How To Understand the Neurobiology of Workplace Communication

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In this episode of Relationships at Work, Russel chats with leadership communication consultant John Bates on how understanding neurobiology helps us connect through communication.

A few reasons why he is awesome  — he is a keynote speaker, trainer, coach and the CEO/Founder of Executive Speaking Success, a consultancy that enhances leadership communication performance based in neurobiology. He’s successfully worked with executives from Johnson & Johnson’s J-LABS, NASA, US Navy Special Operations, Boston Scientific and more. He’s one of the most prolific TED format coaches in the world as a former 13 year speaker coach and mentor for their TEDx events.  Check out his book: Your Amazing Itty Bitty Guide to Being TED-Worthy: 15 Essential Secrets of Successful Speaking Based in Human Neurobiology.

Connect with, and learn more about John on his…

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KEY TAKEAWAYS 

  • Effective communication is not just logical but biological.
  • Importance of trusting gut feelings
  • The value of sharing leadership stories to for promotion.
  • Small talk is really big talk and foundational to trust.
  • Align your mental state with your message.
  • Reflective practices for self-awareness.

“Communication with human beings is not logical. It’s not logical. It’s biological. And when you understand the biology, you can make it logical again.”

John Bates

FULL TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW

Russel Lolacher: And on the show today, we have John Bates, and here is why he is awesome. He’s a keynote speaker, trainer, coach, and the CEO/founder of Executive Speaking Success, a consultancy that enhances leadership communication performance based on neurobiology. A big point of the conversation today.

He successfully worked with executives from Johnson and Johnson’s J Labs, NASA, U. S. Navy Special Operations, Boston Scientific. I could run out of breath before I finish all his clients. He’s one of the most prolific TED format coaches in the world as a former 13 year speaker coach and mentor for the TEDx events.

Curious? Well, he’s got more information for you. If you want to learn how to be a better speaker, check out his book, Your Amazing Itty Bitty Guide to Being TEDworthy, 15 Essential Secrets of Successful Speaking Based in Human Neurobiology. I’m going to have to get really used to saying that word because I have a feeling it’s going to come a lot in our conversation. Hello, John.

John Bates: Hello. It’s good to see you, Russel.

Russel Lolacher: I am a huge communication nerd. I say it in my introduction every single episode. So I am extremely interested and curious about our topic today. But before we get there, John, I can’t let you off the hook. You’ve got to answer the question I ask all of my guests, which is, sir, What is your best or worst employee experience?

John Bates: Well there… I’ve had a lot of both. And I think one of the ones that would be the most, that we could learn the most from is one of my worst experiences. And it was with somebody that I really still love and respect tremendously. And he was my boss at the time. And, I had been working at this company and I had opened up a bunch of different markets for this company, just using a telephone and email.

And it was, it was some hard work and they wanted to make a switch. And, and I forget all of the details, but what I remember is that he brought me into his office and he said something about how I needed to just, dim down a little bit. And he said John, they say that, that the, the tallest nail gets hammered down or that the tallest blade of grass gets cut off, and I just need you to, to dim it down a little bit. And I remember walking out of the office and just thinking, okay, if that’s what’s going to be going on here, I’m done. And I walked back in and said, I quit and, I left and, and they ended up begging me to come back and giving me a setup and letting me work from home.

And, but that was months later. And what, what did, it just, I think it makes the point that people don’t usually quit jobs. They quit managers, right? They usually don’t leave because they don’t like their job. They don’t leave, they leave because they’re not getting coached well, and they’re not getting encouraged, and they’re not getting grown. That really stands out for me as, as a great learning lesson for any leader is that’s kind of the opposite of what I think is going to be good leadership.

Russel Lolacher: It’s funny, you really reinforce also that, that… I think it was Maya Angelou who said that ‘They won’t remember what you say, but they’ll remember how they make you feel.’ And you’re

John Bates: That’s one of my favorite quotes ever.

Russel Lolacher: You’re, you’re going around the whole case study of your story and going, no, I don’t remember that. I don’t remember that, but I remember this. But I remember what that one sentence and how I felt right afterwards. And I was out of town.

So I have a question. I have a question about that. So you see a lot of. online talking about how to play the corporate game, how to show up. If you want to succeed in the corporate world, you need to do X, this and that. You need to approach your boss in this way. And then there’s this other side of leadership, which is show up as your full self.

Be who you are at work. Those do not align. Those… If you’re showing up as your full self, it may not align with the corporate speak, professionalism, that is a certain culture. So how do you, how do you align that? Just based on your story, when they’re saying, dim your light, why I, why not be me? But then from their perspective, they might be looking at it going, well, you’ll never be successful, John. If you use that expressive language or your hands too much.

John Bates: Yeah. I mean, gosh, I really wish I could remember what it was about, but I think it was, I was a good go getter. I didn’t really want to manage the, I wasn’t as good at managing and, and, dealing with all the other stuff. I wanted to go open and, and close people and bring them in and then have somebody else manage them. It’s just two different functions. And and I do think that’s what that was about, but, I just think that more and more the way that everything’s going, it’s be authentic and be in the right place like if, if you can’t authentically be yourself there, then like, it probably is good to find someplace else. And I think as a leader, it’s utterly crucial. I mean, what I work with people on all the time is how to bring that authentic self to work and communicate that authentic self in a way that works cause I think I did a lot of research a while back about authentic leadership.

And I was actually kind of disappointed with a lot of the stuff that I read because I, I got this broad sense that people were thinking authentic leadership meant like being a three year old. Like just blurting it out. If you’re angry and… And it’s not that simple. It’s not that at all.

Authentic leadership is really genuinely being yourself. And one of the things that you must consider as a leader is the people that you’re, that are following you, the people that you’re leading. And if you bring your authentic self and a, a real concern and love for those people that you’re leading, that’s the, that’s the whole package, right? It’s not just blurting something out. Oh, I’m an authentic leader, so I can just say anything I want.

Russel Lolacher: Well, John, don’t dim your light in this conversation. I think you should be your full self. So let’s, let’s get into the first question that I really want to ask. Because, the thing that’s really been highlighted through my through doing this show over the last couple of years is our lack of definitions in the workplace.

We use words all the time and don’t seem to define what the hell we’re talking about. So to get us going and because you’re so tied to communications and neurobiology, let’s explain what the hell we’re even talking about. What is neurobiology-based communication?

John Bates: Well, I I’ll answer it this way. I say that all the time that communication with human beings is not logical. You may have noticed it, right? It’s not logical. It’s biological. And when you understand the biology, you can make it logical again. But anybody who goes in thinking that logic by itself should win or should make the difference is just never going to be as effective a leader as they could be if they understood that there’s more to it than that.

For the hard skills people, I like to say logic is necessary, but it is not sufficient. And what it takes is that emotional connection, and there is a neuro biological underpinning of the need to make an emotional connection to get people to, to do anything, to be loyal, to take action, to remember you, to care about you. You’ve got to be able to make an emotional connection. And I think people shy away from that a lot because they see it done poorly and as a manipulation so often. And that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about authentically making an emotional connection with your listeners, with your team, with whoever it is you’re talking with.

Russel Lolacher: So we’re talking about the nervous system and brain function here. Neurobiology as, as, and I’m talking very high level definitions here. So when you’re connecting those dots for people for the first time, that’s coming to talk to you, what are you specifically mentioning about…? Is it, is it a biological response to that communication?

Is it how they can show up in, in preparing themselves physically before having the communication? I’m just trying to connect those dots a little closer.

John Bates: Yeah, yeah, yeah, certainly. I mean, and that’s what my trainings are all about. I mean, we spend anywhere from a half day to three days going through different aspects of this, but the fundamental piece underneath it, which is just really important to understand is that if you take a cross section of a human brain and you look at it, you’ll see the brain stem and then the midbrain and together those two pieces form what’s called the paleomammalian brain or the limbic system or the, the I can’t even remember now the paleomammalian brain, the limbic system I call or the emotional brain, three names, same piece of hardware that, that you know, brainstem and midbrain. And then wrapped around the outside of that is the cerebral cortex or the neocortex.

And so if you look at the names, you see that that paleomammalian, that sounds old and it is old. It’s been around as long as mammals. And then the neocortex, that’s the new brain. And so that’s been around a lot less time and it’s wrapped around the outside of that paleomammalian brain. Why that’s important is because the ancient paleomammalian brain does not have access to language or logic or reason, but it does have access to reality in a much deeper way that we’ll ever have access consciously.

And so I’ll say that because it’s weird. The ancient paleomammalian brain doesn’t have access to language or logic or reason that’s all in the neocortex, but it does have access to reality. On a really deep level. And will never have access consciously at that level. And what I mean by that is that’s the part of the brain that smells pheromones and that sees all these facial micro expressions and that notices all the absolutely unconsciously sent and received body language and things like that.

It’ll notice patterns in things that the conscious brain will never notice, but they’ll notice them immediately. And so it’s giving us really good information, but it doesn’t have access to language. So it can’t just tell us that something’s up. So the way that it communicates with us is through gut feelings. If your mom didn’t tell you, I’m telling you now, trust your gut. That’s good information. That’s your ancient paleo Babylonian brain. keeping you alive. But we all think that we’re logical, right? So we all get really focused on the neocortex and, and the reason and the logic and John, I weigh things out and I check the boxes and I make logical decisions.

Well, you may do all that stuff, but still, when it comes time for you to make that choice or that decision, if we put you in an FMRI machine and watched your brain in real time, as you made that decision, Boom, your ancient paleomammalian brain fires first. And then nanoseconds later, but a significant amount of time later, your, your neocortex fires agreeing with or disagreeing with, but not making the decision, right?

So you, we make those decisions with our ancient paleomammalian brain. And so when you don’t make an emotional connection, you’ll get, I mean, let’s put a sales example because it’s just so obvious. Do you like the product? Yes. Do you think it’s priced right? Yeah, certainly it’s a good price. Do you think it would make a difference for you? Why certainly yes. Well, do you want to sign the check and we’ll start delivery? No, no, we’re not quite ready yet. Like we want to think about it a little longer. Okay. What just happened? Were they, were they lying with like yes, yes, yes, no, no, they weren’t lying and everything they said was true, but here’s what happened.

It’s obvious in hindsight. Yes, yes, yes. No, that’s logic, logic, logic, emotion. We did not make an emotional connection that would allow them that, that logic to get through the emotional brain and go down the send the signal down to the hand to sign the check. And when you get yes, yes, yes, no, that’s a clear sign that you are not making an emotional connection in a way that puts you both in the same tribe or has them relax and trust you and all of that. That’s the fundamental neurobiology there.

Russel Lolacher: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for that. And my brain’s firing myself right now with a lot of questions to ask you. So communication is a fun definition one because so many people misuse it. So many people have it in their, in their titles and they actually don’t do communication. When I say that, I mean, communication involves two people, the sender and the receiver, what you say and how it’s received.

So now I’m trying to understand how this fits in with this. So say I’m a leader within an organization, and I’m trying to build or connect with my teams or colleagues at work. How does this come into play not only as the communicator, but also trying to understand how that communication is being received on the other end?

John Bates: Well that’s one of the things that I love to do with teams is work on this stuff as a team. And one of the things that I say is that yes, it’s great to be responsible for what you say. That’s great. But you could actually go a step further if you really want to succeed and you could be responsible, not just for what you say, but for what they hear. And so that really takes a lot of thinking about your audience. And I think that we’ve all been trained just by how things are, to be really concerned about what we’re saying, going in. Like, I want to be really clear about what I’m saying, and I want to communicate my message and… And that’s really good and that’s really important. And you’ve got to know what that is. And sometimes that people don’t spend enough time on that. I want to go in with an intention. And, the piece that I find people often miss is really thinking about, okay, well, this is my audience. This is the situation. This is what I’m saying.

How could I say that in a way to make sure that it’s going to land over there? And one of the biggest things that people miss, first of all, is just thinking that way. But, one of the biggest things people miss is being willing to think about, how can I generate that trust and loyalty by making an emotional connection that’s authentic. When, when people do this wrong or as a manipulation, like that’s the dark side and people do that. And it’s, sometimes it is effective, but it’s not long term effective. And it’s not that’s not what I’m, I’m, I work with people on the light side of the Force, So to authentically go in and make an emotional connection, and a lot of times that’s just pointing out the empowering context within which you’re all working or, honestly letting people know why something matters so much to you and connecting it to why it matters to them. But to really think about that and be conscious of that is step one. And, and, and I think often we’re missing even step one.

Russel Lolacher: Do you see a disconnect between leaders who are leading teams versus executives that are leading an organization when it comes to this? I ask this because as a leader, you might have five people on your team. You have an opportunity to know them as people. You have, if you’re a good leader, if you have an opportunity to connect with them at that level.

However, at the executive level, it’s been through seven levels of rewrites. It’s gotten nine other people to write it for you. It’s not about the emotional connection. It’s about broadcasting. It’s about getting information out, not about providing a connection whatsoever. So they may be thinking about this communication a lot, but not thinking about it from an audience perspective.

They’re thinking about it from a How do I look? How, what, what is it about me that I want to connect? So how do you reconcile that?

John Bates: So there are a couple of things in what you said. One of the things that I, that I have been brought in for on a regular basis is helping those executives that are going from maybe the third tier or the second tier of leadership up into that first tier. And the woman who ran HR for Intuit forever said something so simple and so brilliant when we were talking about this once. She said ‘John. People want to know their leaders.’ And in that smaller team setting, there’s a chance for people to get to know each other much more easily. It’s just functionally more possible as people go into those higher levels of leadership, I believe one of the things that’s missing most often and it’s one of the most important things is that they get really good at telling their own leadership stories. Well chosen, well crafted, well told story that illustrates a value or a principle that they want to really instill into the culture.

I think it’s one of the clearest, easiest ways to impact cultures through really well told leadership stories. And so that’s what I work with people on a lot is they’ll come to me and we’ll, we’ll work on who they are as a leader and take from the TED world, that one idea worth spreading. What’s one idea that you would be willing to hang your leadership hat on for a while and talk about for a while, to really get it into the culture and to give people a chance to get to know you because you don’t get to sit down with them every day and talk to them every day. They, they’re only seeing this thing that you’re putting out. And the other part of it is that I think that. It’s really important for the leader to know a lot about communication because then they can look at what their team is giving them. And the leaders that I see that get in the worst trouble are the ones that just take that thing and then try to bend themselves into being able to deliver it, right?

It’s not really them. It’s not authentic for them. It doesn’t feel good to them. And they just try to deliver it anyway. I really like to work with leaders, to take, to teach them how to take those things and make the in their own voice and put some of themselves into it. And certainly, there’s a lot they’ve got going on.

They’ve got to have that team helping. I also train people on those teams in my methodology so they could already start at a much better place, but I think it really is very incumbent on the leader to go through that one more time and, and make it their own. Because if they don’t own it, it’s just not going to land.

Russel Lolacher: How have you seen this benefit the leader? I mean, we talk about communications being integral, but we both know communications is not something leaders get trained in. Even though every job is a communications job, everybody’s talking about, well, leadership is productivity. It’s process. No, it’s not. And communication is such a key part of that.

So what have you seen from a leadership side, getting this right, really understanding your audience, the impact of it, how does that help things like emotional intelligence for leaders?

John Bates: Yeah, well, really great, great question? I feel like the by training people in what I train them in, I give them a backdoor into emotional intelligence because I work with a lot of people who are PhDs and doctors and, and hard skills people, if you will, and, when they understand the neurobiology, they can put those big logical brains to work again, but do it in a way that works with human beings. And, gosh, that was such a good question. I got so excited. I got too many things in my head.

Russel Lolacher: Go John, go!

John Bates: The first place is you’re right, people don’t get trained in this. They make it to very high levels of management and leadership without any real formal training in this. And no one’s born a great communicator. Steve Jobs trained hard and he practiced hard and he was anything but a natural communicator. That took effort.

And I think the reason we call him a natural communicator is because we don’t want to put in the effort. So I’ve talked to a lot of leaders who, you know, one of the reasons that they’re excited to work with me is because they’ve never had any real training like this. And once they get that training, one of the, a few of the biggest benefits to them.

It’s just like, first of all, there’s tremendous peace of mind because they now understand what the rules are and what’s going on and not only what they should do, but why they should do it based in science. And that makes it a lot easier to do it. So they become a lot more confident. Their stage presence goes through the roof.

The time they spend dreading stuff like that goes way down in the, and they actually start to look forward to it because they see the opportunity that it is for themselves and their team and the organization when they do this well, and they just get dramatically better results from the people they’re communicating with.

There was a study that showed that, they watched everyone’s brains and FMRI machines while someone was speaking. And the better the speaker was, it was actually storytelling. The better that storyteller was, the more that everyone’s brains would start to go into a similar pattern in the FMRI machine.

And the more that that happened, the, they found the more, the people in the audience were able to pass on the message and get the person they were talking to get their brains to go into the same pattern, if that makes sense. So it’s called entrainment. And so it really is the way that you’re getting what is in your mind, your vision, your message, the thing you really need them to understand and get over there in their minds.

And you can actually see the shape of it as you look at the FMRI images, as people are doing it either well or badly. And then you can actually quantify the results of how much better that communication was based on the, it’s a, it’s ability to be passed along and people’s ability to remember it and all of that.

Russel Lolacher: With a neurobiological lens… I want to get a little tactical here. Just a touch. What do we look for in our messages, whether it’s in a presentation, whether it’s in an email? What are we looking for in crafting those messages from a neurobiological perspective that we should be including or we should be avoiding?

John Bates: Yeah. I, I work with an accounting firm here in the city where I live, Salt Lake City. And, they’re an accounting firm and they had me come in and do a big training for their whole team so that they would have better communication both internally and with their clients.

Because one of the things I think accountants aren’t always so top of mind about is that, you’re dealing with someone’s money, which is a really big deal. And it’s kind of, we often have a young conversation around it as human beings. And there’s a lot of tension that, that is around it.

So he wanted their communication to be a lot better with their clients and to be aware of making an emotional connection and putting their clients at ease and things like that. And so, I think the first thing is to just really understand that you’re a human being and they’re a human being. And the way that we’ve been doing this for the probably 350, 000 years that we’ve been anatomically human is through these, this… talking about things, finding that emotional connection, and it doesn’t have to be it’s not kumbaya and we’re all holding hands and crying.

It’s just, one of the, one of the things I say is small talk has been misnamed. Small talk is actually big talk, but we misunderstand it. You can talk about anything in small talk that, that those few moments before the meeting starts or before you actually get into the business plan or whatever. And if you make it so that those moments you’re talking about something that puts you in the same tribe or, something that you both care about or have in common and you use that as a way to like realize, wow, we’re both humans. We both care about the same things. Oh, okay. I can relax now and we can have that conversation.

And if it logically makes sense, I’ll get a yes, yes, yes, yes. Instead of a yes, yes, yes, no. And that’s just using small talk. And this accounting firm has an onboarding script and just yesterday we sat down for an hour and went through that 30 minute onboarding script for clients and we put in some things that were just personal and that made it much more in the, in the voice of the company.

And they, they’re an accounting firm and they want to help people stick it to the IRS cause everybody’s so frustrated with the IRS. We just made it more fun. We made it more personal. We had the person who’s doing it say a little bit about themselves and the person they introduced, instead of just saying, here’s one of our top accountants to answer your tax questions, say something about that person that humanizes them.

And at the end of that hour, that script was just dramatically better. And I think that it’s going to make a really big difference in the compliance that they get, how fast people are willing to go fill out the forms they have to fill out. And, and I think it’ll make it, I think it’s going to make the whole program that they’re offering a lot clearer to people because we bothered to humanize it.

Russel Lolacher: I once was at a conference talking to a leader and the leader was talking to me about how they love the grand gestures that the executive and leadership were doing for their staff with this event and that they thought that they should mirror it within their own organization. And I stopped him and I said, actually, there’s so many small things you need to do first before you can earn doing something at this level.

So I bring that, I bring that story up because small talk is where trust and connection are built, not in the big gestures, the big corporate wide emails, the, the, the stat, the town halls that you’ve never seen that executive for six months and suddenly they show up.

John Bates: Yeah.

Russel Lolacher: There’s no connection built. So that’s small… I love that you highlighted small talk. Because it’s not small, it is literally the bedrock from which leadership trust is built from.

John Bates: Yes. Yes. And I think it’s really important for people to, to think of it that way. Small talk is not small talk. It’s big talk. And, and you need to consciously make it that.

Russel Lolacher: Now, we’re getting very specific about our communication. We’re using words a lot, John, but you and I both know communication also mostly not words. It’s how you show up physically.

John Bates: Yes.

Russel Lolacher: It’s your facial expressions, your hand gestures, which is even more reinforced in the world of remote work. How does neurobiology tap into that form of communication?

John Bates: Well, it’s one of the reasons we get so tired on ZOOM because we’re trying so hard to pick up those biological signals and our brains are just working overtime and on video, it’s just not as easy. And, people say that something like 75 percent of all of your communication is nonverbal.

Oh no, John, that study was misunderstood. It’s only 65. No, it’s actually 85. I think it’s a silly argument. I think that that’s not actually the helpful way to think about it. How I think about all of that nonverbal communication is that it’s the context within which everything you say gets heard.

It is 100 percent of the context within which everything you say gets heard. So I’ve got a, an, an exercise where I teach people how to get some conscious control over all those totally unconscious signals that they’re sending, and it’s a little too complicated to do right here, but what we… I’ve talked to a lot of body language experts and they all agree with me that the technique that I teach is the only way that you can really get access to that stuff, because it’s all so deeply unconscious and we’re sending and receiving all the time with our body language and our, our facial micro expressions, and even with our word choices and the, the stress levels in our voice and things like that.

The fundamental idea is to really get yourself mentally aligned with your message so that your unconscious messaging matches what you’re saying consciously. I mean, if you look at somebody and, and, and they’re nervous, they may be an absolute expert and everything they may be saying may be completely correct, but if they’re up there looking really nervous, our unconscious reception of that is, are they trying to pull something over on us or why are they so nervous? Like if they really knew what they were talking about, they wouldn’t be… And so to get control of that is really important. And it’s all about aligning your your mental state with what you’re about to say, take some work, but it’s doable.

Russel Lolacher: So this all sounds great, John, in a perfect world where we have time to think and time to do things, but stress and being too busy tend to be big pieces of the leadership realm, good or bad. How…

John Bates: Yeah.

Russel Lolacher: How does stress play into this? Because we don’t live in a world very much, in a lot of organizations, where stress is not a big part of it, and then we can’t get into this Moments of Zen, I guess, to be thoughtful in our communication.

John Bates: Well I, I really make the argument that taking a little bit of time in the middle of the day in your most productive hours to think about and implement this stuff is not only totally worthwhile, but it’s actually part of your job. And that, that doesn’t get any of the other stuff done.

But I think that one thing that a lot of leaders that I work with realize is that they’ve been trying to do this on the periphery. And they like, I’ll do it on Sunday morning before the kids get up or whatever. And it’s never good time for that and they don’t give it its due and then it doesn’t go as well as they want it to go and it’s really frustrating and I actually have an acronym.

I call it YIPE. YIPE. Your Impression equals your Performance times your Exposure Moments.

So how people are perceiving you your perception is a product of all that work you do, right? The impression that you make is a product of all that work, the performance, but then it gets multiplied by that short minute that you get to talk about it in front of upper management or explain it to someone else or, or whatever that exposure moment might be.

And those are very, very small amounts of your overall time, but if you’re doing million dollar work and that exposure moments of 0. 5, now you’re doing a half million dollar work. If you’re doing million dollar work and that exposure moment is a 10 now you’re doing 10 million dollar work And i’m not saying don’t do your performance work. You’re gonna do that. That’s the vast majority of your time But I am going to assert that you could probably fit in a little bit more time to prepare for and think about and practice for those exposure moments. And when those exposure moments go well, that’s really good for you. It’s also really good for the entire audience that’s listening to you and for the organization.

So there is… it is reasonable to put more time and thought into those moments than I think most people currently do.

Russel Lolacher: Too busy is one of the biggest sins I feel when it comes to leadership as an excuse to actually be a leader. I couldn’t agree with you more.

John Bates: Yeah, it’s one of the, I mean, look, it’s understandable.

Russel Lolacher: Sure.

John Bates: It’s just, it just doesn’t help, you know.

Russel Lolacher: You’re just not a leader. You’re just, you’re just dictated by your calendar. You’re not, you’re not actually taking time.

But I want to throw another neuro word at you because diversity always comes up for me when it comes to conversations where we talk generally and the human, but there are others that are wired a little differently, like a neurodivergent person.

How do you look at that path for them?

John Bates: I mean, I think, so I’ve definitely worked with some neurodivergent people. I have one client that comes to mind who was a young man with Asperger’s and he loved my course and he loved what he learned because he was able to logically turn that stuff and come out the other side with some definitely increased emotional intelligence in how he communicated.

He was speaking for a TEDx youth event, but it, it, his mom told me it changed his life. And I probably work with a lot more neurodivergent people that I’m fully aware of, and I do think that when people understand the… because everything I do is as much as I can, is based in principles and based in, in neuroscience and biology.

So when people get those principles and they understand the principles and they understand what’s going on. And it’s not just, here’s what you do. Here’s what you do. Here’s what you do. It’s here’s why you do it, then they can go out and be a lot more creative themselves about how they use it. And, I think we all want to be better understood, and when people get tools that allow them to be better understood, that just feels great and it has them be far more successful and, and.

Part of being understood is also understanding others. So we do talk a lot about that. I think, I, I was, it was a big realization for me as a speaker that when I, when it really dawned on me that everything that I do, all the difference that I make in the whole world. And I’ve made a lot of difference is of, is purely a function of the generosity of other people’s listening. The only way that I can make a difference is because someone else is willing to listen to me generously. And so that really altered something for me about my approach and my willingness to prepare and my. The responsibility that I felt to really be responsible for what they heard and, and all of that.

And I think that as a leader, it’s the same thing. Your, your success as a leader is a hundred percent the result of your team’s willingness to listen to you well and to, to buy into your vision and then go implement it. And, I realized I wasn’t actually the big deal. The big deal was the listening in the room.

Russel Lolacher: Understanding neurobiology, understanding the impact of your communications, it’s out into the world. Guess what, John? We’re not going to hit it out of the park every time. We’re going to have some challenges. This is going to be a process of consistency.

Understanding the nervous system, understanding how our brain may or may not react, how do you handle things like feedback and conflict based on some of that communications?

It’s not all going to go smoothly.

John Bates: Yeah. No, no, no. It’s not. It’s not. And that’s one of the things that, that’s a big piece of my work is these difficult conversations and, and, I think it’s my own experience with that is, is probably illustrative. I, I’m a California surfer dude. Like I want to have a craft beer and chill out and I don’t want to have difficult conversations. But what I realized in my leadership journey was that I was being what I call nice, right? And, and I realized that, I sat down and I redefined nice and I also redefined kind and I saw that I was being quote unquote nice and nice is actually really gross. Like, it’s like, it’s not nice to tell someone that their dress is stuck in their underwear, or that they have green stuff in their teeth. But it is kind, right? I would want somebody to tell me but it’s a lot more of a risk and it’s a lot more vulnerable. I, I made the commitment to being kind and taking the risk versus being that yucky, nice thing. And the other big thing that I realized was that, I was, I, I was bringing all this meaning to stuff.

Like, like using that example, right? It doesn’t mean anything that there’s something, you got something green stuck in your teeth, but we sure make it mean something like Oh my gosh, like, Oh no, it’s just like, Hey, you got a little green thing right there and people are like, Oh, Oh God, thank you.

And then it’s gone. And same thing with those difficult conversations at work, the, the more that you can just have the conversation about what is, and not bring all kinds of stuff you’re making it mean to that conversation. Leave all that stuff aside, and let’s just have that actual conversation.

And people are really good at hearing things when you don’t make it mean so much. A good leader, I think is a lot like a good coach and a good coach. When I’m in my coaching mode, I’m the drill instructor for your greatness. And I’m, I’m gonna say it and it’s, it doesn’t mean anything.

It’s just, look, we want to be better. This is what it’s gonna take. I think that dropping a lot of the meaning there and, and coming from a place of, I’m I’m telling you this because I care about you and I believe in you, and I want to help you be better. That, that just changes everything.

Russel Lolacher: Speaking of change, I’m hearing a lot throughout this of how to show up, but I want to talk about how to set up for success to do that. Because a lot of this doesn’t involve work, it involves lifestyle, it involves perspective. Are there any specific habits that you would recommend leaders explore and really dive into to set themselves up to be more aware of how neurobiology connects with their… I’m thinking meditation is even off the top of my head as probably an amazing tool to dig into as a way to approach work better and more intentionally in this.

John Bates: Yeah. I mean, I’m a big fan of meditation. I meditate myself. I my practice waxes and wanes, but I think that’s human. And so I definitely think that, it’s really about self awareness and reflection and being willing to understand that a lot of times as a leader, there are patterns that you’re reliving as you’re doing this leadership that are very young and not always very helpful.

And it’s, it’s definitely one of the things that I love to work with people on is getting underneath that stuff. I was once working with a guy who was on an executive team and the apparently everybody on the executive team was just a fabulous communicator and leader, and he was a little awkward, so he kind of stood out.

So I got brought in to help him step up his game. And the first thing that we, that we talked about was the fact that he was getting handed these things that were written for him. And he was trying to bend himself into a pretzel to, to just deliver them instead of redoing that so that it fit him, right?

And that was a huge breakthrough. But when we finally got down to the presentation that he was going to be doing in front of the board, and it was this big, enormous deal, he got up and I was in the room and he was in the room and, just the two of us, and, and he started to do his practice, his presentation.

And I noticed in his body language and I watched him for a few minutes and then I said, stop. Okay. You’re this big, powerful leader and you really have a great presence and you come across really well. But the minute you stood up there in front of me, the board, you just, you shrunk. What happened?

What does that remind you of? And he said, Oh man, it reminds me of the fact that when I was young, my dad was a salesman and we had to move all the time so I was always at a new school, like every year or two, I would be the new kid at school. And that’s what it feels like to me being up here right now in front of the board is I’m the new kid in school.

Are they going to like me? Am I going to be able to make friends? What’s going to happen? And, we talked that through and he got he, he saw that he processed that and it was gone. And he was able to stand up in front of the board and just do a fabulous job. And it just absolutely uncorked him as a leader, as a communicator.

And he, got a lot more respect from the rest of the executive team. And it was dramatic. And that’s why I love doing this because there are people out there that just, they’ve got so much to offer and they’ve got such great ideas and there’s such great people and they just can’t quite communicate it, right? And, and yet that’s what people think of them is that, and it, it’s not really fair. Like I want people’s communication to be as mighty as their ideas.

Russel Lolacher: I really appreciate that story. One of the, one of the things you sort of mentioned was the reflection piece. And I think, when I was in radio, we had to listen to ourselves talk all the time. We actually taped it and then would listen back to it going, Oh, if I say and right one more time, I’m just going to lose it. But it’s that reflection of you don’t know what to fix until you know what the problem is. And for someone who may not be self aware to strengthen that muscle, things like recording performances and watching them back. Getting others to watch. Journaling. Oh my goodness. Journaling needs to be a part of every leader’s practice because they don’t know where the problems are until they reflect every day and make that part of their world.

So I love that you talk about reflection because it is so important, but we’re not all self aware and it is a skill that we all need to get much better at.

John Bates: Yeah, I agree. And I think there’s a lot you can do yourself. And I also love the saying, it’s hard to see the picture when you’re in the frame. I, I have coaches and I think it’s really important to have coaches. And, and I think that, understanding that this is an important part of your job.

Like it’s not something you do on the side. It’s not a nice to have. It is, it is really a part of your job to, to think about things, to take that time to reflect. I work with a lot of people who, feel very frustrated because they feel like they’re the one in the department doing all the work and then they get passed up for promotions.

Well, one of the things that I think’s going on there is that they’re in the do do do mode so much that they never take time to do the leadership stuff. They’re just doing the doing stuff. Okay. Everybody that’s managing them and watching them says that’s what they like. That’s what they do.

They’re not leadership material, and so it’s, it’s interesting, but I think it is, it’s maybe counterintuitive, but I think sometimes to be a good leader, you’ve got to step back from the work a little bit and take that personal reflective time and do those leadership things like prepare your talk and, and maybe even practice it a few times so that that exposure moment is really, really good. And it’s a, little more effort, but it has a tremendous return and as people do it more, they get better at it and it, it becomes second nature over time and it just makes an enormous, enormous difference for the person, for the people they’re leading and for the whole organization.

Russel Lolacher: As a, as a presenter and as a, as a, as a keynote speaker myself, it always blows my mind when I have any leader go, Oh, I’m gonna do my presentation. Did you put it together? No, I had my staff do it. Have you seen it? No, I’m going to see it five minutes before I talk. What are you doing?

John Bates: No, no, no. That’s yeah. I mean, I, I have a thing called the Bates Equation and I’m a little narcissistic maybe, and I’m not so creative. I just, it was the first thing I could think of. So. Yeah. So, how that works is one times 20 times 3000. Let’s say that’s me speaking for 20 minutes to 3000 people add that up and, or do that math and it’s 60,000 minutes.

That’s a thousand hours of human life that I’m responsible for in one 20 minute talk to 3000 people. Okay. And, and I’m not going to prepare for that. Really? No. Yeah. I like to wing it. Okay. Well, let’s be fair, winging it sometimes works, but sometimes it doesn’t. And if an uneven results are not they’re uneven results are not good enough for you, it really does take that practice and that time and, and that intentionality and add up what you’re paying everybody to be in the room for the hour that you’ve got them. I recently spoke in India to 700,000 plus people for three minutes. It was only three minutes. Oh, how many hours is that? I can’t even do the math. But I prepared for that talk. I really, really wanted that talk to land and I wanted to be responsible for all of that human life that was going to get consumed just listening to me for three minutes. And as a leader, if you do that, it starts to look different.

Russel Lolacher: Thank you for this, John. Thank you so much. As a communications nerd, I’m like you’re hitting me on all cylinders, but let’s wrap up with the last question I ask all my guests, which is what’s one, one, one, one simple action people can do right now to improve their relationships at work?

John Bates: Hmm. I think that it would be to get interested in the people they work with, just even more interested and ask them some questions about, what matters to them and what they’re up to outside of work and just to really look over there and see the human being that’s there at work with you and take an interest in that human being and be willing to roll with what comes up.

Russel Lolacher: That is John Bates. He’s an author, keynote speaker, trainer, coach, and the CEO founder of Executive Speaking Success. Thanks so much for being here, John.

John Bates: Thank you. Russel is a pleasure.

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