Matt Abrahams: Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast. Think back to a day in your recent past. Did things go the way you expected? Did everything and everyone follow the 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 Wheeler, who is the GSB StrataCom professor of management and professor of marketing. Christian teaches a variety of courses, including those on behavioral research, marketing management, and spontaneous management.
Christian Wheeler: Hi, Matt. Great to be here.
Matt Abrahams: I’ve 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. Shall we get started?
Christian Wheeler: Yeah, let’s do it.
Matt Abrahams: 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?
Christian Wheeler: We all spend time making plans, whether those are business plans, such a quarterly earnings forecast or personal plans, 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. It can throw them off of their game.
And so the class on 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.
Matt Abrahams: Yes, we do.
Christian Wheeler: A lot of people feel anxious, you know, even given a planned, 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 class 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 where the problem starts. There’s nothing wrong with being uncomfortable. The problem is with your discomfort at being uncomfortable.
And so we work on exercises teaching people 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, they talk about how the best quarterbacks have to have a short-term memory. 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.
Matt Abrahams: So I really like that advice. And a lot of this is just acknowledging 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 that can help short-circuit some of that anxiety you’re talking about.
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?
Christian Wheeler: Yeah, absolutely. So I guess that was going to bring me to the second thing.
We work on having a sense of not fearing failure. So failure 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.
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Christian Wheeler: But the fear of failure can create these – layer 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 is what improvisers call “brain fries.” They’re 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’s okay.
You know, here in Silicon Valley, we have this mantra – many companies do – of failing fast, failing quickly and all of that. And that’s fine as 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 okay and to enter situations like that with a sense of play and a sense of joy.
Matt Abrahams: 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 failing isn’t bad and it’s something that you can actually desensitize yourself to.
Christian Wheeler: Failing is something that’s on the pathway to success. People forget what it was like to be a young child. Children are bad at everything, right? 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 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 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.
Matt Abrahams: 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 1) 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 okay 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.
Christian Wheeler: 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 de-stigmatizes your own failure. That’s great.
Matt Abrahams: 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?
Christian Wheeler: Sure. So one of the things we work on in my course 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 brain, whether they’re from your environment or whether they’re from someone else that you’re collaborating with.
But Arthur Koestler 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, 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.”
And so what we do is 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 provide an input into them.
Matt Abrahams: So do you teach your students or do you have some recommendations for some ground rules or some directives that can help people feel okay being creative and saying, “yes and”? There’s a lot of pressure to get things right. And I feel like that stifles this yes-and approach.
Christian Wheeler: Yeah, absolutely. So I think what’s important — in 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.
Matt Abrahams: So you essentially encourage people to 1) 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 are offers.
Christian Wheeler: 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 some place 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.
Matt Abrahams: 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.
Christian Wheeler: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. People are thinking a lot more about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. And I think that’s really important to think about. 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 mentioned that there’s some evaluation, apprehension associated with a group decision-making context. Right?
Matt Abrahams: Yeah.
Christian Wheeler: 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 it mouth. And then I’m going to look to 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 in 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.
Matt Abrahams: Oh, 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?
Christian Wheeler: 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’m a banker trying to communicate to a potential client or I’m 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 “I.” And so it can be an indicator of the type of relationship that you have. And it can also increase relationship satisfaction 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 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, “Matt, you know that computer technology is changing every day,” just adding that “you” there makes you more likely to think about that information in a self-relevant way just along the lines of using someone’s name, which relates to some other research that I’ve done.
Matt Abrahams: Interesting. 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.
Christian Wheeler: That’s right. Yeah. 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 another page.
And interestingly it decreases unsubscribes. And the way it has this effect is through increasing elaboration of the information in the message. So if you provide compelling reason to adopt a 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 any existing customer of a company.
Matt Abrahams: Fascinating. You know, you talked about 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 — schmoozing.
I’ve seen you help teams bond rapidly. What advice and guidance can you provide to help us get to know our coworkers better and more quickly?
Christian Wheeler: 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, if 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 into them at the water cooler. These little interactions with one another 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’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.
And also there’s this principle developed by Bob Zajonc, 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 interaction 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 as 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. We show up to the table a few minutes early or linger or 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 Zoom-style interaction that we’ve adopted.
So in my exercises, what we do is we have people engage in exercises where they’re interacting with one another, they’re experiencing this positive affect, and they’re engaging in some degree of self-disclosure, which is something that creates the foundations of trust.
Matt Abrahams: Can you give an example, one or two examples of an activity that you do? I’ve seen you do multiple ones. I’m curious if one or two bubble to the top that you’d like to share.
Christian Wheeler: Oh, yeah. They can be very, very simple things, such as minor acts of self-disclosure. I have people, for example, psychologists have developed this 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 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 you probably would normally in an ordinary conversation with someone.
Matt Abrahams: So give me an example of one of those questions.
Christian Wheeler: Well, you start out with things, such as, Matt, how long have to been to Stanford? Why did you come here? This type of thing. Moving 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 learned from. Or something you really want to accomplish in the next 20 years that’s close to your heart.
Matt Abrahams: So it’s a gradual escalation where each person reveals a little bit so they feel more connected as they go.
Christian Wheeler: That’s right. That’s right. And what we’ve seen through research is that we like people who self-disclose to us, and we like people more when we self-disclose to them.
Matt Abrahams: 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.
Christian Wheeler: Yeah, that’s an interesting thing that we see with Zoom meetings now is that we get glimpses into people’s lives that we wouldn’t ordinarily have. Right?
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Christian Wheeler: We see 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.
Matt Abrahams: 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.
Christian Wheeler: All right, let’s do it.
Matt Abrahams: Okay. 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.
Christian Wheeler: Sure.
Matt Abrahams: All right. Here we go. Email.
Christian Wheeler: Hell.
Matt Abrahams: Tell me why. What are your thoughts on email and any advice on how to make it better?
Christian Wheeler: You know, email 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 work things. But even within a work inbox, there are some things that are very important, things that are unimportant.
And so one thing we can do as senders, 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 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.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. 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 just thinking about how to structure an email, rather than just listing bullet points can really help. 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.
Christian Wheeler: Approach.
Matt Abrahams: Oh. Tell me more what you mean about that.
Christian Wheeler: I think it’s incredibly useful 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 the only way you learn how you’re doing is through seeking performance feedback. And I think people should do it more frequently than they do. And, again, if they have this orientation that receiving negative feedback is something on a pathway to growth, then that can take some of the potential sting out of hearing news that you don’t necessarily want to hear.
Matt Abrahams: 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 could really change how these things go.
Christian Wheeler: Yeah, absolutely. And talking to — all of the communications lectures at Stanford, that [set] is fantastic at doing. They continually seek student feedback in an open-ended way, and they continually revise their class so that they can better meet the needs of the students.
Matt Abrahams: I’m blushing, Christian. Thank you. Before we end, I’d like to ask the same three questions of everybody that I speak with. And I’m hoping you’ll join me in this.
Christian Wheeler: Sure.
Matt Abrahams: 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?
Christian Wheeler: Five words. I would say make a connection with others.
Matt Abrahams: Okay. Tell me more.
Christian Wheeler: Well, that sounds a little trite on the surface of it. But there are lots of things that we do that can increase or decrease our likelihood of doing that.
When I first came to Stanford we had communication coaches 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 don’t know if it was nervous energy or I thought it was kicky. It tends to just be very distracting for people. They’re moving their heads around like they’re watching a tennis match.
The communications instructor said to me, “I want you to hold on to 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 a 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.
Matt Abrahams: Right.
Christian Wheeler: 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 do the general sweep or look into the far distance as though you’re watching a sunset on the horizon.” Then she said, “I want you to pick specific individuals and make extended eye contact with them.”
And what you find is that, boy, if 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.
Matt Abrahams: And we’re actually finding that looking at the camera when doing virtual communication has a similar effect. So looking at the camera makes the people on the other end feel like you’re talking directly to them.
Christian Wheeler: 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 directing into the camera.
Matt Abrahams: Right. So let me ask you question number 2. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?
Christian Wheeler: Ah. I don’t normally think about communicators that I admire or not. I guess I’m going to say, give you a weird answer, I’m going to say Elizabeth Strout.
Matt Abrahams: Okay.
Christian Wheeler: She’s a novelist.
Matt Abrahams: I want more information.
Christian Wheeler: She’s a novelist. When we think of communicators, we often 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’s a dislikeable 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 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 dislikeable people as someone that you can still identify with, I think is just incredible.
Matt Abrahams: 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?
Christian Wheeler: Okay. 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 the 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 I can respond in a truly open way.
Matt Abrahams: 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.
Christian Wheeler: Thanks, Matt.
Matt Abrahams: Thanks of joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast. Produced by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. For more information and episodes, visit www.gsb.stanford.edu or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media @stanford.gsb.