In the Harvard Business Review article “How to Move from Self-Awareness to Self-Improvement,” Jennifer Porter describes a client who dominated and consumed meetings with his input. He rarely listened, and in his anxiety to have his ideas heard, he couldn’t resist having a captive audience. This counterproductive trait did not stem from a pure lack of self-awareness; he’d received feedback that critiqued this tendency, and he had a desire to change. However, something kept him from making that change.
Too often, we assume self-awareness is the final key to self-improvement—that the former will immediately lead to the latter. More often than not, though, we need a plan for self-management in order to activate change in our behaviors, as Porter recommends. Moving beyond simple self-awareness, she suggests identifying and intentionally choosing new behaviors that will effect change.
In the anxious talker’s case, he could pause to ask open-ended questions after one of his proposals, solicit feedback from others, and consciously take time to listen silently. If his anxiety arises during this process, he can reassure himself: “Even though I really want to share my ideas, I’ve been repeatedly told that I talk too much, and don’t give others a chance to contribute. If I listen now, I will finally be giving others that chance.”
Porter’s client comes away from this meeting knowing that he has demonstrated to others on his team his earnest commitment to taking steps toward addressing their misgivings about his previous behavior. This process may be disorienting to him at first. Overcoming bad habits feels uncomfortable, because we’re literally forging new neural pathways, avoiding what previously gave us solace and confidence through familiarity. Still, Porter insists that repetition, practice, and planning will help normalize new, preferable behaviors. Her client may also discover that his team is more likely to embrace his ideas if they feel included in the discussion. This positive feedback will make change more attractive and less daunting.
I would add to Porter’s excellent prescription that the mutually beneficial limit her client imposes on himself during meetings does not have to confine him entirely. He can also find more effective ways to communicate all of his ideas, even if meeting etiquette requires him to be selective in the moment. Restriction, in this case, becomes an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
For example, he could align one of his ideas with a team member who is most likely to engage with it, either because it deals directly with that person’s work or because it involves concepts or action items that are known to interest that particular team member. Without forcing others who may not be as fully invested to consider this idea during a general meeting, he can engage with people who are likely to get on board with it and who will, in turn, act as advocates, doing some of the broadcasting work for him outside of meetings.
He may also find that some people who object to his dominance of meetings may be more receptive to his ideas in writing. Not everyone is a proficient auditory learner who can reflect on and process new information quickly in a group. The very environment in which a new idea is presented may bias an audience one way or the other, regardless of the content. For those who struggled the most with his former behavior during meetings, he can offer carefully articulated, succinct written briefs of ideas that were not ready for group discussion. Team members who absorb information better through reading will, again, more likely be advocates during subsequent meetings if they’re able to prepare and reflect in advance.
What began as an apparent imposition antithetical to his personality—listen more, talk less—can become an opportunity for exploring options that, in the end, may result in a stronger position for Porter’s client. He may discover he was, in fact, limiting himself by solely relying on the megaphone of meetings for the presentation of his ideas. By soliciting responses, reaching out to team members known to have a preexisting investment in a particular proposal, and accommodating others’ preferred methods of learning, he does not necessarily have to limit the number of ideas he offers. The extra work it takes to devise alternatives will be rewarded when people start adopting more of his proposals with more enthusiasm and less resentment.