How startup founders use cognitive behavioral coaching to master their toughest conversations.

Executive coaching was developed to help people make the most of their abilities, gain deeper self-awareness, build people skills and resiliency for mastering the challenges of work life. Startup founders, senior management or leaders with significant responsibilities enlist coaches to help them bring new insights and skills to their relationships and broader life picture. 

 Coaching startup founders through crucial conversations isn’t just serving as a sounding board while they pitch investors, work through co-founder conflict and make hiring and firing decisions as their company scales. Founders undergo a great deal of personal transformation on this journey. They are also responsible for elevating early employees into leadership roles in which they likely have little to no experience. When founders use coaching to learn evidence-based cognitive behavioral tools for personal growth and in their management practices, they internalize a coaching mindset. This leadership style positively impacts the overall health and stability of the organization’s interpersonal climate.

This week while working with a client on communication skill building, she asked me:

“Why are crucial conversations so much harder for some people than others? Giving negative feedback to my employees is the least favorite part of my job as a CEO.” –Startup founder

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Here’s a truth I’ve learned from having thousands of therapy and coaching sessions with people about their toughest crucial conversations: everyone experiences heightened, uncomfortable emotions. So unless you’re a psychopath (which is a different article!) it’s not realistic to expect to remain emotionally unchanged when facing high-stakes, crucial conversations. Humans evolved to experience this ‘Fight or Flight’ Response as a survival instinct in the face of perceived threat. When we anticipate having a high-stakes conversations, our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective responses. Without developing a practice to manage effectively this pattern, founders are at high risk for making poor management decisions and eventually burnout. 

The premise of Cognitive Behavioral Theory is that our emotions are triggered by automatic thoughts that serve to alert us to the possibility of imminent danger. People’s perceptions occur as spontaneous thoughts, which directly influence their emotional, behavioral, and physiological reactions. Our perceptions are often magnified or distorted when they are distressed, making it difficult to see things objectively. By examining our “automatic thoughts” and identifying the factual evidence that refutes them, we are more capable of seeing a view that more closely resembles reality. With practice, our distress will decreases considerably, allowing us to make behavioral choices with higher functionality.

 

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Billionaire investor, author and co-founder of Oaktree Capital Howard Marks discusses risk assessment and the psychology of investing on The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish. He attributes his success with high-stakes decision-making to his ability to confront the evolutionary emotional programming that automatically drives human behavior. He shares that by adopting a mindset of ‘dispassionate observation and examination of thought‘ before acting, people can learn to accept the impossibility of predicting or controlling the future with 100% accuracy. This mindset reduces the risk of making decisions that overshoot a situation, out of instinctual enthusiasm or fear. In essence, putting cognitive behavioral tools at the helm of his investment decision-making. Founders can use this approach for their toughest, crucial conversations to stabilize their emotions, conserve mental energy and improve the odds of a successful outcome.

How to Use Cognitive Behavioral Tools in Crucial Conversations:

Practice writing out evidence-based thought records to dissect past situations that have lead to uncomfortable feelings. This simple but powerful exercise trains your brain to re-examine how your thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all interconnected.

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Practice observing behaviors and listening for the ‘content versus conditions’ of a conversation as a way to spot the risk of a conversation turning into a conflict. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation (a hostile condition), the interaction is no longer about the original purpose (the content)- it is now about defending oneself, further escalating emotions.

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Our emotional responses naturally turns into a ‘storyline’ or narrative in our head when we perceive hostility that feels like an injustice, shaping how we ‘make meaning’ of the person’s actions. Look for the factual evidence that supports your storyline and identify the emotional response tied to it.

With the understanding that rarely is any situation 100% factually true, look for the evidence that does not support your ‘story’. Practice questioning your conclusionslook for evidence that supports other possible perspectives with the goal of identifying multiple perspectives.

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Keep practicing the habit of identifying your emotional response and stories, developing a more balanced point of view rather than accepting your own without question. Learn to understand and take into account multiple perspectives before engaging in crucial conversations.  This mindset will translate into more effective exchanges in your relationships, and ultimately help you become a more successful, well-respected leader.

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Millennial men ask “Is it ever ok to approach women in public?” How to meet women in the age of #metoo

Downtown San Francisco during the work week is always swarming with millennials in clothing styles meant to convey ‘simple, smart and purposeful’ yet for many, dating life is proving to be anything but that.  The millennial clients that I coach through professional and personal life goals came of age in a time when digital technology had already changed how people communicate, disrupting social rules of dating among other mainstays of modern society.  Thirty-nine percent of Millennials admit to interacting more with their phones than the actual people in their lives, making them even less likely to to talk to strangers without clear cause in their everyday comings and goings.  Many millennial men who’ve achieved professional success are now ready to marry, but are realizing the strategies they used to find casual sex partners aren’t cutting it for finding ‘the one‘.  With no time to sift through dating profiles or spend nights in bars, these guys are engaging coaching to develop proactive dating strategies that set them up for success in their daily activities.

“I want to meet a really smart woman, much smarter than me!  Someone who is passionate about pursuing her goals, driven by values that we both share.  I want to be attracted to her mind more than anything! But she should want to be healthy and fit and enjoy being sexually active for us to be truly compatible.  Financial independence is important too, since living here is so expensive.  Is that too much to ask?”

That’s Silicon Valley in a nutshell, and honestly that’s not even a tall order compared to what my high-achieving female clients have on their marital check-list.  So while online dating has been effective for solving most people’s casual sex needs, it feels agonizingly inefficient to most people ready to meet someone marriage-worthy, especially with personal brand consciousness and FOMO influencing millennials’ major life decision-making process.  I encourage my single clients to attend curated social events or engage in recreational activities with a male/female ratio that benefits them, increasing the odds they meet people of similar caliber who share mutual interests.  I ask them to take the approach“if I had to solve this problem in the next two weeks, how would I do it?  What can I do to get started today?” which gives people a sense of urgency and gets them ready to apply practical solutions in the here and now.

After mapping out a few actionable plans with a male client, he earnestly asked “is it ever ok to just approach a woman in public these days? You know without coming across as desperate or creepy.” Admittedly I was taken aback by this question – I was struck by the difficult task of overcoming social anxiety they’ve spent less time addressing thanks to technology, while leveraging enough social finesse to engage others in a respectful and compelling way.  Many millennial aged men understandably prefer to play it safe in unclear circumstances, or risk coming across like a cheesy pick-up artist (PUA).  Have millennials come to rely exclusively on dating apps, social introductions, singles bars and events that serve the function of bars to form romantic connections?  Has the heterosexual male to female ‘cold call’ approach become totally obsolete?  Like the evolutionary equivalent of the human appendix, wisdom teeth or tonsils, once useful in our dark past but at best should remain dormant or at worst may trigger pain and suffering? Fox Monkey GIF by Animation Domination High-Def-downsized_large

Once upon a time men were far more likely to approach women in public outside of well-defined social circumstances, when our society was more deeply rooted in the notion that ‘masculine persistence wins the heart.’  American media largely produced by men has been dominated by storylines that convey if a woman responds to a man’s advances with disinterest, she can be persuaded to change her mind through a combination of charm, wit, and low-key psychological warfare.  This dynamic calls for female passivity, contributing to how women are treated as ‘fair game for romantic pursuits’ in public spaces.  The time of reckoning for gender inequality has come with the #metoo movement, an activist-led eruption of female empowerment that has become a global phenomenon, upending the longstanding tolerance of objectification and abuse of women for the purpose of male sexual gratification.  Though gender equality across all realms has a long way to go, it is still possible for men to safely and respectfully engage women in public by learning to read social cues with greater sensitivity.  It will likely not be easy or feel comfortable.  As I said to my male client “approaching a woman in public is graduate-school level game– we’re working on social skill mastery at the kindergarten level- first things first.”  (My clients are sturdy and know I don’t dish out what I know they can’t take!)

If you want to approach a woman in public but are unsure of how to proceed, take the time to read the situation closely.  This may take time you don’t want to spare- but keep in mind, a rushed approach increases the chance of a failed mission.

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HOW TO’S:

  • Make sure this woman is not wearing a wedding ring.  This is an easily avoidable rookie mistake!  Practice discreetly checking out left hands in various situations so you can be ready to quickly assess when it matters.
  • Respect women’s time.  Does it look like the woman is in a perceptible hurry?  Is she engaged in an activity that she’d probably prefer not to have interrupted?  If she’s busy working on a laptop she probably won’t welcome small talk- wait until it’s obvious she’s taking a break to speak to her.  Is the woman clearly relaxing, enjoying a meal by herself or having some personal downtime?  If she responds with only a fleeting or absent smile, minimal verbal response or eye contact, take the hint and keep it moving.  Persistence in the face of a minimal response is only going to feel uncomfortable and annoying to her.
  • Pay attention to eye contact.  Has the woman made purposeful, positive eye contact with you at least a few times?  Catching a woman’s eye once might be accidental, twice might be her checking to see if you are still looking at her.  Women naturally check their surroundings for their own safety, and women find they need to keep an eye out for guys who might be staring, stalker style.  Your job is to make sure you come across as friendly and safe– if you’re so nervous you can’t smile in the split second you catch a woman’s eye, you might not be ready to approach a woman in this manner.  Practice talking to women you don’t know in social settings where people are clearly expected to mingle so you develop a sense of how to accurately read non-verbal cues.

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  • Drop the idea that channeling alpha male confidence will lead to a positive outcome.  Guys are really attached to the idea that exuding cool confidence is what women want.  It’s refreshing and much more likable if you can manage to be yourself and talk with a woman like she’s a person not an object to win over.  Better to be awkward and able to laugh at yourself if the situation calls for it!  Take it from a woman- we’re often just as concerned with first impressions, and you’ll make it much easier for her to respond to you if open with something genuine and friendly.

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  • Ask her opinion about something related to the shared situation you’re both in, and be sure to listen and show appreciation for her response.  This is simple enough to do, especially if she’s in nearby proximity.  Respond with something of equal tone, and if possible include an opportunity for her to keep the conversation going.
  • Get out of your comfort zone, and use light-hearted humor to break the ice.  Authentic self-deprecation and self-declared inexperience is an easy way to gain a moment of sympathy from women.  Women are natural care-takers, teachers and experts in many, many things!  Guys, if you put yourself in a situation where there are women who are excellent at something, you will stand out not only because you’re willing to risk looking foolish, but also because you’re interested in something they clearly enjoy.  This only works if you demonstrate a genuine interest in learning.  If you keep at it long enough, women will likely take pity on you and offer some support.  I’ve seen it happen a million times before!

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Adopting these strategies aren’t meant to guarantee that you’ll get a date after perfecting them, but can work to start an engaging conversation that could potentially reveal a reason to stay in touch with a woman as result.  Good luck out there, and you’re welcome!

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