and milestones. (For more, read 3 ways to increase your team’s smarts.)
  1. For each of the three steps (before, during, and after), take actions that will make it easier for participants to follow along and benefit from the experience, as well as enjoy it. To avoid overtaxing your brain now, we’ll share details about these actions in future blog posts.

Meanwhile, even though you will probably refuse, I hope you will answer these quick questions about your meeting experiences. The direct link to the brief assessment is:

(And if you’re wondering why I’m asking you even though you probably will refuse, it’s because it’s a persuasion technique that works well.  That’s because you are free to choose whether to take action or not. For more about this, read You Will Probably Refuse, But I Wonder If You Would Read This Post in the Science of Us.)

As for your meetings, life is too short to suffer through bad meetings. You deserve meetings that energize you, help you make emotional connections with others, and sharpen your edge to advance your work.

If most of your meetings range from “bad” to “meh,” it’s time to enhance your meeting experiences. Or not. It’s your choice. However, you can start by taking this assessment:

How to toast my late mother, mentor, and dog

by Liz Guthridge on August 29, 2016 · 4 comments

Vineyard 29Please join me in toasting the memories of my late mother, a mentor, and Gustav who’s featured in an important new book on animal transitions. All three taught me valuable lessons that you may benefit from as well.

As background, over a seven-day stretch in August, I lost my 85-year-old mother, Ruth Lieberman Guthridge, and my 88-year-old mentor, Thomas H. Paine. They never met each other, yet they both played significant roles in shaping who I am as a human being.

Considering that all three of us are/were dog people, it seems fitting that between their two deaths a copy of the just-published book, Peace in Passing: Comfort for Loving Humans During Animal Transitions, thoughtfully inscribed by the author Maribeth Coye Decker, arrived in the mail for me.  Several of the author’s stories revolve around our dog Gustav, including his rich inner life and how we handled grieving his sudden death last October.

As for the two humans, while they inhabited different worlds, they both valued education and were both clever problem solvers.  (For example, my younger sister Rachel, younger brother David, and I will always be grateful to my mother for bringing a dog into the family before she became pregnant with me and naming him “Jake” — one of my father’s favorite names.)

My mother and Tom also stressed good manners. They believed in and practiced spending more time listening than talking, and taking the initiative to introduce yourself to strangers to make them feel welcome. (I think my mother would have been proud of my father and me for following her advice at her memorial service.)

As for Tom, he was one of the early partners of the pioneering benefits consulting firm, Hewitt Associates (now part of Aon),  which was my first employer after I graduated from Northwestern University.

Tom was known inside and outside Hewitt Associates for his technical prowess, conscientious client service, and strong support of new consultants.

(Tom also was a trail blazer in how the firm’s consultants dressed. As the legend went, Ted Hewitt believed his consultants looked more professional in hats so he outfitted his client-facing staff members with hats and leather briefcases. But Tom kept leaving his hats in trains, planes and client offices, so the firm gave up and dropped the hat requirement. The company-issued briefcase tradition continued.)

Here are my three favorite lessons from Tom:

  • To serve multiple clients well, you have to juggle. Occasionally, you’ll drop a ball. Just try to pick it up on the first bounce and go from there.
  • You can be influential wherever you are and regardless of your position. The Social Security Administration approached Tom to serve in a leadership role. He declined the offer because he believed he could make a greater impact on retirement policy on the outside than in the government. During his time at Hewitt Associates, the retirement field experienced many changes, including ERISA, 401(k) plans, ESOPs, etc.
  • Whether you have a calling or a career, you can and should have other interests outside of work to keep you healthy, well-rounded, and grounded. Tom was a master gardener, baker and mixologist. Plus, he and his wife Teresa Norton, also a Hewitt Associates partner and my awesome first boss out of college, started the highly-rated boutique winery Vineyard 29 after they retired. Tom and Teresa also actively supported several charities in Napa Valley and then in the San Diego area where they moved after selling the winery in 2000.

Over the years, I formed a strong friendship with Tom and Teresa outside of work, especially once they retired from Hewitt Associates, and enjoyed their company immensely. I appreciated how they welcomed my husband into the mix, once I met him.

While on the plane to my mother’s memorial last week, I read Peace in Passing. While this ground-breaking book is definitely intended to comfort humans during animal transitions, which can be more challenging at times than human losses, many of the messages apply to all creatures and humans, great and small.

Namely, love never dies.

theatre marquisWhen leaders I’m coaching lament that they’re having trouble getting stuff done, I take them back to the basics.

We examine their will (motivation), their skill (ability) and their ability to get over the hill (overcome any real or perceived barriers in their organization or personal environment).

Generally, they’re trying to do something that want and can do – which means they’ve got the will and skill.

However, they feel like they’re facing either a hill or even a mountain that’s hard to scale – an uncooperative peer, limited resources, an overwhelming workload, etc. We then figure out how to traverse a path that can get them past the barrier.

During the examination though, we sometimes discover they’re climbing the wrong hill.

These leaders should be delegating their staff members to do certain tasks and supporting them, rather than taking the tasks on themselves. Or if the actions don’t match their priorities, they need to stop doing them.

The challenge is they often still enjoy using skills that they’ve outgrown.  They’ve not yet come to grips that they need to apply different skills to fit their advancing role in the organization. Or, they’ve not yet fully embraced the changes of our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world and the new skills they need to deploy.

To reach their goals, they need to stretch and use different skills, some new, and conquer new hills. This often means giving up control and the safety of what’s worked for them in the past. Now they need to be more present and adaptable in how they lead and act.

In other words, they’ve got to stop following scripts, which can become outdated before they even use them. Instead, leaders need to improvise more.  

Improvising is not just the purview of improvisational theater actors; improv is the way leaders must perform in our connection economy in this cognitive age.

Unlike other actors, improv performers prepare for their work in a very different manner, which organizational leaders also can adopt. Rather than memorize scripts, improv performers exercise their body and mind. As they practice, they train themselves to be more attentive to their surroundings.

David Alger, who’s taught, performed and directed improv over the years around the United States and in Japan recently wrote an email message about the top things good improvisers do.

Here’s a list of the seven things that are most applicable to organizational leaders too. His comments are in bold. My observations are in italic.

Good improvisers on the stage and in organizations do the following:

1. They listen deeply. They listen to the words and the silence. Especially to actions. They ask questions as well as listen and observe. They reflect on what they hear and see and then they act.

2. They learn to identify and let go of negative stuff. They don’t give up after an off show or practice. They know what their limiting beliefs are and they know how to avoid letting those beliefs get in their way. They set a positive tone and example for others.

3. They respond with energy and make offers that require a response. This means acknowledging others and answering with “yes, and….” in order not to shut individuals down.

4. They show their emotions and feelings onstage. They learn to tap into their passion. They recognize that they need to connect with others on an emotional level. It’s not enough to share facts and other data. Leaders need to tell stories that capture people’s attention and get them to think differently.

5. They focus on the team and the other players. They are team players. They realize they don’t have all the answers. However, by asking good questions, involving others and helping create a compelling experience, they encourage others to help them develop a good solution.  And when they leverage others and get better results, they channel Tom Sawyer. (See Channel Tom for change.)

6. They focus on playing in the present. They play and stay mindful and leave analyzing for after the show. They challenge their assumptions and encourage others to do so too. And when others are involved, the leaders don’t second guess them. They respect and trust them to help.

7. They make mistakes. Lots of mistakes and then they learn. They iterate, analyze the outcomes, look at data, revise, and continue the process.

Good improvisers don’t expect instructions. Instead, they take the initiative, showing good judgment and agility as they respond to the latest situation.

By staying open to new ideas, new relationships and new ways of working, improvisational leaders do more than manage or lead change. Leaders  make positive change.

Are you ready to dump your scripts in favor of improv to improve your leadership skills?

3 ways to be empathetic ─ and powerful

by Liz Guthridge on August 16, 2016 · 0 comments

mirrorsDon’t blame it on the youth.

We adults – especially those in powerful positions ─ are guilty too.

Even though we’re born with the ability to understand and share others’ emotions, we don’t always practice empathy. 

Worse, some of us point fingers at others, especially the young, complaining about their self-centeredness. Research from the University of Michigan backs this up. College students studied in 2000 were about 40 percent less empathetic than they were 10 years earlier.

Other studies document different empathy deficits.

For example, when you feel powerful or believe you have higher status than others, the empathy network in your brain can become disengaged when you interact with others. (Check out the research study Social status modulates neural activity in the mentalizing network.)

You also may not feel the pain of others if they’re not part of your in-group or of a different race. For example, watching individuals have needles penetrate their cheeks hurts more when the persons share your racial group. (See the research study Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulated empathic neural responses.)

Why should you care?

Being empathetic is a valuable skill for individuals at all levels in an organization, especially leaders.

Empathetic people are more easily able to earn the respect of others, which makes them more influential and powerful.

If you’re empathetic, you’re sensitive to others and their needs. You take the time to observe and listen. You start to understand others’ points of view and their states of mind.

This “perspective taking” gives you valuable insights of what others are feeling, thinking and wanting. You’re more considerate in how you work with others. For example, you tend to involve others in developing solutions that work for the better good, rather than just yourself.

Due to their compassion and selflessness, empathetic people actually earn power from others who voluntary give it to them, according to Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the faculty director of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center.

In his newest book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, Dr. Keltner reviews the science of empathy, and presents his power principles.

He explains that individuals gain and maintain power by focusing on others. As long as they practice actions that “dignify and delight” others they are able to keep their power.

According to Dr. Keltner, these four social practices are empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, and telling stories.

However, when you feel powerful, you (and your brain) can be seduced and you can start to lose your orientation toward others and your skills that allowed you to gain power. This is the power paradox.

How do you avoid becoming prey to this paradox?

To maintain a strong perspective-taking, you can regularly take these three steps. They can boost your empathy and your power: 

  • Spend time with a variety of people in different situations. In other words, don’t let yourself get into a bubble, an echo chamber or anything else that shields you from others. Isolation and insulation may help you use your time wisely, but they give you a false sense of security. If you separate yourself from diverse individuals, especially those less powerful from you, you’ll make it more difficult to understand them, much less walk in their shoes.
  • Ask questions. When you ask thoughtful questions in a curious, caring manner (not like you’re cross-examining anyone), you show interest and respect. To help you get in the mindset of asking questions that make it a valuable experience for you and others, before you meet with someone ask yourself: What can I learn from them? And what can I learn about them?  
  • Listen and observe carefully. Listening goes hand-in-hand with asking questions. Just make sure you listen carefully to how others answer your questions rather than paying attention to the voices in your head. To avoid being distracted, put away your devices during conversations. Also, take the effort to look around the environment to pick up cues that may give you insights into the world of others. For more tips, check out this helpful Harvard Business Review blog Listening is an overlooked leadership tool.

By practicing these three steps, you can be an empathetic, well-rounded individual.

And last but not least, how often are you looking in the mirror to make sure you’re committed to seeing not just yourself, but others and their points of view too?