Leaders Battle with Time
Having spent the last week training with senior leaders in a professional services firm, one of the clearest things they lack is time. Keeping the group focussed on our work while they tend to the needs of their clients and teams can be a frustrating challenge but there simply aren’t enough minutes in the hour for them to do their job. I sympathise with them because after an intensive nine-hour day in the training room, they then have hours of work to catch up on before joining us again the following morning.
It’s an impossible equation. How can leaders make enough time for all of the elements of their life, personal and professional, without feeling like they are failing in one or the other? In my experience, work always wins.
This most recent programme ended with presentations and vision statements for the future. One of the starkest things to emerge from this, though, was when they took more time, the message they were trying to deliver landed more powerfully and more clearly. Further than that, the sense of ownership they had over the message was far more keenly felt by the audience. For many of the group, this was a revelation.
The Need for Speed
Living their lives at such a pace, that the only way this group have to be more effective is to move faster. It’s a logical assumption.
Or is it?
If our attitude towards time is that there are 24 hours in the day and a certain amount of those are available for work, then it won’t be long before we start to max out on the minutes available to us. That means do more in the time available. What if we could change this thinking? What if it wasn’t how much we can squeeze into the time but how we think about time itself?
Time pressures cause us to rush. In doing so, we often degrade the quality of our work, degrade the quality of our communication and consequently degrade the quality of our relationships. To avoid this, we need to think not about the amount of time we have but about the pace we operate at.
What’s the difference?
The Pace-Time Continuum
In theatre, the world I trained in and the skills I bring to business environments, pace and time are very different. Time relates to speed. While speed isn’t usually helpful to successful communication (on stage or anywhere else), it isn’t necessarily a problem. What is a problem, is poor pacing. Pace is the gaps between what people say. A rehearsal or production that feels like it’s dragging won’t be because the actors are speaking slowly, it will often be because they aren’t picking up on each other’s cues quickly enough. A monologue or soliloquy won’t be hard to comprehend because the actor is speaking too fast, it will be because they are moving from one thought to the other without a break. Without time to consider their next thought or allow the hearer to digest the last one.
In business communication my overwhelming experience is that there is very little pace injected into either planned, or unplanned, communication (note the linguistic quirk that “injecting pace” does not mean the overall experience is quicker, the effect can be that things actually slow down).
If we can inject pace, we find that we can take the same amount of time to say what we want to, but with fewer words, more pauses and a greater chance of the message landing. A beautiful example of “less is more”. My clients this week, when asked on a number of occasions about how much more powerful, clear and impactful the messages were when well-paced, versus not, said that there was 10 times more impact. And these guys do numbers for a living.
This is important stuff, because it means that we can do more with the time that we have – not by going faster, not by slowing down, but by managing the pace at which we operate. It’s not only concerned with communication. It’s actually about our thinking; about how we gather, arrange and share our thoughts.
It’s the breath, stupid.
So how can we get better at this? Well, if you’ve read any other of my articles and spotted a theme, you’ll know that it’s connected to the breath. When we are operating under sustained pressure (find me a leader who isn’t), our body reacts in the best way it knows how: fight, flight or freeze. This kick starts a chain reaction of physiological responses that tell the body to preserve itself. These responses are usually associated with survival and when we are in survival mode, everything not connected with physical self-preservation, operates sub-optimally, a bit like Windows’ Safe Mode. To manage that response, we need to breathe.
Learn to Breathe
To breathe effectively, and in a way that lifts the body out of its survival mode, the breath needs to get low in the body. To experience this, sit on the front third of a chair, away from the back, feet firmly on the floor, knees a right-angle, weight evenly distributed, your spine long and your chest soft. Place a palm over your belly button and become aware of the breath filling the space behind it (it doesn’t, of course but the image is important as the diaphragm needs this area to physically respond to draw air into your lungs). Picture pouring water from a jug into a balloon. It spreads out and fills from the bottom up. Your torso is the balloon. Allow the air to drop low into your body, your tummy releasing and moving outwards to allow this water to fill the balloon. This is breath coming in.
To release the breath, think about the ballon becoming a tube of toothpaste. Squeeze the tube from the bottom up to make sure that the bottom of the tube empties. Again, your torso is the toothpaste tube.
This will ensure that you achieve a low, centred breath. A breath will help you when there isn’t enough time, when you are moving too fast, when you can’t find your own thoughts, let alone share them with anyone else. And the great thing? You can do this at any time and no one will know. You could be on the train, at your desk, standing in front of a huge audience. By injecting pace, you will become the master of your own thoughts and the master of how they are shared.