I grew up in a family that didn’t have conversations with each other. My father stuttered his way through elementary and middle school. He was teased unmercifully, which caused more stuttering. In high school, my father met a drama teacher who, much like the speech tutor depicted in film The King’s Speech, conversed with him, expressed confidence in him, cared for him, and made him feel whole. Somehow, he found the courage to take on the lead role in a school play, and miraculously his stuttering disappeared.
The research on the neuroscience of brain plasticity shows how we shape and reshape our identities, and how we can overcome speech impairments like stuttering. This plasticity enables us to create new personas, identities, and competencies.
Because of this teacher’s caring relationship with my father, and because of their transformational conversations, his path’s life was forever changed. My dad became the head of the debating team in college and valedictorian of his class. Though he was deaf in one ear, he taught himself seven languages. When he visited countries, he gave presentations on dentistry in the native language. At times I traveled with him.
My exposure at a young age to many different cultures influenced my own trajectory, and the power of conversation has always been of great interest to me. In college, I pursued interdisciplinary studies—biochemistry, linguistics, anthropology, archeology, psychology, and semantics. Later, I studied human behavior, organizational behavior, and corporate communications. My work became my lab for examining how conversations transform history. I discovered when teams focus on building trust, they become more open, candid, and caring. By focusing on relationships before tasks, they are better able to handle difficult conversations and conflicts. Teams boost performance when they learn and apply Conversational Intelligence skills.
Our need to belong becomes so powerful that we’ll give up our voice and beliefs to fit in. The need to connect and belong is more powerful in team dynamics, and we will wait and see what others think before speaking our minds. When we do speak up, we’ll often modify our thoughts for fear of looking stupid or challenging a group norm.
We learn to protect ourselves from ego pain, building habits that keep us safe from feeling belittled, embarrassed, or devalued. Universal fears include the fear of being excluded—so we create networks and exclude others first; being rejected—so we reject first; being judged unfairly—so we criticize and blame others; failing—so we avoid taking risks and making mistakes; losing power—so we intimidate others to get power; feeling stupid—so we don’t speak up or speak too much; and looking bad in front of others—so we save face. When we perceive the world through a lens of fear, our egos drive us to develop patterns of protective (avoidance) behaviors. Stepping into a conversational space that feels safe and trusting changes everything—as it did for my father. Learning to shape the space for trust is core to leadership.
Writing My Way into Business
Writing became my way of talking with the universe and even with myself. What kept me going is that I discovered I was a writer who couldn’t stop writing—writing became my identity, and conversations became my subject of desire.
I wrote about conversations; I told stories about conversations; and I yearned for conversation. I would run away from home to places where people talked with each other and made each other feel good. I found wonderful places to go to where people thrived and loved and talked. As I watched and learned about what made their conversations great, I experimented with my new ideas and learning about conversations. And when something new or different happened, I wrote a story about what happened so no one could take it away from me. Writing brought out my truth and became my realty—a reality that I could hold on to and thrive with forever.
Reclaiming My Purpose
My experiments with conversations fueled my business, Benchmark Communications, Inc. (the study of the best communicators). Each time my research produced results, I would put this research, experiments, ideas and stories into a folder on my computer and labeled them: Reclaiming My Purpose. I wanted to put them into a book, and so I created many book proposals. All were rejected.
Each time I received another rejection, I would go back into my purpose folder, re-read my stories, and I came alive again. The stories I wrote about were real experiments I was doing with clients in helping them transform their leadership, culture and brand. Each experiment was real—with real results—and became another story in my book.
That book, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, was rejected 100 times under different titles. With each rejection, I wrote another proposal, with a slightly different spin, hoping to interest a publisher.
I persisted for two decades and now have seven books—including four bestsellers. I am most proud of my new book—the one that I started to write when I was 14 years old. Conversational Intelligence went into the second printing after only two months, and will go into a third printing soon. Every time I hold the book I feel a glow inside. My soul is at peace now!
Here are five lessons I’ve learned from rejection:
1: There’s no giving up—life is all about transforming and learning as you go.
2: Find people who believe in you and keep sharing what you are trying to do with them. Ask them not to judge you—ask them to listen to you.
3: Remember, what you have to say is your truth, purpose, and reason for being. It can take a lifetime to discover this purpose, but that is what we are here to do.
4: Give yourself the gift of love and acceptance—this is your unique journey.
5: Breathe, dream, and fill up your water bottle when you get tired and hungry and lose faith in yourself. If this were an easy journey, it would not be worth it. Nor would it be as much fun to wake up to it every day.