Talking up Empathy

Everywhere we go, we see people immersed in their mobile devices – at work, on the street , in families, among friends.  The popular notion of the ‘digital detox’ indicates that this is not altogether a good thing.

In her rich and eloquent book Reclaiming Conversation  MIT professor Sherry Turkell explores the negative effects of constant connection to digital devices.  It is a stirring wake-up call and highly instructive in getting us to think about our own relationship with technology and where we may be missing out.

Turkell wants us to be aware of just what it is that we risk losing so that we can begin to find a better way to live with technology.

Empathy killer
Nobody set out to make this happen, but the use of mobile devices seems perfectly designed to destroy empathy.  People need conversation to develop as individuals, to form relationships and to find meaning. But as people increasingly communicate through devices, conversation is replaced by mere connection.

It is by paying attention and making eye contact that you connect with the feelings of others and begin to understand the impact that your behaviour – cruel or kind – has on them.  For example, people seem able to say abusive things online that would be difficult to say in person. In fact, many younger people find it hard to recognise emotions in others.

Even time alone is not sacred.  People don’t want to be bored or on their own with uncomfortable thoughts and instead turn to the phone for stimulation.  They are less able to enjoy solitude and are less likely to gain the insight, wisdom and understanding – of self and others – that comes from calm reflection on experience.

The quality of attention is important.  It is by listening to others that we make ourselves heard. And online contact is just no substitute for face to face conversation when we want to build trust, close a deal or apologise.

Divided Attention
The moment a mobile device appears, the mood changes.  People dip in an out of the chat as their attention constantly strays to the device. And because attention is divided the nature of the conversation changes too.  Topics become more superficial.  People are less able to dwell on thoughts and develop complex ideas.

In fact, in many social situations, what is on the phone – messages, updates, jokes and shared photos – becomes the topic of conversation.  This may be fun and engaging but it is often at the expense of deeper conversation.

A similar thing happens in business meetings.  It has become common for people to sit round the table checking their e-mails and not really paying attention unless it is their turn to speak, which largely negates the point of a meeting.

The flight from conversation is reinforced by ‘hot desking’ and home working.  People surround themselves with gadgets – arrays of laptops and mobile devices – then put on the earphones and work in isolation.  Gossip at the water cooler and informal discussion are crowded out.  Yet Turkell’s research shows that it is organisations where conversation thrives that tend to be more successful.

More importantly, this intrusion also happens within families where the ‘sacred spaces’ that provide the opportunity for significant conversations – family meals, car journeys or children’s bath times – are compromised by mobile devices.

Children know that they are missing out on something when they do not have the undivided attention of a parent.  And parents too have an awareness that they are not doing the best by their children.  The time together is less rewarding if they are not fully present.

Why it’s hard to stop
The nature of the experience is compelling and rewarding.  By tuning into the ‘feed’ of e-mails, texts, social media updates, etc., we feel connected and affirmed.  The illusion of multi-tasking makes us feel powerful and in control even though we are less productive.

There is an illusion of flow, but it is reactive rather than the flow of purposeful activity. People can feel overwhelmed and stressed by the need to respond and keep up to date for fear of missing out.

Digital platforms have a commercial incentive to keep you hooked so that they can sell more advertising.  Feeds shaped by algorithms that learn from your behaviour aim to ensure that what is presented to you will be hard to resist. The tailoring of the feed that seems helpful also serves to suck you in.  Your focus narrows, your peripheral vision shrinks and you lose sight of life as it is happening.

It’s not easy to just say no.  In order to get their work done, some resort to the technical fix of blocker software, which restricts access to the internet or particular social media sites.

Behind the mask
A further twist is that exchanges have in many case become  less spontaneous and more artificial. In online profiles people naturally tend to post somewhat idealised versions of themselves.  But a similar effect is also at work in text based exchanges, which also become a kind of performance.

There is a generation that is more guarded and prefers to communicate with text messages that they can edit and hone before sending.  They maintain a cool and polished persona, which is not necessarily a true reflection of who they really are. It seems too risky to operate in real time where they don’t feel in control and might be ill at ease, or vulnerable to making ‘mistakes’. They are  reluctant to encounter others face to face or even talk on the phone.  Where it would be natural to an older generation to have a conversation they would rather compose a text message.

What should we do?
The message is that we need to act now to reclaim conversation before the robots take over and before we lose the art of developing relationships.  Conversation is nature’s empathy app. We need to be more judicious in our use of our devices and create more device-free spaces where conversation can again flourish.

We can also reclaim some of the time that is lost to engaging with technology. Instead of sending that text, we can pick up the phone or go and meet in person.  We’ll probably get more done in less time … and find it more rewarding.

Jo Ouston

Face-to-Face – the Killer App

The internet facilitates ever more transactions around the globe but face-to-face contact is still vital to build relationships and trust.

The technology that has transformed communication and the spread of information has transformed the way that people do business, creating new business models and new opportunities for people in every continent – from tech entrepreneurs to African farmers.

Transactions or relationships?
Electronic messaging, e-mail or even e-commerce platforms provide efficient means to exchange information at a transactional level – e.g.  confirming a meeting, providing information, sending a contract, completing a purchase or handling a payment.

But when it comes to more complex matters – particularly when trying to form working relationships with new colleagues, partners, clients or suppliers – you cannot rely on technology to do the job for you.  You need to talk.  And face-to-face talk especially still plays an extremely important role in establishing trust and building business relationships.

Richer understanding
At a basic level, direct discussion can be more efficient and save time by avoiding the misunderstandings, red herrings and the offence that might be caused by ill-considered words fired off in haste.  Face-to-face, we can see whether we are understanding each other correctly.  We see the puzzled look, the smile or the disappointment and can adjust our explanations or offer clarifications while we are speaking.

We are also more able to pick up the nuances and the precious extras – the clues, comments, gossip and feedback that convey the news, views and potential opportunities – but which would never be set down in an e-mail.

And communication face-to-face is much richer.  It brings into play the individual behavior and human chemistry that are a basis for trust.  It takes place on many levels simultaneously – not just verbal and physical, but also contextual, intentional (or non-intentional).  Human beings are very effective at sensing non-verbal messages and, being face-to-face, we are able to verify that the true intentions match the stated words.

Realising ideas
Face-to-face is particularly important in environments where information is imperfect, rapidly changing and not easily codified.  Many creative activities depend on the exchange of complex tacit knowledge – creative sparks and ideas that have not been fully articulated.  This only happens when people are together and able to explore and respond to half-formed ideas as they arise and rapidly evolve.

Where ideas come together, where relationships are formed, projects conceived and deals are struck, we need to meet prospective partners face-to-face and ‘see the whites of their eyes’.  Many sectors continue to operate in geographical clusters – e.g. The City, Hollywood, science parks – precisely because of the opportunities to meet face-to-face.

Building trust
Apart from the clues and signals that are communicated, physical presence is important as a sign of commitment.  By investing time to meet face-to-face, (which means that they cannot be meeting with someone else), people qualify for a level of trust that is not available to others.  They establish intentions, sincerity – they are put ‘in the loop’.  Physical presence necessarily carries more weight than Skype / FaceTime ‘meeting’.

Releasing energy
Face-to-face presence is important too in creating the engagement and enthusiasm that sustains challenging projects.  Successful enterprises depend not only on ideas and creativity but also on motivation and team spirit.  For this, physical presence still counts a great deal.

The idea of presence has always been central to what we do at Jo Ouston & Co and enabling people to be effective and act with integrity in face-to-face situations is at the heart of the Developing Personal Presence programme.

Jo Ouston

Being alive to the present

It is easy to overdo optimism – before the crash of 2008 the world was given to flights of fancy that often amounted to irrational exuberance – but it is just as easy to overdo the pessimism. Expectations can be dashed yet your worst fears may not materialise.

Of course, there’s plenty to get us worried in the present climate if we let it. War and terrorism, migration and unrest, stock market jitters and political uncertainty – all cast their shadow. But you can choose how you react. You can retreat in dismay or you can open out your view, assess what’s going on and what it means for you.

How we learn
We all have our own ways of approaching things and in particular different styles of learning.

If you are an Activist, you like to pitch in, get on with things and learn by trial and error. If you are a Reflector, you’d rather stand back and take time to mull things over. If you are a Theorist you prefer to work systematically and establish the principles, while if you are a Pragmatist you like to work with common sense and see what you can apply in practice.

It is useful to be aware of your own preferred style and how it may differ from the way others see things. But it is not helpful to limit yourself to just one approach. To free up thinking and creativity you need different styles for different situations.

Hedgehog and fox
It’s said that the hedgehog knows one big thing but the fox knows many little things … The hedgehog has one dominant idea about how the world works and what is needed to stay safe. By contrast, the fox is a ‘ducker and diver’ – outward looking, alert and observant – able to be flexible and adapt as he goes along.

It may be tempting to turn away, pull up the drawbridge and roll into a ball seeking comfort in old certainties. To maintain your judgement and avoid getting derailed you need to manage your reactions so that you can balance the emotional with the analytical – the gut intuition with the rational appraisal.

To remain adaptable and resilient you need to be present and alive to the here-and-now.

What is personal presence?

Personal presence is that natural, unforced quality we recognise in people who are confident, comfortable in their own skins and true to themselves

We have all met people with presence – those individuals we feel drawn to. They are noticed, listened to, respected, trusted and followed.

Whether or not the word presence comes to mind, we know it when we see it – in individuals who are confident and inspire confidence, who convey positive energy and above all, who engender trust with their authenticity.

They may have charisma, but equally they may be quiet and unassuming. Whatever their style, they make us identify with them in some way.

So presence is not just for the powerful, the business magnates or the so-called ‘celebrities’. We are all born with it – an unselfconscious, sense of who we are.

Young children have presence in abundance – they are very much their own person. But as they get older and more aware of the world, they often lose that self-confidence and conviction. With age comes an awareness of what is deemed ‘acceptable’. They respond to the expectations of others and – for good or ill – adapt to meet the situation.

This is normal – a rite of passage we all face as our world becomes more complex. We have to adapt in order to function at home, at school and in the workplace. However, if we constantly hide behind a mask we become a cipher – unreadable. And if we pretend to be something we’re not, we appear to be ‘trying too hard’. This becomes an issue when others need to trust what we do and say.

‘What’ we say and ‘how’ we say it need to be aligned if others are to put their trust in us. The ‘what’ is relatively straightforward but how we say it and communicate our true belief in what we say is not. Being true to ourselves is something we cannot fake.

It’s not an act

In my view, personal presence is a natural, unforced quality. When you are open and engage people they can see who you are. They may not agree with everything you say but they will understand your intention, know that you are real and sincere.

Our belief in ourselves and what we are saying, our integrity and our intentions can all be read in our non-verbal behaviours – our physical stability, posture, breathing, facial expression, instinctive use of personal space, the energy we display and more.

Presence arises from being balanced and grounded in our own beliefs. It is being aligned with what we stand for that gives us weight. The suggestion that a person can have presence just by learning various body language tricks misses the point. In fact, attempting that will have the opposite effect. It will simply look and feel contrived – something that people recoil from instinctively and just won’t trust.

People follow those who they feel have a genuine, heartfelt intention. Leaders with presence have authority and gravitas. They are authentic, comfortable in their own skin. They draw others towards them, put them at ease and enable them to feel confident and willing to contribute. They are instinctively trusted.

Personal presence is ‘God-given’. We all come into the world with presence but so often we lose it. What we have to do as adults is rediscover how to be present.

Jo Ouston

Personal Presence – the real thing

People who have personal presence do not put on an act. Their strength comes from being more truly themselves

A central principle of our work at Jo Ouston & Co is the concept of Personal Presence. When business leaders or politicians are under the spotlight – for example in TV debates or party conferences – it is so often their personal presence that attracts comment and discussion.  Indeed it is that presence that determines their credibility or lack of it. Although we can all think of people that we consider to have great presence, it is not so easy to identify the specific elements that give rise to it or to say how others could also achieve it.

It’s not an act

In recent years a whole host of quick-fix solutions of the ‘seven steps to greater impact’ variety have flooded the market. But there is more to developing presence than simply using a formula, a pre-determined set of phrases or tried and trusted body language cues.

People with personal presence who inspire and get buy-in from others are not putting on an act. They are real and their authenticity is what makes people believe in them. For me it comes down to the difference between ‘doing something different’ and ‘being something different’ … and that will always be specific to each individual.

We are interested in developing leaders and managers who are true to themselves and committed to being effective. This is a strong foundation for leadership development. It inspires confidence, engages commitment and enables others to trust them.

Doing what comes naturally

Everyone has their own natural ways of communicating that they use in their everyday lives. The key is not to get derailed by new situations or when under pressure so that we lose our presence of mind and suddenly forget how to do things that are second nature. Many of us have left a meeting thinking ‘why did I ramble on that last point’ or ‘I completely forgot to mention xyz …’

To be more truly ourselves and perform at our best, we need to control our physical state so that we can be alert and aware of what is going on inside us and around us. If we are calm and ‘centred’ and breathing properly so that the brain is oxygenated, we can think clearly. The ideas flow, we are more articulate and we find the right answers.

Thinking of others

We are ready to take on any challenge and have the flexibility of behaviour to deal with situations appropriately. We are able to take and interest in those around us rather than worrying about our own self-consciousness. And we are able to focus our attention and energy on other people so that they feel that they are being listened to and heard.

Personal presence is about being more truly yourself and having the ability and confidence to rely on qualities you use naturally when you are relaxed, in control and able to be generous with your energy, achieving the best for yourself and for others.

Jo Ouston

Why Integrity Matters

If you say what you believe rather than spouting a party line your message has integrity and credibility – people can always tell the difference

In the aftermath of the last local government and European election results – described by many as an earthquake – I was struck by a comment from Lynne Featherstone who said “I think that all of us have got to the point where we are so guarded, so on-message that we seem to have lost some of our humanity”.

Indeed, it is noticeable that when politicians leave office they tend to feel much freer to be themselves and express their personal views … they become far more engaging.


This has implications beyond politics. Whenever people seem to be spouting a party line they come across as bland, mechanical or unconvincing. Often we find ourselves unimpressed, indifferent and unmoved.

On the other hand, we can have almost too much emotion. Where there is a desire for quick results and people put on an act to create an impression, they come across as shallow or insincere. And often brittle too – unsettled and put off their stride if challenged.

There is a big difference between putting on a show – a studied performance – and the credibility that comes from being who you are – having personal presence and authenticity.

Well tempered

I cherish an image given to me by an engineer client some years ago. He compared the process to tempering steel. If you want to make a very sharp blade, you plunge the hot steel into cold water quenching it very quickly. You can achieve a sharp edge, but it is brittle. However, if you want to create a flexible durable blade, you don’t rush it. You temper the steel slowly in warm oil.

We are inclined to trust people who are ‘well tempered’ – with whom we feel that what they think, what they say and what the do are in alignment. This integrity enables people to be confident in what they stand for. It is what makes it easier to work well with others and it is ultimately the basis of trusted leadership.

Jo Ouston

Trustworthy Leaders

To be trusted, people must be trustworthy. We judge that not by compliance with rules but by their personal presence and behaviour

Trust is in short supply, especially since the recession. We need leaders we can trust but this is not about processes or procedures. It’s about being trustworthy.

For our institutions trust is a problem – not least in the developed world. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2014, trust in business has partially recovered from the battering it received in the depths of the recession. Meanwhile the level of trust in governments continues to decline.

The CIPD recently published a report entitled ‘Cultivating Trustworthy Leaders‘. Following up a 2012 report, which indicated that the decline in trust started before the recession, this second study focuses on the role of HR in helping to recruit and develop trustworthy leaders.

The reports argues that while people still face high levels of uncertainty in their futures, now more than ever they need ‘a greater and more overt demonstration of trustworthiness from their leaders.’

Being trustworthy

Naturally, the CIPD is keen to show how HR professionals can help leaders to be more trustworthy but acknowledges that rules and policies may actually get in the way of trust. This is not surprising. Mere compliance with rules makes you a bureaucrat rather than a leader.

The report identifies four broad factors that determine whether people are seen as trustworthy: ability, predictability, benevolence and integrity.

The first two may be susceptible to objective measurement – i.e. whether people are competent and capable of doing their job and whether they deliver, doing what they say they will do. But there is no real basis for measuring benevolence – what people’s intentions are – or integrity.

CIPD suggest that leaders need to reveal their personal side to be seen as more trustworthy. Openness is clearly part of it, but it seems to me that if you are to appear trustworthy then you have to be trustworthy. People have to know what you stand for. If it is an act or insincere, they will simply see through it.

At the end of the day, we judge whether people are trustworthy by their personal presence and behaviour. Is there congruence in what they think, what they say and what they do?

Authority and gravitas

People follow those who they feel have a genuine, heartfelt intention. Leaders with presence have authority and gravitas. They are authentic, comfortable in their own skin. They draw others towards them, put them at ease and enable them to feel confident and willing to contribute. They are instinctively trusted.

Jo Ouston