Dirty Dishes, 16-Year Olds & Communicating to Connect

Dirty Dishes, 16-Year Olds & Communicating to Connect image DATE: October 13, 2020

It’s no joke. In the best of circumstances, communicating to connect and build engagement with your team is hard enough. But our socially distanced, work from home reality has added a whole new layer of difficulty to this part of a leader’s job. So how do you overcome this hurdle? Here are 6 tips for communicating and connecting with your people in person or while working virtually.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

This experience clearly falls into the “I thought I’d seen everything…” category.

For the past four decades, I’ve made my living by communicating and connecting. Hundreds of organizations have hired me to show up, stand up and speak up to in-person audiences around the world.  On six continents, 12 countries and in 48 of the United States, I’ve connected with audiences.  (Come on Alaska and Maine — I’m still waiting for my invitation!)

Large audiences in huge ballrooms and small audiences in secluded basements. Iconic stages and flatbed trailers. I’ve watched men and women stand and cheer. And yes, watched them sit and sleep! In professional speaking, I thought I’d seen just about everything.  And I thought I could manage almost anything.

Connecting Got Easier, Communicating Is Still Hard

Then out of nowhere came COVID-19.  In no time, the pandemic distanced us from one another.  Virtually (pun intended!) overnight the way people met and communicated changed.  Speakers with years of experience and thousands of hours of stage time, are now being asked, “Can you keep the attention of my virtual team for 90-minutes?”

Hey, I’m a professional speaker and trainer —  skilled and experienced in developing and sharing content.  I know how to anticipate audience member reaction.  It’s what I do.   An audience is an audience, right?

Communicating to Connect in a Virtual World

Then came last Thursday morning!

7:18 am CST.  I was about 3-minutes into a 90-minute, Zoom leadership training session with thirteen corporate managers.  Everyone was live, front and center on a shared screen.  Some were participating from their offices and others in seclusion from their homes.  The topic: “Communicating for Positive Leadership Effect.”

Just as I stressed the importance of “connection” for effective leadership communication, one of the participants suddenly blurted something out, rose quickly and darted away.

We all heard and saw it.  In real time.  It couldn’t just be ignored.

Realizing my role as the session leader, I spoke up.

“Let me remind each of you to ‘mute’ yourself in consideration of others on this call,” I said simply before moving on.

Seconds later the participant in question returned.  There were no further interruptions.  Our session concluded about 85-minutes later.  From my perspective the distraction was almost immediately forgotten.

Dirty Dishes and 16-Year Olds

That is, until I checked my email soon after the session’s end. 9:23 am … an email from “Stacy” arrived in my inbox:

“I apologize for yelling during your presentation this morning.  I’m working from home to make sure my two boys are on track with virtual learning. I was waking my 16-year old who overslept and his room had a horrible odor (maybe rotten food….I saw lots of dirty dishes).  You witnessed my reaction to him oversleeping and to the horrible smell.  Unfortunately, my muted cell phone un-muted at that moment as I had it in my hand.  So sorry.  I wanted to confess and explain.

As I read, I began to laugh!  I quickly shared the content of the email with my wife.  She laughed, too!  For the next couple of minutes we empathized with Stacy’s situation.  Once up on a time we too had 16-year olds.  Now those children have children of their own.  And in their roles as working professionals, we could easily imagine them juggling the competing demands and responsibilities of work and home in much the same way as Stacy.

9:39 am … my email response to Stacy:


You made my day!!  ;-)  We’re all suddenly dealing with distractions and unusual situations unlike anything any of us could have imagined just a few months ago.  So you were just dealing with life as it came to you. No problem at all!  Don’t think another thing about.  In fact, your apology/explanation has already become a highlight of my day.  Thanks!  I hope the content of our session this morning is something you’ll be able to build on.  Good luck!

All the best!  Phil

9:43 am … Stacy’s email response to my email:

Thank you for understanding.  I took notes on the content and I always enjoy your sessions.

6 Tips for Communicating to Connect

Well guess what, Stacy?  I took notes on your actions and reactions as a leader under pressure, too.  And as far as I’m concerned you were tremendous! Here are six takeaways for communicating to connect:

  1. Manage Multiple Priorities:  While working diligently to proactively juggle multiple priorities — both of which had significant potential consequences — an emotional reaction momentarily overtook Stacy.  Let’s be honest — It happens.
  2. Prioritize and Act:  Stacy dealt appropriately with BOTH situations, but not concurrently.  She addressed her son’s education and her own professional education in the prioritized order of importance in which they came to her.
  3. Reset and Refocus:  Having sufficiently dealt with her son’s immediate situation, Stacy returned and refocused attention and effort on her own educational opportunity at hand.
  4. “Fess Up” When You “Mess Up”:  Though not expected to do so, Stacy wasted no time in “confessing and explaining” once our session was over. She reached out to me to ensure that our professional relationship had not been damaged by her actions.  She was simply unwilling to risk leave my interpretation of her actions to chance.
  5. Don’t Be Afraid to Laugh at Yourself: Thankfully, Stacy didn’t take herself too seriously.  She was able to see the humor in her situation.  She aired it all out — dirty, stinking dishes and all.
  6. Connect through Honest, Authentic Effort:  In so doing, the connection between the two of us was cemented in a way which would have been difficult, if not completely impossible, between two people attempting to communicate virtually.

Stacy delivered an unforgettable object lesson in communicating to connect!

Even in a pandemic, we’re helping companies improve leadership engagement and performance. If you’re wrestling with this challenge, we have some ideas to help. Let’s talk.

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About The Author:

Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE is committed to helping organizations transform their business outcomes by building engaged employee relationships. He is an award-winning keynote speaker and author on engaged leadership and communication. His most recent book is “Earning The Right To Be Heard," a primer for creating greater influence and opportunities. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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