Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, a podcast. Think back to a day in your recent past. Did things go the way you expected? Did everything and everyone followed a script you planned? Unfortunately, business and life can be quite chaotic, unpredictable and even messy. How can we better prepare ourselves to manage all of this spontaneity in a creative, collegial way? I'm Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Today, I am really looking forward to speaking with Christian Weller, who is the GSB Strato, Professor of Management and Professor of Marketing. Christian teaches a variety of courses, including those on behavioral research, marketing, management and spontaneous management. Welcome, Christian. Hi Matt. Great to be here. I really enjoyed working with you on a few projects at the GSB. You seem to have unending energy and are amazing to watch teach. I'm so excited about our conversation.
Should we get started? Yeah, let's do it. All right.
As I mentioned in the beginning, things don't always go as planned. You teach a course in spontaneous management. Can you share with us two or three of the key learnings you impart to your students? We all spend time making plans, whether those are business plans, such as a quarterly earnings forecast or personal plan such that we rehearse in our minds the way a conversation or interaction is going to go. And things rarely turn out exactly like we anticipated. And that can be upsetting to people can throw them off of their game.
And so the class spontaneous management is built around this idea of providing people a sense of calm and flexibility so that they can adapt to whatever circumstances come about. So I know you talk a lot with your students about managing anxiety. A lot of people feel anxious, you know, even giving a plan, scripted presentation in front of others. And how much worse is that when you're dealing with circumstances that you can't completely control, such as a question and answer session that goes differently than you anticipated or just being asked to make spontaneous remarks about something.
So one thing that we deal with right at the beginning of the classes is just learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable. You know, all of us have some natural reaction of arousal when we get in situations like that. And that's not necessarily a good or a bad thing. What is good or bad is how we respond to that sense of arousal. And so sometimes when we get in these situations where we need to make unplanned comments, we can get a little anxious and then we get anxious about being anxious.
We feel bad about being anxious. And that's that's where the problem starts. There's nothing wrong with with being uncomfortable. The problem is with your discomfort at being uncomfortable. And so we work on exercises, teaching people to to be in that situation and to respond in that situation with a sense of calm. They can acknowledge that they feel a little bit anxious, but they're not going to dwell on it and they're going to trust their minds to bubble up the necessary responses that they have in that moment.
And it's when we start layering other things on top of that feeling of arousal or anxiety that it becomes problematic. You know, if you've ever watched American football, you know, they talk about how the best quarterbacks have to have a short term memory. And what that means is if you go out and you make a mistake, you throw an interception. The next time you go out there, you can't be thinking about that interception you just threw. You need to be thinking about in the moment what you need to be doing to adapt to that next series of plays that you have.
And so the less time you can spend dwelling on your mistakes, the more mental energy you can devote to doing what you need to do in that moment.
So I really I really like that advice. And a lot of this is just acknowledging that, that getting nervous in those types of situations is normal and natural rather than something that is bizarre and strange. Most people get that way and then and then that can help. Short-Circuit some of that anxiety you're talking about, do you do you work with your students on specific things they can do to develop that short term memory and to help reduce some of that feeling bad about feeling nervous?
Yeah, absolutely, so I guess I was going to bring me to the second thing we work on having a sense of not fearing failure. So failure is it is another thing. This is similar. You need a similar set of responses. Failure is not something that we seek and no one wants to fail. But the fear of failure can create these layers. All of these other maladaptive responses on top of that. And so what we do is we put people into situations a lot, some exercises we do early on or what improvisers call brain fries.
There are situations where your brain simply can't compute all of the necessary information and you learn to be in those situations with a sense of comfort, at least relative comfort, and you learn to treat failure as something that it's OK. You know, here in Silicon Valley, we have this mantra. Many companies do a failing fast, failing quickly and all of that. And that's fine is an intellectual orientation. But many of us, when we're confronted with personal failure, even with things that are not high stakes, it feels bad to us.
And we work hard to try to avoid that failure. And that can often be counterproductive. So we try to encourage people to accept failure as being something that's OK and to enter situations like that with a with a sense of play and a sense of joy.
I once heard a wonderful bit of advice that just because you fail doesn't mean you're a failure. Failing can actually be a wonderful learning opportunity. But it sounds like what you're trying to inculcate in your students is this idea that that failing isn't bad and it's something that you can actually desensitize yourself to.
Failing is something that's on the pathway to success. You know, people forget what it was like to be a young child. Children are bad at everything, but they don't they don't know how to walk. They don't know how to use a spoon. They don't know how to tie their shoes. They can't do anything. And children fail and fail and fail and fail and fail until they stop failing. And so a young person is used to failing all the time.
It's no big deal. And and through failure, they learn how to gain the skills that they need to participate in life. And as adults, we get to some point where we can structure our own environments in such a way that we don't put ourselves in failure situations. And and that's where we stop growing. We need to recognize that failure is a great thing because failure suggests that we are operating at the outside of our abilities and that we have some skills that we can acquire to better adapt to our circumstances.
You know, you remind me of a company I worked for many years ago. We had Failure Fridays and the CEO essentially rewarded people for stepping forward and acknowledging some work failure they had with the idea of being one. What you're saying there is to push ourselves to try new things. And of course, when you try new things, failure happens, but also to be an educational experience. So it was OK to fail, but let's not make the same mistake again.
So those failure Fridays were actually quite fun and people would compete to have the biggest failure and it turned into quite an event. But it was really something that helped desensitize people to failure and encourage learning. Yeah, I love that idea.
I love that idea. And then everyone else can learn from your failures as well. Right. They learn what didn't work and it's and it is stigmatizes your own failure.
That's absolutely. So in your course, you talk about creative collaboration. Can you provide us with some practical tips on how we can be more creative in our collaboration? Sure. So, you know, one of the things we work on in my courses is understanding your tendencies. So all of us have we exist along some continuum of either wanting to seize control or wanting to avoid control. And so we do some exercises aimed at helping you understand your basic tendencies.
And then within that, to recognize that the things that your collaboration partners are giving you are gifts. So what a lot of people don't fully appreciate about the creative process is the value of inputs that come outside of your own brain, whether they're from your environment or whether they're from someone else that you're collaborating with. But Arthur Kessler talks about this as having intersecting reality planes. Right. We have two different ways of viewing the world. Each of us has our own perspective, our own set of experiences, our own set of associations, and that when those things intersect, that's when you can have interesting creative solutions.
And so when we're working alone, we can do things to foster that process. But the collaborative process naturally creates that type of thing. And so one thing we work on is viewing inputs as gifts or as an improviser would say is as an offer, as something to be built upon. And so if you've read anything or heard anything about improvisational theater, you know that the first rule is yes. And, um, and so what we do is we we affirm what the person gave us and then we build directly on that idea.
And what people who do these exercises with me find is that they come up with crazy, innovative solutions that. They never would have been able to dream up on their own just by having that additional person provided input into them. So do you teach your students or do you have some recommendations for some ground rules or some directives that can help people feel OK being creative and saying yes, and there's a lot of pressure to to get things right. And I feel like that stifles this.
Yes. And approach.
Yeah, absolutely. So I think what's important and the sessions I teach on creativity, it's important to know which stage of the creative solving process that you're in. We often have a tendency to judge our ideas at the same time we're creating them. And that's something that humans are not good at doing. There's a time to judge, but that's not the time. When you're creating ideas, you can judge ideas later.
So you essentially encourage people to, one, recognize are we in the brainstorming and ideation phase or are we in a different phase? And in that ideation phase, anything goes. Let's not judge. Let's really focus on how we can see what others are saying or offers. Yes.
And to build upon those things, because we don't know the value of an idea until we follow it to its logical conclusion. And even if we end up someplace that isn't super valuable for us, we may find that there are aspects of that idea that are still valuable, that we could incorporate in a different way, certainly.
And I can only imagine that in interacting with others in that way, collaborating in that way, it builds trust and camaraderie so that perhaps that idea wasn't good, but it might lead to the creation of other good ideas.
Yeah, I think that's exactly right. You know, people are thinking a lot more about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. And I think that's really important to think about. You know, in any given context, you may be an individual who feels that you belong or feels that your contributions are valued or feel like you have something useful to say. And the way people respond to your initial ideas are probably going to affect the way that you interact in that environment.
What I mean by that is, you know, you mentioned that there's some evaluation and apprehension associated with a group decision making context. Right. I don't want to say something stupid or be judged for that. And I have some threshold for how good I think an idea is before I'm going to let it come out of my mouth and then I'm going to look at people's responses to that. And if that initial response is negative, the next time around, that threshold may be a little bit higher.
And so it's very easy to unintentionally stifle the voices of people who may have varying levels of comfort with contributing because they feel that they belong on that group or don't. One thing that this orientation does is it makes sure that you're hearing all voices, even those who may be a little more reluctant to speak up initially.
And that is so critical for not only good decision making and feeling part of a group, but just for furthering this cause of diversity and inclusion beyond focusing on spontaneity and management. You did some research on what you referred to as positive implying pronouns. Can you give us the scoop on how our language use specifically pronouns might help us in our communication?
Sure. So the pronouns that we use indicate something about the relationships that we have with others or the norms of the situation. So that research was about the language that businesses use to communicate to customers. So if I'm in a joint business venture with somebody loosely speaking, meaning that I am a banker trying to communicate to a potential client or an insurance company, trying to communicate to a potential client, how do I talk about that relationship? One way we could phrase that is I could say you and I will work together to meet your financial needs, or I could say we will work together to meet those financial needs.
And what research shows is that when people use pronouns like we, that is indicating implicitly, but in a way that people pick up on, it's indicating closeness and a shared identity. So if you look at committed relationship partners, they use the words we more often than not we our and us this pronoun that implies this togetherness versus separateness, pronouns such as I, me or you. And if you look at the spontaneous language of couples, couples who use these inclusive pronouns like we have higher relationship satisfaction than ones who use IE.
And so it can be an indicator of the type of relationship that you have. And it can also increase relationship satisfaction when you when you tend to use those pronouns. But how successful that will be will depend on the existing norms of the situation. So in a business context, what our research showed is that there are certain industries for which people have expectations of a closer relationship and other industries where they feel they have an expectation of a more distant relationship and that people responded more positively when the pronouns used reflected those existing norms that people had in their minds.
We also know that that use of the pronoun you just referring to you as you can increase what psychologists call. Self referencing, which means that you are relating the information to yourself. So if I say something like computer technology is changing every day, or I could say that, you know, the computer technology is changing every day, this adding that you there makes you more likely to think about that information in itself, relevant way just along the lines of using someone's name, which relates to some other research that I've done.
So using you using someone's name invites people to pay attention and then do some self reflection in a way that they might not if you don't use that language. That's right.
So we recently published a paper showing that just putting someone's name in the subject line of an email, even when they know that you already knew their name, increases their likelihood of opening the email and increases the likelihood of generating sales lead or having them click through to it to another page. And interestingly, it decreases unsubscribes. And the way it has this effect is through increasing elaboration of the information of the message. So if you provide compelling reason to adopt the product or to browse on the Web page, then they're more likely to do that when you use their name in the subject line, even again, when they know that you know their name, such as with Stanford alums or an existing customer of a company.
Fascinating. You know, you talked about it and we talked about this notion of rapport and bonding and feeling part of something. It goes without saying that teams that know each other well tend to work better together. Unfortunately, we don't always have time to bond with our colleagues or perhaps with our new ubiquitous remote work. We don't have the benefit of in-person, for lack of a better term shmoozing. I've seen you help teams bond rapidly. What advice and guidance can you provide to help us get to know our co-workers better and more quickly?
You raise a really good issue there. This remote working thing is dramatically changing the way that organizations function. I think so. One fear that people had when people are coming into the office and I'm not there to look over their shoulder, maybe I'm worried they're not going to get any work done. That turns out, from what I've seen, not to be true. People are certainly capable of supervising themselves and getting work done. But what we do miss is this contact that we have with people, you know, stopping by their office or running to them and running into them at the WaterCooler, these little interactions with one another.
I have a huge effect on the level of bonding that we feel with one another. So we know that proximity, for example, is one of the biggest predictors of attraction. That just means how close we are to individuals. You know, you're more likely to be friends with someone who has an office or cubicle next door to you than someone who has an office or cubicle on a second floor. Mm hmm. And also, there's this principle developed by Bob Zients, who was a Stanford psychology professor before he passed away, called mere exposure.
Simply coming into contact with something repeatedly makes us like it more. And so these little interactions that we may not feel that they're a critical component of our organizational functioning have a huge effect on how close we feel to one another. And when we have those frequent and positive interactions, they form the Foundation for Trust and the Foundation of Trust helps us identify more with our organization and the organizational mission. And what we've seen here with meetings, for example, is that we often think of the purpose of meetings is just to be the things that are on the agenda sheet.
But what we see is that meetings have a lot of other functions. They serve these socialization functions, even if it's not an explicit part of the meeting. You know, we show up to the table a few minutes earlier, linger a few minutes afterwards, and we have this incidental contact with others that is taken away when we're working in this remote environment. One thing that organizations need to think about is ways to artificially induce that into this more formal Zoome style interaction that we've adopted.
So in my in my exercise, what you know, what we do is we have people engage in exercises where they're interacting with one another. They're experiencing this positive aspect and they're engaging in some degree of self disclosure, which is something that creates the foundations of trust.
Can you give an example of one or two examples of an activity that you do? I've seen you do multiple ones. I'm curious if one or two bubbled to the top that you'd like to share.
Oh, yeah, they can be very, very simple things, such as minor acts of self disclosure. I have people, for example, psychologists have developed these series of questions to create rapport in the lab artificially. So oftentimes people may want to study closer versus more distant relationships. But when you just bring friends versus strangers into the lab, there are all kinds of confounds. But what they've developed is a series of questions with escalating levels of self disclosure that can create these feelings of a close relationship, even with someone that you've met just mere minutes ago.
And so one thing we do is we have bring people through those questions and they escalate in a way such that people generally feel comfortable revealing something about themselves. So it's not too fast, but it's faster than he probably would. Normally in an ordinary conversation with someone, so give me an example of one of those questions.
Well, you start out with things such as, you know, Matt, how long have you been to Stanford? Why did you come here? This type of thing moving, you know, through a series of questions and a series of stages to get to more? You know, the last level we're talking about things like an embarrassing experience that you learn from or something you really want to accomplish in the next 20 years this close to your heart. So it's it's a gradual escalation where each person reveals a little bit so they feel more connected as they go.
That's right. That's right.
And what we've seen through research is that we like people who self disclosed to us and we like people more when we self disclosed to them this notion of self disclosure in a virtual world. I've done this with some of the students I teach and some of the folks I coach where we'll just say take something in the room you're sitting in and just show it to us virtually. It's like show and tell when we were kids. But it's a way of disclosure because people will explain why it's important.
It also has this wonderful side effect of making people turn on their videos. And people are loathe to do that sometimes. So it feeds into what you're discussing.
Yeah, that's an interesting thing that we see with zoo meetings now, is that we we get glimpses into people's lives that we wouldn't ordinarily have. We see their their living rooms and their children and their pets. And so people are often engaging in unintentional forms of self disclosure that still give us the feeling of knowing that person better. Absolutely.
I think you can connect to people much more when you see more of them for sure. I'd like to move on.
And I know that you use improv games to help your students better understand the concepts you teach. And I'm wondering if you'd be willing to play a quick improv game that I just made up. All right, let's do it. OK, I'm going to name a business activity, and I'd like for you to respond with the first thing that comes to your mind. Sure. All right. Here we go. Email. Well, tell tell me why. What are your thoughts on email and any advice on how to make it better?
You know, email is a is a bad form of communication. I mean, some of it is our own fault. For example, I'm not as good as I could be at managing my inboxes and keeping personal things separate from from work things. But even within a work inbox, you know, there are some things that are very important, things that are unimportant. And so, you know, one thing we can do is Sanders, for example, is to clearly indicate in the subject line whether this is something that requires action on my part, whether this is something that's just for my information, whether this is a newsletter or that type of thing, because we end up in this endless task without clear prioritization.
There are various technological solutions that can help with that. But but nothing's perfect. And then also, you know, emails tend to be too long. They're not prioritized efficiently. And so it's easy to start drowning in this swamp of email.
We on this podcast, we've talked in the past about how structure can really help you when you're trying to be efficient and concise and and just thinking about how to structure an email rather than just listing bullet points can really help. So so I agree. Being more concise and direct is helpful. Let me give you the last activity. I'd like your thoughts on performance reviews approach. Oh, tell me more what you mean about that. I think it's incredibly useful to to seek feedback.
And I think most of us tend not to do that as much as we should. When we think about performance review, when we're on the receiving end of that, that's often a source of evaluation, apprehension or anxiety. When we're on the giving end of that, that can often be the source of uncomfortable conversations. But, you know, the only way you learn how you're doing is through through seeking performance feedback. And I think people should do it more frequently than than they do.
And again, if they have this orientation that receiving negative feedback is something on the pathway to growth, then that can take some of the potential sting out of hearing news that you don't necessarily want to hear.
Oh, I like that. That approach really does change. And it feeds right back into what you talked about, seeing things as offers and gifts. I mean, in some ways, performance reviews are gifts. They're tools to help you better yourself. Just taking that mindset versus, oh, I'm being judged evaluated. I have to defend myself that that could really change how these things go. Yeah, absolutely.
And talking to, you know, all of the communications lecturer at Stanford, that set is fantastic at doing they continually seek student feedback and an open ended way and they continually revise their class so that they can better meet the needs of the students.
I'm blushing, Christian. Thank you. Before we end, I like to ask the same three questions of everybody that I speak with, and I'm hoping you'll join me in this chair.
If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Five words, I would say make a connection with others. OK, tell me more. Well, that sounds a little a little trade on the surface of it, but there are lots of things that we do that can they can increase or decrease our likelihood of doing that. When I first came to Stanford, we had communication coaches that that helped us improve our teaching. And I got some fabulous advice that I never forgot. One is I used to wander around a lot when I was speaking.
I was you know, I don't know if it was nervous energy or I thought it was kicky. It tends to just be very distracting for people. Are they moving their heads around like they're watching a tennis match? The communications instructor said to me, I want you to hold on at this podium and don't let go. I want you to just stand right here and do not move. And when you do that, when you can deliberately use stillness in your body, it gives you incredible power as a communicator when you can move with intention and also not move with intention.
So you can create this gravity and stillness when you want to and then you can create a break. Another thing that that person said is to make extended eye contact with people. That's something I didn't bring up in the bonding thing that we were talking about earlier. Right. But what this coach said, she says, look, I want you to just pick one person in the audience and look at them for a few seconds. And then I want you to look at another person, pick them and make eye contact with them for a few seconds.
So she said, don't don't do the general sweep or look into the far distance as though you're watching a sunset on the right. And she says, I want you to pick specific individuals and and make extended eye contact, contact with them. And what you find is that, boy, that person is being looked at. They're paying attention to what you're saying. And interestingly, the other people in the room don't feel neglected by that. As an audience member, that's a totally fine thing to watch.
But as the person being looked at, it makes that very strong connection.
And we're actually finding that that looking at the camera when doing virtual communication has a similar effect. So so looking at the camera makes the. On the other hand, feel like you're talking directly to them. Absolutely, and it's so hard to do because you're trained to make eye contact with people, which virtually assures that you're not looking directly into the camera.
Right. So let me ask you, question number two, who is a communicator that you admire and why? Uh. Well, I don't normally think about Communicator's that I admire or not, I guess I'm going to say I'll give you a weird answer. I'm going to say Elizabeth Strout.
OK, I want more information.
She's a novelist. You know, we often don't think of when we think of communicators, we have to think of orators or business leaders. But I think novelists are clearly communicators. And what I like about her, she's a fabulous writer, but good novelists reveal that they have very keen powers of empathy and observation. So she writes about a person, Olive Kitteridge, who is a dislikable person, but she's the protagonist of many of her books. And through placing you in the mind of Olive, you gain a level of empathy with her.
And so for Elizabeth to be able to do that, she needs to both understand what a person like that is like and then to be able to convey that to you in a way that you empathize with it. And so I think to be a good communicator, you need to have keen powers of observation. You need to be able to read the people in the audience and understand, you know, their reactions and how they're responding to you. And you also need to have that empathy to take their point of view to understand what they want to get out of that interaction.
And when novelists can do that in a way, particularly by depicting dislikable, people as someone that you can still identify with, I think is just incredible.
I'm smiling because I'm thinking a good novelist has to be able to read his or her audience so that the audience in turn will read their stuff. So a lot of reading has to happen there. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
OK, well, the first one I'll double up on a bit, I guess I'll say attentiveness. You need to be attentive to the situation. Another one, I would say would be vulnerability. And the third one, I would say is openness. I mean this in a way that it's an orientation toward the world of curiosity and lack of judgment, that if I'm really going to be engaging in a successful interaction with you, I need to listen to the things that you're saying with a sense of curiosity and a lack of judgment so that that I can respond in a in a truly open way.
Well, Christian, all of us have been listening to you with an intense curiosity, and we have learned so much. I thank you for sharing with us your insights into communication. To my mind, what I heard you say is it all boils down to approach, having an open approach, seeking offers, being open to failure, really being attentive and responsive to the needs of those you're communicating with can make a huge difference. Thank you for your time and thank you for your insights.
Thanks, Matt. Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast produced by Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.
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