Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Interpersonal Communication

Persuasion, Teens, and Tattoos

ElliotandTWBerlin2014When our son, Elliot, was 17 he decided that he needed to get a Guinness logo tattooed on his ankle. I wasn’t adamantly opposed but I did think that he might tire of wearing a commercial logo before too long. (If he had wanted a Mom Forever tattoo, I might have felt differently).

So how to convince him? I wanted to change his mind, though not his values. Nor did I want to provoke a stormy response that would simply make the situation worse – and actually make him more likely to follow through on his plans.

Ultimately, we had a conversation that went something like this:

Elliot: So, Dad, I’m thinking I should get a Guinness tattoo. It’s a really cool logo. What do you think?

Me: I don’t know. Do you think you’ll like Guinness for the rest of your life?

Elliot: Sure. It’s great. Why wouldn’t I?

Me: Well, you know, tastes change. I mean I thought about getting a tattoo when I was your age… and, looking back on it… I’m kind of glad I didn’t.

Elliot (shocked look): Really? You were going to get a tattoo?! What were you going to get?

Me: I wanted to get a dotted line tattooed around my neck. Right above the line, I’d get the words, “Cut On Dotted Line” tattooed in.

Elliot: (more shock, disgust): Dad, that’s gross.

Me: Oh, come on. Don’t you think it would be cool if I had that tattoo. I could show it to your friends. I bet they’d like it.

Elliot: They always thought you were weird. Now they’d think your gross. It’s yuck factor 12.

Me: Really? So, you don’t want to go to the tattoo parlor together?

Our conversation seemed to help Elliot change his mind. As far as I know, he hasn’t gotten any tattoos, not even Mom Forever. Why? Here are some thoughts:

It’s about trust, not tattoos – I don’t think that Elliot cared that much about the tattoo itself. He was actually running a Mom/Dad test. He wanted to know if we trusted him to make the decision on his own. We did trust him and didn’t take the decision out of his hands. That’s a big deal when you’re 17. It can also be a big deal for people in your company. They want to know that you trust them. Sometimes they’ll put it to a test. As much as possible, let them make the choice. Just counsel them on how to make it wisely.

It’s about judo — we didn’t try to stop Elliot, we merely tried to change his direction. That’s a useful guideline in most organizations.

It’s about imagining the future – like most teens, Elliot was focused on the present and near future. He couldn’t imagine 30 years into the future – except by looking at me. If he thought I would look gross with a tattoo, he could imagine that he would, too. The same is true of many companies. We make decisions based on near-term projections. It’s hard to imagine the farther future. But there are ways to do it. Ask your team to imagine what the world will look like in 30 years. You could start by reminding them how much it’s changed since 1985.

It’s about sharing – did I really think about getting a Cut On Dotted Line tattoo? Of course, I did. But my father sat me down and talked a little wisdom into my head. I just passed it on.

What are you going to pass on?

Somatopsychic Chewing Gum

No flu here!

No flu here!

Psychosomatic illness is one that is “caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress”. We know that the brain can create disturbances in the body. But what about the other way round? Can we have somatopsychic illnesses? Or could the body produce somatopsychic wellness – not a disease but the opposite of it?

I’ve written about embodied cognition in the past (here, here, and here). Our body clearly influences the way we think. But could our body influence the way we think and our thinking, in turn, influence our body? Here are some interesting phenomena I’ve discovered recently in the literature.

Exercise and mental health – I’ve seen a spate of articles on the positive effects of physical exercise on mental health. This truly is a somatopsychic effect. Among other things, raising your heartbeat increases blood flow to your brain and that’s a very good thing. Exercise also reduces stress, elevates your mood, improves your sleep, and – maybe, just maybe – improves your sex life.

Chewing gum and annoying songs – ever get an annoying song in your head that just won’t go away? For me, it’s the theme from Gilligan’s Island. New research suggests that chewing gum could alleviate – though not completely eliminate – the song. One researcher noted that, “producing movements of the mouth and jaw [can] affect memory and the ability to imagine music.” Why jaw movements would affect memory is anyone’s guess.

Hugs and colds – could hugging other people help you reduce your chances of catching a cold? You might think that hugging other people – especially random strangers – would increase your exposure to cold germs and, therefore, to colds. But it seems that the opposite is, in fact, the case. The more you hug, the less likely you are to get a cold. Hugging is a good proxy for your social support network. People with strong social support are less likely to get sick (or to die, for that matter). Even if you don’t have strong social support, however, increasing your daily quota of hugs seems to have a similar effect.

Sitting or standing? – do you think better when you’re sitting down or standing up? At least for young children – ages seven to 10 – standing up seems to produce much better results. Side benefit: standing at a desk can burn 15% to 25% more calories than sitting. Maybe this is why it’s a good thing to be called a stand-up guy.

Clean desk or messy desk (and here) – it depends on what behavior you’re looking for. People with clean desks are more likely “to do what’s expected of them.” They tend to conform to rules more closely and behave in more altruistic ways. People at messy desks, on the other hand, were more creative. The researchers conclude: “Orderly environments promote convention and healthy choices, which could improve life by helping people follow social norms and boosting well-being. Disorderly environments stimulated creativity, which has widespread importance for culture, business, and the arts.”

So, what does it all mean? As we’ve learned before, the body and the brain are one system. What one does affects the other. Behavior and thinking are inextricably intertwined. When your brain wanders, don’t let your feet loaf.

Donna Shalala and The Boom Boom Theory



Donna Shalala spoke at a breakfast meeting at the University of Denver (DU) the other day. She seems to be one of the most connected people on earth. She’s the former president of Hunter College, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Miami. She also served for eight years as the Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration. Perhaps most impressive (to me at least), over ten years at the University of Miami, she raised three billion dollars in voluntary contributions.

Our chancellor, Rebecca Chopp, interviewed Shalala before an audience of some 300 faculty, alumni, and students. The conversation soon turned to inclusive excellence (IE), which is a fundamental initiative at DU. We define IE as, “…the recognition that an … institution’s success is dependent on how well it values, engages and includes the rich diversity of students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni constituents. … The goal is to make IE a habit that is implemented and practiced consistently throughout …” the university.

Chancellor Chopp asked Shalala what advice she could offer to build an inclusively excellent university. Shalala’s answer reminded me that multi-channel communication is fundamental to multi-cultural success.

In a diverse community, Shalala noted, people have diverse communication styles. They may use the same word for different concepts. Or they may describe the same concept with different words. Further, they may well be tuned in to different channels.

Given the varying communication styles, Shalala argues that leaders of diverse communities need to deliver the same message multiple times, in multiple ways, through multiple channels to make sure it reaches all audiences. Shalala’s staff called this the Boom Boom theory of communication because one message (“Boom”) gets repeated across multiple channels.

It’s a good reminder that we need to repeat ourselves, perhaps more often than we think. I’ve written before that redundancy is not a sin; Shalala argues that we need to actively promote redundancy. Coupled with a concept like the sponsorship spine, the Boom Boom theory can produce effective communications in even the most diverse organization.

And what about those three billion dollars? Shalala says there’s no secret to fundraising. It requires a lot of patience and listening. Find out what your contributors are interested in and deliver it.

But patience and listening only take you so far. Shalala also reminded us of the value of good old-fashioned story telling. At fundraising events, she doesn’t talk about abstract concepts or programs or buildings. She simply tells stories. She admits that some of her stories “leave ‘em weepy” – they’re touching and effective. She wants her contributors to reach for their wallets. So first, she has to reach for their hearts. Combining the Boom Boom strategy with the leave-em-weepy tactics seems to be a killer combo.

Thinking Under Pressure

Thinking is hard.

Thinking is hard.

Thinking is hard. It’s even harder when you’re under pressure. Stress lowers your IQ. When your boss is yelling at you, and your ears are pinned back, it’s hard to remember to think rationally. It’s hard to think at all – mainly you just react.

So, I always encourage my students to keep several go-to questions in their heads. These are simple, memorable questions that are always available. You can go to them quickly in an emergency. Why would you go to them? Perhaps you want to clarify the situation. Maybe you need more information. Or maybe, just maybe, you need to buy a little time.

In class the other night, I asked my students to write down their best go-to questions. They had been thinking about critical thinking for seven weeks so I assumed that they had some pretty good questions on the tips of their tongues. I was right.

I looked over the questions and realized that they fell naturally into five categories. Here are the categories with the most frequently asked questions. You might want to carry some of them around with you.

1) Gaining Self-Control – first things first: you can’t manage a situation if you can’t manage yourself. My students focused first on assessing their own situation, with questions like these:

Am I breathing effectively?

What’s my posture like? How can I change my posture to present myself more effectively?

What am I feeling right now? Are my feelings rational?

How can I engage my thinking function?

What is the other person’s purpose? Why is he behaving this way?

2) Clarifying the facts – once you’ve calmed yourself and cleared your head, you’ll want to establish what’s actually happening, with questions like these:

What are the facts? How do we know they’re facts? How were they verified?

Where did the information come from? Was the source credible?

What are our assumptions? Are they reasonable?

How did we get from the facts to the conclusions? Were there any logical fallacies along the way?

Why is this important? How does it compare in importance to Topic X or Topic Y?

Who wants to know? What is her purpose?

3) Clarifying the other person’s position – the information you have may be accurate but you also need to make sure you understand the other person’s position regarding the information. Here are some useful questions:

What’s your take on this? How do you see this?

Why do you say that? What makes you believe that?

Can you explain it in a different way?

What does “xyz” mean to you? How do you define it?

Can you paint me a picture of what you’re seeing?

Why are you so upset?

4) Clarifying the decision – you now know the “facts” and the other person’s interpretation of the facts, but you still need to figure out what decision you’re trying to make.

What outcome do we want? What’s our goal? Why?

What outcomes are possible? Which one(s) seem most fair?

Is there more than one solution? Are we trapping ourselves in a whether-or-not decision?

What if the outcome we want is not possible? Then what will we do? Is there another outcome that we might aim for?

What’s the timeframe? Are we thinking short-term or long-term?

Who else do we need to include?

How will we know when/if we need to re-visit the decision?

5) Fixing the process – when a problem arises, most organizations aim to fix the problem. They often forget to investigate the process that created the problem. Don’t forget these questions. They may well be the most important. But don’t aim for blame; this is a good time for appreciative inquiry.

How did we get here?

How can we improve our decision-making process to avoid this in the future?

What were the root causes?

How could we make a better decision in the future?



Sex, Food, Smell, and Death

Oh, those pheromones!

Oh, those pheromones!

I’m attracted to the opposite sex. I can’t help it. As Lady Gaga says, I was born this way. Lately, however, I’ve been reading that exposure to the opposite sex can lead to premature death, especially for males. It’s a scary thought.

As reported in the current issue of Science, the phenomenon might be called “female-induced demise” and it’s a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Researchers have shown that “… female-produced pheromones …can have detrimental effects on longevity and other age-related traits in male[s]….” Further, “It has long been known that having the opposite sex around can reduce fitness….”

You’re probably wondering, “Why didn’t someone warn me about this?” Before you get too upset, let me clarify that, so far, biologists have discovered the phenomenon only in nematode worms and fruit flies. Still, you have to wonder … today the nematode, tomorrow homo sapiens? And how many of us men haven’t been called a worm at some time in our lives?

But wait, it gets worse. Members of the opposite sex don’t even have to be physically present. Merely perceiving the opposite sex is enough to do the trick. And yes, this goes both ways: male-to-female and female-to-male. Our sense of smell seems to play a critical role. You don’t have to interact with the opposite sex to die young; you merely have to inhale their pheromones. As Science points out, “This is sufficient to decrease fat stores, increase mortality, … and decrease an animal’s overall size.”

But wait, it gets even worse. It also happens with food. Let’s say you’re on a low-calorie diet. You maintain your discipline, count your calories, and avoid fatty foods. But even the smell of fatty foods may be enough to limit the benefits of your diet. Science points out that “…just the smell of a rich diet is enough to increase mortality rate and prevent many of the benefits of a low-calorie diet.”

OK, OK … we’re talking about fruit flies and worms. And yet, you have to wonder. Is this why men have shorter life expectancies than women? Do people live longer in cultures that strictly segregate the sexes? Has Woody Allen heard about this? And do we need to amend the old saying to “Cut off your nose to spite your face … and prolong your life.”

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