Category: Coaching

The Art of Clearing

Sometimes your thoughts don’t help.
Psychology researchers at the University of Chicago wondered what would happen if students took a few minutes to jot down all their worries just before taking an exam. They idea was to clear the working memory of anything that could interfere with the mental clarity the students needed to perform well on the test. The conclusion: clearing your mind can increase your grade.
“People are in this stressful situation and they worry about it and the consequences,” said Professor Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago. “These worries are taking up resources that should be dedicated to the task. Putting pen to paper appears to offload these worries.”
If you follow sports, think about what the opposing team does if there is a critical foul shot or field goal to be made at the end of the game. The opposing coach calls time out in the hope that it gives the athlete time to worry about his or her performance—time to let a non-supportive thought to get in the way.
At work, consider the employees who have questions or concerns that they would love to discuss with their boss, but the time never seems right. Not knowing or worrying about what the boss thinks can get in the way of getting work done.
Worry, questions, concerns—these are thoughts that limit us, whether taking a test, making a field goal, or having a conversation with the boss. They get in the way of performance, and they can erode our sense of well-being.
Suppressing it doesn’t work!
When some thought or concern is messing with you, getting your mind off it is not easy. In fact, research shows that when people are instructed not to think about a specific topic, it makes it even harder to get that topic out of their minds. Telling yourself not to think about your worry is not the answer.
This brings me back to the study on test takers. What these researchers did was give the subjects an opportunity for clearing their minds, allowing them to focus and produce improved results.
Gallwey’s question gives us access to getting clear
Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Work, had this wonderful insight: Whenever you are not at your best, there is simply a thought in the way. And if you can share that thought with someone else, you will be able to set it aside while you perform.
This is a rephrasing of coaching expert Gallwey’s question, which he designed to help people clear their minds before performing:
Is there anything at all about which you are curious, wondering, anxious, or concerned? If so, tell me.
Effective people notice when they are annoyed or anxious—not at their best. Then they identify and deal with those thoughts.
Effective organizations also realize that unhealthy background thoughts can also become rumors and gossip if not given a chance to be expressed. A vibrant culture keeps asking that problems be surfaced where they can be explored and worked through in a way that takes advantage of the wisdom of colleagues.
Here is an example of Gallwey’s clearing question being used in an organizational setting:
What keeps you up at night? What’s going on in your unit, the college, the university (or beyond) that you are curious, wondering, concerned, or upset about?
From an organizational perspective, it is important to continually give people permission to “clear”—to ask about anything. Think about it this way: given a void in information, people will make something up to fill the void. Transparency can never be achieved unless people have the permission and safety to ask about everything. Without this freedom, they will be left to make up their own interpretations and stories.
People worry and anything you can do to provide clarity is beneficial.
Here are some ways to use clearing every day.

Begin meetings with this question: Is there anything that anyone needs to say or ask before we begin?
Establish this agreement with the people you supervise: You can ask me anything. So if you are curious or wondering or concerned, please ask and I’ll tell you the truth.
Parent-teacher conferences might begin like this: I’d love to start by just answering all of your questions. You can ask me anything and you can tell me anything you want me to know.
Wouldn’t it be great if your family doctor said, Please don’t let me leave until you have asked all of your questions, no matter how small.
At home, rather than suppressing your worries, you might say: You know, I’m not quite myself today. This is what is messing with my mind.

This is one of my favorite stories about the power of clearing. I was coaching a baseball team of thirteen- to fifteen-year-old boys when I first heard Tim talk about using this question to clear people before a presentation or test or competition. I decided to try it on the boys. The first couple of times, I didn’t get a single response. The third time was different.
Me: OK, boys, anything you want to ask about or are worried about?
Catcher: Can I play center field?
Me: Talk to me—why are you asking?
Catcher: My dad is here, and he will stand behind the screen and yell at me after every pitch, and after about three innings, I’ll start crying.
Me: I’ll ask your dad to sit by me.
Catcher: He won’t.
Me: We’ll see.
Alas, his dad would not relent, figuring that I would not stand my ground because his kid was by far the best player and we needed him to be catching in order to win. His son played center field.
The next game, a small kid on the team asked if I would promise not to ask him to bunt during the game. I agreed after he promised to work on bunting during practice next week. He was relieved. About the seventh inning, he dropped down a perfect bunt. When he came to the dugout, I asked him why he bunted. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Giving people an opportunity to share whatever they are thinking gives them a chance to clear their minds so they can be at their best.
“Your head is a bad neighborhood. Don’t go there alone.”
—Mary Karr, American poet

Two designs for your one-on-one meetings with staff

Recently, there has been a lot of press about companies and organizations walking away from the annual performance appraisals. I believe there are many factors contributing to this, but I think the most important – and maybe surprising – is the employees themselves. Most people want to know how they are doing in real time rather than waiting six months or a year for a review. They also want to feel a connection to their boss, and that often means talking often enough so that difficult conversations are few and far between.
This idea works well with a recent article that argued for calling these one-on-ones conversations instead of meetings. Since I’m trying to get all meetings to be seen as a series of conversations, I love that idea. The value of one-on-one sessions is that they can truly be a back-and-forth, give-and-take discussion that leads to transparency, clarity, and progress.
To be truly effective, these conversations need to be “filter-less.” By that I mean both manager and staff member agree to speak openly as well as respectfully. Here are some guidelines that you might include in your organizational culture to promote greater levels of candor and permission and to provide the context and tone for your one-on-one discussions.
Let’s be straight with one another…

If you are ever curious or concerned about anything…ask. I’ll tell you the truth.
If I have concerns about your performance or hear any concerns from anywhere in the organization, I’ll tell you within one week.
If something isn’t working for you, let’s discuss it.

Let’s be accountable to one another…

Let’s avoid unfulfilled expectations by being clear and specific when we discuss goals and action items. If it’s not clear… ask.

 Let’s be fair with one another…

Decision making will be transparent and open to input and review, yet not everyone will be involved in every decision. Ask for the level of involvement you need.
Let’s give one another the benefit of the doubt… and when we make a mistake, let’s have it be no more than a mistake.

Two Designs for One-on-One Staff Meetings
Here are two one-on-one meeting formats that clients have put into practice with wonderful results. Both are initiated, designed, and led by the staff member, not the manager. While that’s not necessary, there is a powerful level of ownership gained by having the employee be responsible for the meeting.
The Standard Checking-In Meeting
 Action required of employee:

Request time on the manager’s calendar.
Share proposed agenda two or more days in advance of the meeting.

 Agenda Format:
For each topic:

State the issue or topic to be discussed.
Provide enough background or context so issue is clear.
State the desired outcome for this conversation.

Agenda discussion path:

Review recent circumstances and actions
Discuss ideas, concerns, issues.
Review next steps: Who will do, What, by When.

Action the next day:

Employee sends follow-up e-mail to summarize the meeting, if appropriate.

 The 30-60-90: One-on-One Check-In with Team Members
Providing clarity about the future and the focus required to achieve it are important elements of managing people. Three time frames are important—30 days, 60 days, and 90 days—so that longer-term issues get equal attention. These meetings are usually done once each month.
Initiating action required:

The staff member sends responses to the questions below to the manager at least one day prior to the meeting so the manager has time to reflect.

Questions to be answered:

What has happened recently?
What are the desired 30-day outcomes?
What are the desired 60-day outcomes?
What are the desired 90-day outcomes?

Discussion path for the meeting:

Review prior action items.
Discuss ideas, concerns, issues.
Review next steps: Who will do, What, by When.

As you would expect, this format sets up excellent, purposeful discussions which add to the relationship. In addition, the manager can see where he or she might help team members by clearing roadblocks, selling ideas, or obtaining resources.
One final comment: I’m a big fan of having employees design and lead the meetings they have with the boss or with managers higher in the organization. Managers often don’t have time to think about one-on-one meetings ahead of time, and they sincerely appreciate employees who come into each meeting prepared. It’s another way for you to come across as remarkable.

An Agreement About Distraction

Distraction is a big issue these days. Too many of us sit in meetings with a room full of people consulting laptops, smartphones, or other devices, and this trend needs to be stopped cold in its tracks.
As a constant advocate for awareness, presence, and focus, I’ve been fighting the pull of technology both personally and in the classes I teach. I get it that technology is addictive. It takes everything I’ve got to put my smartphone in the back seat when I’m driving. Every commercial on TV is an opportunity to check e-mail.
Yet I know it’s not productive to jump back and forth with my attention between two things. Distractions are especially harmful to meetings—and multitasking is a distraction both to the person doing it and to the other people in the group.
If you’re leading a meeting, here is how you might express an agreement about distraction in the setup for your meeting:
I want you to take care of yourselves, and within that agreement, you certainly have my permission to leave the room at any time to check on your family or critical projects. I realize you may have calls you are waiting for or projects you are tracking. Do what you need to do to feel you have that handled. Please use your judgment and look out for yourself. You can also get up at any time to get coffee, stretch, use the restroom.  
That said, I would love your full attention when we are in the meeting so we can really focus the conversation. So check your electronics at the door. I ask this for two reasons: First, because they are distracting to me and to others. Second, because your attention and listening matter to me, to others in the room, and to the quality of our work together.
If you want to put your phone on vibrate, not a problem, unless it vibrates every five minutes. Exceptions are fine; patterns are troublesome. Also, if you want to take notes or use your tablet to refer to background information on our topics, by all means do so. I just ask that you resist the urge to check e-mail or world news. Deal? Thank you.
“The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits,” explains Clifford Nass, coauthor of a Stanford study on multitasking. “They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks—including multitasking.”
Multitasking has no place in meetings. You may think you are able to follow a conversation as you do something else. But your mind does not actually hear and think two things at the same time. It simply switches back and forth very fast. The moment you look at your smartphone and read that text, you miss what is said in the meeting.
The harm in multitasking is twofold. First, your attention matters to everyone else in the room—especially to the person speaking. Speaking to a group that is not paying attention is distracting at the least and hurtful at worst. People identify with their own speaking, so if you aren’t paying attention to what they say, you send the message that you’re not paying attention to them as a person.
Second, if you’re multitasking, you miss the subtleties in what people say and the nonverbal cues in how they say it. You may be able to keep up with the gist of their words, but you will likely miss most of what they are actually saying.

I know I’m fighting uphill here. A colleague was discussing guidelines for a group’s virtual meetings when someone suggested that everyone agree not to work on their computers during the conference call. One supervisor objected because he thought it would interfere with the productivity of some of his people who were exceptional at multitasking!
But in reality only about 2 percent of people are any good at multitasking. “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” argued MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller in a National Public Radio interview. “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”
So don’t delude yourself. Be fully present in every meeting—fully focused on the conversation at hand.