Communication and Leadership Made Simple with Meredith Bell [Podcast]
Dr. Nathan Regier welcomes Meredith Bell to today’s episode! She is known as the Heart-Centered Connector. Meredith has the gift of connecting people and teaching others how to lead. She is the Co-founder and President of Performance Support Systems, a company that publishes books and software tools that help companies build strong leaders and teams. Meredith is the host of the popular Grow Strong Leaders Podcast and is the author of two books along with her partner Dennis Coates: Connect with Your Team: Mastering the Top 10 Communication Skills and Peer Coaching Made Simple: How to Do the 6 Things that Matter Most When Helping Someone Improve a Skill.
VOICEOVER: Are you tired of the negativity and drama? Are you trying to make a difference, only to be drained by people problems? The world needs more compassion, not just more civility and empathy. We need in the trenches compassion that struggles alongside people, instead of against them. We need a radically different way to engage for breakthrough results. And now, here’s your host, Dr. Nate Regier.
NATE REGIER: I feel so blessed to know my guest for this episode. Meredith Bell is a simply remarkable person with a gift for connecting people and teaching others how to lead. She is one of the most compassionate people I’ve known and truly lives with an abundance mindset. Meredith is co-founder and president of Performance Support Systems, PSS. Her company publishes books and software tools that helps companies grow strong leaders and teams by improving the way they connect with each other. Meredith is host of the popular Grow Strong Leaders podcast and co-author of two books, Connect With Your Team and Peer Coaching Made Simple with her business partner, Dr. Dennis Coates. In them, Meredith and Denny provide step-by-step guides for improving communication skills and serving as a peer coach to someone else.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself because today, we’re going to talk about Meredith’s latest book. But I can and tell you, it’s one of the most practical self-help leadership books I’ve ever read. Here’s what I love about her and Denny’s writing and her work, is she makes it practical, simple, and easy to apply right away. So let’s get this conversation started. Meredith, welcome to On Compassion.
MEREDITH BELL: Thank you so much, Nate. I’ve been really looking forward to our conversation.
NATE REGIER: Well, that’s great. So everything’s virtual these days, we meet online and we hardly know what’s going on. And I’m just curious, where are you today?
MEREDITH BELL: Physically, I’m in Virginia and near Williamsburg. Historic areas, actually even closer to Yorktown. And I’m in a great place emotionally, mentally, and physically, too.
NATE REGIER: Oh, that’s fantastic. Well, thank you for answering that because that matters, too. What’s the weather like today where you are?
MEREDITH BELL: It’s a gorgeous, sunny, fall day. In fact, yesterday was like that also. My husband and I love bird watching, and so we went to this new state park just 15 minutes from us and had a wonderful time just being outdoors in nature, soaking up the sun and the beautiful weather.
NATE REGIER: Well, we’re going to have to have a different episode on birding because my parents were avid birders and love, love, love birding. And right now with fall, I can just imagine beautiful the leaves are on the East Coast and particularly as you get further north. Oh. Well, all right, let’s get started. So I understand that you actually started your career in a different field, you started in education. So I’m curious, what drew you to that? And then why did you leave it to come to do what you’re doing now?
MEREDITH BELL: Nate, as a kid, I always wanted to be a teacher. It’s what I dreamed of, I was one of these kids that organized other kids to be my students and I would be the teacher. So I acted this out from a very early age. And every year I went through school, I thought, “Maybe this will be the grade I teach.” And as it turned out, after I got through high school and into college, I realized elementary was what I enjoyed more. But then after a few years of teaching, I realized, “You know what? I get bored with the same lesson plans.” And so the repetition just did not work for me. And so I got my masters and ended up being in supervisory roles, working with teachers and helping them. And I really enjoyed that. I loved working with teachers. The problem was, bureaucracy and politics at that level of a school, board office.
And so after trying this in three different school systems, I realized I just didn’t fit. And so that’s when I decided I just needed to leave. I had never, Nate taken a single business course. And yet, I just had this confidence that I could do something worthwhile, using my teaching ability but in a different area. And so the thing that was a thread all the way through, was how people interact with each other. And so that’s what I started working on. I started my own solo consulting and training company, and helped people learn how to communicate. So I’ve been at that for a very, very long time.
NATE REGIER: Well, what you mentioned, it is not easy being in education. I’ll tell you, especially now add the pandemic to all of this. I just want to give a shout out to teachers and educators because it’s hard work, it’s not for the faint of heart and you’re making a huge difference in the world. Thank you. And what I like about your story is that you maybe didn’t come to this leadership development or this organizational psychology in kind of the traditional way, you came at it through just being an educator and being a teacher. And I’m wondering if that’s one of the reasons why your work is just so practical and so easy to understand, but fast forward the clock. Now, you are a widely known expert in leadership skills and behavior. Even more importantly though, you’ve dedicated a lot of effort into understanding how people actually learn and how new behaviors get adopted and sustained. And I know, I’m always immersed in kind of the trends in leadership, learning, development, and ultimately, sustained behavior change is what we’re looking for. Right?
MEREDITH BELL: Absolutely.
NATE REGIER: What’s your view on that? Anything that you have learned along the way about how is it that people really learn, grow, and sustain behavior?
MEREDITH BELL: I think that’s such an important question because too often, organizations devote money to learning and development programs but they treat them as events where people get exposed to information and now suddenly, they’re supposed to know how to apply it back at the workplace. But what’s missing, is that follow through. And so I think that one of the key things that we need to do is look at, “How are we supporting people in practicing a new skill afterwards?” Because… And I’ll give you a real story. I was speaking to a fellow who had been in one of the Fortune 500 companies for 30 some years and he rose to senior executive level positions. And he said, “Not once,” in all the years that he went to leadership training, did anyone follow up with them afterwards? And he said, “You know, it was just expected that we would use what we learned.”
And so the issue we have, is there’s a lack of understanding about what it really takes to change a behavior. Whether it’s a skill of leadership, any habit. And the fact that we have hard wiring that has established strong neural pathways in our brains, and we can’t just overnight get rid of those. It takes practice, and really using a skill over time to make a new pathway stronger than the old one. If you think of it like you want to suddenly have a new super highway. You’ve already got this established road, and you’re starting out with a gravel road or dirt road with new skill. And so I think that’s one of the key insights, is recognizing the time that’s required for people to really learn and adopt a new way of doing things.
NATE REGIER: When you talk about neural pathways, we really are talking about brain science here and real habits in the brain. While you were talking about highways and rewiring paths, I’m thinking about my dog and the route it runs in my yard over and over and over every day. I’m trying to plant some new grass or build a fence, and I’m trying to keep the dog from going down its normal paths. And it’s incredibly hard to teach that dog or somehow prevent it from doing the same old thing, same old thing. And I can tell it 50 times, but it’s not that easy. So developing cultures based on new behaviors is a massive challenge. And that’s the main thrust of my podcast, is how do leaders bring more compassion into a culture around real behavior change that lasts? So you mentioned that one of the things we need to know, is it takes time. What are some keys for success if we’re trying to build cultures based on new behaviors?
MEREDITH BELL: Well, a key thing, Nate is the people at the top, especially the top leader, has to recognize that he or she is responsible for setting examples. And that… To me, culture can’t change from the bottom up very easily. The top people have got to embrace what it takes to really learn something new and be willing to be guides who are walking alongside people learning together, and not pretend they have all the answers. So that means being willing to be vulnerable and open about their own struggles and successes so that people understand, “Hey, this person is human too and I don’t have to try to be perfect.” So it’s setting the stage for people feeling safe about being open and asking for help. Because I think sometimes, people are afraid to look weak or that they’ll be judged in some way as less effective, if they aren’t given permission to ask for what they need and want.
NATE REGIER: Ah, I’m reminded of one of our shared friends who you introduced me to, Garry Ridge from WD-40.
MEREDITH BELL: Yes.
NATE REGIER: And he talks about his three favorite words are, “I don’t know.” And how important it is for leaders to role model that they’re constantly learning, that they’re vulnerable, that they don’t have it all figured out either. And also, I really appreciate what you said about struggling… Or walking together. And we define compassion as with struggle. And so you’re really talking about compassion here, is that we’re together going through this. And I want to push you a little bit on this because one of the con… So often, leadership wisdom says you’re supposed to have it figured out. You have to be the example of mastery you to show them how it’s done and you can’t show weakness. So why are you saying that the opposite is actually true?
MEREDITH BELL: I think a key that’s coming to mind is being relatable. If the leader can position himself, herself as a guide that’s walking alongside people. So we’re learning together versus the guru that has all the answers, it puts enormous pressure on both groups. The leaders feel like they can’t afford to show weakness. If that’s the case, then they feel compelled to provide answers whether they really know the best answer or not. Because it’s this command and control, do as I say. And so I’m telling you this. And I think a lot of it, Nate comes from fear of being found out, this imposter syndrome that people walk around with all the time.
When in fact, if we could just relax and understand that people respect us more when we’re willing to acknowledge as Garry Ridge is so great of saying, “I don’t know, what do you think?” And so there’s a reason we have chapters in our book devoted to asking questions, because that to me, is where a leader doesn’t have to feel pressured to be the only one who knows the right answer, but also learns to draw from the brilliance of the people around them so that others have an opportunity to shine. And really think creatively about possible solutions. So let’s say if they’re dealing with a particular problem.
NATE REGIER: And listeners, if you like what you’re hearing, the two books that Meredith is part of, Connect With Your Team and Peer Coaching Made Simple. I’ve read them both, incredibly practical tips with real dialogue, real checklists, simple, practical things you can apply. And so we’re talking here about rewiring our brain for compassion, to be with people through this struggle, and Meredith’s talking to us about what are some of the keys for success to help build and sustain behaviors that change culture? So I want to come back to something you said about repetition. It takes time and it takes a leader… A leader has to have the attitude of being a learner of a vulnerable person that creates an open, safe space. But let’s get down to some specific nitty grittys. What are some specific behaviors leaders can do to help support real behavior change?
MEREDITH BELL: One of the first ones that really is both sides, the leader’s behavior and others, is simply to ask, “What’s one thing I could do better or differently that would make working here, working with me, a better experience for you?” Because that shows that the leader really wants to learn, “What does this person need from me?” And asking individuals is important because everyone may have… We’re all motivated by different things. And of course, in your book, this whole thing of differences in people is so critical to understand not everybody is driven by the same needs that you, as the leader, may have. So understanding where they are coming from is so critical to me, asking questions and then listening to the answers and being willing to explore more deeply. I think all of that is amazingly powerful in helping people to buy in and feel valued. Because I think ultimately, what’s needed for a leader, is to help another person feel, “I value your contribution. You matter. You count. And what can I do to elevate this person?”
As a human being, not just in their performance. Because if I really value them as a person, as a human being, and don’t look at them as an asset or human capital and put it that way, they will feel that and sense that. And that, to me, is a motivation for them to want to give their best in return because it’s natural. And none of this is new to you, Nate, because I know that’s how you think, you operate, and you teach the clients you work with, too.
NATE REGIER: Well, we certainly, I think have some shared philosophy here. And you’re speaking of about… There’s a great quote in your book from John Wooden and the quote says, “Make sure team members know they are working with you, not for you.” And I wonder if we could switch that and say, “Make sure as a leader, you know that you’re working with your team members, they’re not working for you.” Was he ahead of his time or is it something we’ve been all trying to approximate? Because this philosophy seems to be emerging as just more and more and more important around engagement. Is there anything more you want to share about this idea of working with our people and how that drives engagement?
MEREDITH BELL: I think this whole area of… And I love that distinction between with and for. Because I think it goes back to, “What is our attitude? What is our mindset about the people on my team, about the folks I need to interact with?” And my role, if I see my role as needing to bring out their best and support them, then I’m… Think of it figuratively, as I’m sitting on the same side of the table with them as opposed to across from them. So I’m learning, I’m asking, not telling.
And I think another key piece of that doesn’t mean I’m a soft leader, it means I’m looking to get agreements with people. We still want to hold folks accountable, and make sure they feel responsible for what they’re supposed to do. But there’s a big difference in how it feels when someone is saying, “You must do this,” versus, “Okay, we need your report by this date. Can you do that? What could get in the way that you might need my support with?” So the person feels like, again, you’re with them not antagonistic. And that is a huge difference. The pressure someone feels that that motivates them to do their best is very different than the pressure they feel when they sense someone is pushing down on them.
NATE REGIER: Too… I love your visuals. You said, “Imagine we’re sitting on the same side of the table, not across.” And when you said that, I’m imagining the opposite sides come in with the legal team. And you’re on one side of the table, they’re on the other side. And the whole purpose is adversarial to start with. And then you said… I don’t know if you meant this turn of phrase, but you said, “The idea is to get agreements with people, not to get it from them.” And we’re not extracting compliance, we’re partnering.
MEREDITH BELL: Yes.
NATE REGIER: And I think that’s really significant, what you said. And maybe a tip for leaders, is actually sit on the same side of the table, literally. Come out from behind your desk, be with people. But thank you for those just practical, simple metaphors. Wonderful. [inaudible 00:19:11] you’re talking about conflict here, is we come together to get agreements. Sometimes, it’s because we don’t see things the same way or there’s a gap in behavior. And as leaders, we’re trying to move people towards a common direction. We’re trying to get things done. You know I’m a big fan of conflict, I love it. I think it’s amazing. I’m curious, what’s your view of how conflict works with leaders and what role it should play?
MEREDITH BELL: Well, your book is phenomenal on that. I’ll maybe just add a few things. One, is the way we view conflict. If we can see it as it’s a natural way of… That it’s a natural part of working with someone else, because no two people are ever going to agree on everything. And so if we think of conflict in a neutral way… And again, I liked your word antagonistic. If we don’t think of it as, “Uh-oh, it’s me against them, I got to win here.” And simply see, “They have a difference of opinion.” And so I think of two words that both start with C that’ll be easy for people to remember in this whole area, is curiosity and creativity. So curious, meaning I want to learn more about this person’s opinion and their need… What they’re expressing here as they want, what’s the need behind that?
So I keep asking questions. I’m curious not to judge, defend, argue, but to understand. And once I understand what they want, to be able to express what’s behind my want. What’s driving my need? And from there, we agree to use creativity to come up with solutions that will help it work for both of us. So it’s not, “I’m going to give a little bit here and you give a little bit there.” Let’s kind of break out of what we both said we wanted to expand that and think about, “What are some other options that we haven’t even considered yet that might be really very acceptable to both of us?” So I think those are two key things that help prevent us from getting our egos wrapped up in being right and winning.
NATE REGIER: Oh, man. So important. That curiosity, truly being interested in the other person. It seems as human beings, we all want to be heard. We want to be seen and we want people to be interested in us. And it’s such a good feeling if we could lend that same respect to other people, it’s amazing the creativity we can have. In your book, you identify 10 communication skills. And I know we’ve kind of touched on some and you’re alluding to some, and we can’t cover all of them. But I’m curious if there are a couple that you’d be willing to highlight that are just really important in these days.
MEREDITH BELL: Yes. Yes. I think especially for these days, because of what we’re dealing with. Well, the number one skill of listening is really foundational and people hear a lot about that. I want to touch on too, though that I don’t think get as much attention. And one, is expressing appreciation and sometimes, leaders are reluctant to give compliments or give this kind of positive feedback to other people. They’re afraid it’ll go to their head or, “We pay them to do their job. Why should I point out when they do it well?” And yet, they underestimate the value this can have on them and the other person. And this is the element of expressing appreciation I want to emphasize. The word appreciate in itself, one of the meanings of it, is to increase in value. And so imagine what would happen if before you were going to have a conversation with someone that maybe you’ve had a history of butting heads with them, or there’ve been contentious conversations in the past.
If before you had the next conversation with them, you took time to write out a list of things, it might be five, it might be a dozen, things that you do value and appreciate about that person. Then, the effect that that has, is it gives you balance and focus. Because in your mind now, you have elevated that person, you have appreciated them because of the way you have forced yourself to focus on, “What is it about working with them or living with them that I enjoy?” And so when that person comes into the room let’s say, where you’re having a conversation or gets on a call with you, that’s the mindset you’re bringing. And you don’t have to say any of those things you wrote down, but the presence you bring conveys to them, “You’re important. You matter.” And in the course of the conversation, what happens, is they feel that appreciation. And the really long-term benefit, is they increase their value in their own mind.
This is so powerful. We underestimate the power of transformation that we can help someone else undergo, simply by affirming these positive things that we see in them. And so I’m not talking about saying things like, “Oh, you’re the best.” Or, “You’re the greatest.” But being specific about something they’ve done that has been valuable for you because then, they know, “Oh.” Whether they’re consciously thinking of it or not, they’re absorbing this as information that guides their future behavior. And so why not make it a positive instead of saying, “Don’t you ever do that again.” Or anything negative like that that instills fear. If we help them gain in confidence and value, they’re going to be a higher performer for us. It’s a very practical approach, in addition to being focused on really connecting with another human being.
NATE REGIER: Folks, profound stuff. Profound truths from Meredith Bell. I can’t overemphasize how powerful this is, at least for me. This idea of appreciate means to increase in value. And it’s about a mindset. You’re talking about as leaders, we need to get into the right mindset about our people and appreciating them the work we do behind the scenes, inside ourselves, to see them as valuable has huge impact. It impacts how we treat them, impacts how they think about themselves, and then how they act. And so often, it seems like leaders want to depreciate people so that they feel more valuable and more powerful. And that somehow, it’s threatening to see someone as more valuable or as increasing in value. And yet, it’s the thing that drives so much engagement and performance. That’s just so powerful. Thank you.
MEREDITH BELL: Well, I have a related other skill on accepting feedback graciously. Because so often, we do the opposite. We get defensive, we want to justify, defend, and explain. And both of these, the expressing appreciation and accepting feedback. Nate, to me, there’s a common thread between the two and that is, we often don’t do them well for fear of looking badly or being less respected. And yet, if we do these well, the respect get increases dramatically. And so when we talk about accepting feedback graciously, first of all, initiating requests from people is even better than waiting for them to drum up the courage. Because if somebody comes to you with feedback, typically they were rehearsing this in their heads. And so if we can imagine what it’s been like for them, what courage it took for them to come to us to start with, then that again, helps us receive it without that defensiveness. Because if we start explaining it or justifying it, it shuts down and invalidates what they’re saying.
So if we can simply listen, if they say, “I want to talk to you about something.” Go, “Tell me. Give it to me.” And then we receive it and we are humble. And if we really have said or done something wrong, to be willing to apologize. Again, we sometimes hesitate thinking that we’ll look less powerful when in fact, their respect for us will be elevated. Because they know we screwed up and if we own it, that helps the relationship. So owning it and asking… Oh, and thanking them, too. Just saying “I appreciate you’re bringing this to me. Then, that gives them permission to come back another time because we all have blind spots.
And then to ask them, “What can I do to make this right?” Or, “What would you like to see me do in a similar situation in the future?” So that you get a clear picture of what is they really need from you, and committing to do that, and giving them permission to call you on it, if you don’t. So it’s again, reaching an agreement and asking for accountability. It again, puts you on the same side of the table with them, as opposed to confronting or causing somebody to regret that they ever brought this up.
NATE REGIER: Wonderful leadership wisdom for Meredith Bell. Contained in her work and also in two books, Connect With Your Team and Peer Coaching Made Simple. And we’ve just been talking about a couple of the 10 communication skills that you share in your book. Listening, of course we know is important. But you mentioned maybe two really critical ones, are expressing appreciation and accepting feedback graciously. Wonderful. And you can see about all 10 of those by reading the book. I want to bring up something that’s current in the press right now. We’re here at the end, we’re recording this at the end of 2021. A big analytics and leadership company, DDI just released their global leadership forecast. Where they do a real comprehensive study of kind of what’s going on with leadership, and what leaders are thinking. The big story this year, is burnout.
All-time high leaders are struggling and particularly, next generation up and coming high potential leaders. A large proportion of those leaders, those high performers, when they are experiencing burnout, are looking for another job. And I’m curious if you have identified any key leadership behaviors that can help reduce burnout and prevent this mass exodus, this big resignation everybody’s worried about.
MEREDITH BELL: Yeah. Well, it ties back somewhat, Nate to things we’ve been talking about. I think a huge one is asking questions just to find out. Sometimes, we’re afraid of the answers we’re going to get. But if we don’t ask, then we are left to make assumptions, draw conclusions that may or may not be accurate. So to ask someone, “How are you doing? What’s getting in your way of giving your best? What are you struggling with? What do you need help with?” So that we understand a person’s situation, and they feel that.
Because a lot of times, people feel this stress and pressure because they have built up in their mind what’s expected of them at work. And it may or may not even be accurate. So we’ve got people, the boss, and the employee both making assumptions about what the other is thinking and expecting. And we don’t have this conversation. And so I think just taking time to sit and have a conversation, other ways to ask the questions, “What would it take for the work situation to feel less stressful for you? What can I do to support you?”
NATE REGIER: Well, there are trends and there are data points, but no human being is a trend and no human being is the average. And so I’m hearing your message loud and clear here, is have conversations, ask people, listen to what’s going on, align expectations, and realize that each human being is going through their unique experience of right now. Really helpful. Meredith, we could… Oh, man. I could go down so many tangents and I just can’t wait to have another conversation with you. But we do have to wrap it up because they say these days, everybody walks in the treadmill for about 30 minutes or listens to these podcasts. But before we wrap up, I’m just curious are there any emerging trends or new things that you’re seeing that you want to highlight? Or anything kind of that you really have on your heart now that you want to put out there?
MEREDITH BELL: One of the things that’s painful to watch, Nate is just the way people interact with each other. What we’re seeing in public with the way people talk to each other, treat each other out of pain, really. And I think that for me, one of the key things that I would love to see happen, is people recognizing every person in this world. Whether we feel close to them or not, whatever we see them in. They’re on their own journey, they’re doing the best they can with what they have. And so to tie back into one of your favorite words and the theme of your podcast, showing more compassion for others.
I think that that is going to become more and more important as we seek to heal the divisions that have been taking place in our culture, in families, across families. There’s just a lot of division on many different levels, and I think the willingness to hear are people out and to really care about them. And your definition is the best I’ve ever heard, to struggle with. Be willing to struggle with someone else as we try to understand their pain, what they need from us to enhance a relationship rather than tear it down and destroy it.
NATE REGIER: What a great message to end on. And this is not just a wish for our world, but this is the message that is between the lines of everything that you write about and everything that you do. So again, if you’re interested in becoming a more compassionate leader, a better coach, the kind of a leader that can engage people today, these days, pay attention to what Meredith’s doing and writing about. How can people get ahold of you? If they want to learn more about your books or your work, what’s the best way to connect with you?
MEREDITH BELL: Well, our website is growstrongleaders.com and our books are there, information about our software tools is there, I’ve got a big button that says, “Schedule a call with Meredith.” There. So people can certainly connect with me there. I’m also on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter.
NATE REGIER: Fantastic. We will have all those links in the show notes so you can click on them directly from when the podcast goes live. So thank you again Meredith, for making time today, for sharing your wisdom, for the wonderful work that you’re doing, and just for who you are as a person. Thank you so much.
MEREDITH BELL: Thank you, Nate.
NATE REGIER: Here are my three key takeaways from this wonderful conversation with Meredith Bell. I was really struck by her definition of appreciation, meaning to add value. Of course. And she talked about how leaders really need to get their mindsets right and consider all of the things they appreciate about their people, so that the value of that person goes up in their mind. And this carries over in the conversations they have, it carries over in the things that they notice, and it’s infectious. People who are appreciated value themselves more, do better work, and are more engaged.
The second key takeaway is that leaders should be getting agreements with people, not from them. Leadership is not about gaining compliance or any kind of an adversarial thing, it’s really about saying, “How do we work together and walk alongside to accomplish our goals?” Again, that’s so consistent with my definition of compassion, meaning to struggle with people. And then finally, she talked about how relatable leaders are much more effective than the guru who has all the answers. In fact, trying to be a guru puts way too much pressure on both yourself and the people that you lead. So be a relatable leader who is curious, open to learning, willing to admit their mistakes, and walks alongside people.
VOICEOVER: I hope you enjoyed this episode of On Compassion with Dr. Nate. If you found new hope or guidance for your life, will you share it with your tribe? If you know someone who could be a great guest, please let us know. Are you ready for a practical way to bring more compassion to your organization? We have a solution visit www.thecompassionmindset.com, check out the show notes for links and contact information. And remember to subscribe, rate, and give a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening. Until next time, keep your compassion mindset engaged.