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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Walk, Talk, Sit, Meet . . . Matter

Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect
   I'm afraid. . .
                           -- Anna (from The King and I)
      I set out one evening at a brisk pace, warming up for a jog. I didn’t get far before my next-door neighbor called out from her front porch, where she was sitting with her husband.
     “What are you going to do?” she asked.
     “I’m going for a run,” I answered. She laughed, so I went over to see what this was about.
     “We thought you were going over there to calm things down,” she told me.
     I listened for a moment, and realized what she was talking about. A couple down the street was having a loud argument, well-peppered with vulgarities, and was sharing it via the open windows.

     This was a private neighborhood and I was the association president. There was reason for my neighbor’s curiosity – she thought I was out to exercise whatever authority I might have to restore peace, or at least quiet.
     That had not been my intent before I knew of the disruption, nor was it after she clued me in.

     The racket subsided on its own, but the misidentification of my intentions reinforces something for me: the important role of body language.
     How people read our actions and expressions determines how we relate to each other. I think we do it – mostly unconsciously -- all the time, and have been doing it since we were little kids.
     On the night this happened, I had barely a thought in my head as I went out on what I considered a simply physical solo process. Mindless. Innocent.
     My neighbor saw something much different: the association president heading purposefully toward a heated  situation that could get messy. She read the vigor of my gait as an expression of authoritative intent, not a warmup for a trot.
   We chuckled about that gulf between perception and reality. But an important point can be drawn from it.
     How many times have we misidentified a person’s attitude and/or intentions because of the way we interpreted the person’s facial expression or body movements?
     How often has such an error triggered an angry exchange or produced an enduring conclusion that permanently damaged a positive relationship?

     Anna’s second verse is about the second important value of whistling away one’s fears:

The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people
I fear I fool myself as well!

     The way  I was walking that evening was not intentionally assertive.  . . .Or was it? Maybe the energy was directed to myself – to get me going on the physical routine.
     If it was, it was an illustration of outside-in behavior modification. The idea is that if you discipline yourself to do something frequently enough and long enough, it will become a habit without further attention from you.
     Getting in the mood for a successful jog is not a major example of the practice, but in the neighborhood situation its external effect was strong enough to create my neighbor’s harmless misperception.
     It’s important to specify that her conclusion resulted from her frame of reference, one that was worlds away from the actual motive that determined my behavior.
      We need to pay attention to this, because it’s going on all the time, all around us.

    Start with this: The way we walk has a lot to do with our success in life. Our stride is  vigorous. Or assertive. Or uncertain.
     Likewise the way we talk. And how carefully we listen.
     The way we sit.
     And the looks on our faces.
     And how we act at meetings.
     People see all that, each person from his/her own viewpoint. Our actions are external displays of our inner attitudes. We don’t control the other end of the communication transaction.
     Do people feel constrained to look up and say, “Hi!” as you go by in the morning? Do they even know you’re there? Do they care?
     If the answers are “yes,” then you matter.
     There is no way the actor and the viewer can have reasonably accurate understandings of each other’s frame of reference . . . without help.
     There are two ways each party can build a  better understanding of what’s really going on over on the other side, and maybe influence it:
Ask questions to validate or repair first impressions.
Modify one’s own behavior to send clear signals.

     We want to matter. Our effectiveness, job satisfaction, our overall happiness depend upon our sense of self-worth. That requires us to take responsibility for acting in ways that support and advance a favorable place in our own estimation as well as that of our associates.  
     In most situations on the job, but especially in project work where people don’t know each other very well, we need to build the habit of stopping, thinking and asking. No impulsive leaps of word or action triggered by culture, surprise or annoyance.
     More constructively, we should build our behavior habits on this understanding.
     So I’d walk with chin up and shoulders back, making eye contact as I go along, greeting people and responding with a pleasant voice. I’d sit up straight, pay attention and contribute, even at boring meetings. People would come to expect ever-greater quality from my presence.
     I start by building the attitude for success. I tell myself I matter. Frequently. I treat those around me as if they matter, too. I make sure my manner shows those attitudes.
     I probably couldn’t get away with whistling happy tunes at tough moments, but I won’t have to.

TRY: A brighter smile and greeting one of these sleepy mornings, plus a positive comment. Any effect? Positive? Negative? Report in as a comment below.

SEE ALSO: Up & Down the Pyramid



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