Frank Lee had recently been promoted to VP of Greater China in The Thompson Enterprises. He had always been nervous about speaking in front of groups but, after the promotion, that nervousness grew into panic attacks. His heart pounded in his chest and his voice shook for the first five minutes of every presentation. After a day in which he had to interrupt his speech to the regional leaders and step out of the room to calm himself, he called his Thinking Partner.
Frank knew that public speaking is rated as something many people fear, sometimes more than death. But with his Thinking Partner, he talked also about personal experiences. He remembered that in elementary school when he was learning to read, the teacher asked students to come to the front of the room and read aloud. Frank remembered scrambling the words and being scolded by the teacher. He felt humiliated. Now he knows that he scrambles words because he has a mild form of dyslexia.
After recognizing some episodes in the past that had taught him to fear public speaking, Frank explored various options for changing his experience in the present and his Thinking Partner encouraged him with insightful questions. He found himself laughing with his Thinking Partner about some of his old fears and talked about how he could shift his attention away from fear during presentations. He considered his skills as a speaker, recognizing what he did well that had earned him the promotion. He also realized that he needed to think more about his audience. What did his audiences need to know? Why was he asked to speak? What did he appreciate about the audiences, and how could he connect more with these people?
Listening openly and genuinely to others is a practice that effective leaders often develop to a fine art. Being listened to themselves—confidentially, appropriately, and regularly—is sometimes harder. Busy leaders may feel they have neither time nor opportunity to cultivate a relationship focused on listening. It is often worthwhile for leaders in this position to find what I call a Thinking Partner, even if they need to hire a coach to fill this role. It must be a two-way relationship, with each person giving time to listen to the other.
An effective Thinking Partner is someone who:
- Gives full attention to the person who is speaking.
- Does not give advice or helpful hints (or does so sparingly).
- Does not interrupt or ask questions to satisfy their own curiosity.
- Asks insightful questions. These are questions that enable the speaker to think about his or her situation from different angles in order to understand issues more deeply. Insightful questions enable the speaker to think more broadly and creatively about possible courses of action.
- Listens with appreciation. A Thinking Partner notices where the speaker is well functioning and fully capable. He/she values the speaker and often expresses this verbally. Even if the speaker is struggling in some areas of life, every success the speaker achieves is acknowledged and appreciated.
- Allows the speaking partner to release stress. When people get appreciative, thoughtful attention, they sometimes laugh from embarrassment, sweat from fear, shake from nervousness, or even cry from sadness. Release of stress is part of natural healing and occurs when a person feels safe and well listened to.
- Respects confidentiality. Respect, caring and the keeping of confidences are the foundation for trust.
- Sometimes the Thinking Partner is outside the organization–a business colleague, a former classmate who can understand your situation, a person in a business or professional group.