Podcast Episode 123: Hilary Blair, CEO Articulate Real and Clear | The Shifts In Conversation

Hilary Blair, CEO Articulate Real and Clear | The Shifts In Conversation

Bob Phibbs interviewed Hilary Blair, CEO Articulate Real And Clear on how to prevent misunderstandings with subordinates, how breath and consonants make a big difference when talking with younger co-workers and much more. 

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Tell me something good about retail

Hilary Blair, CEO Articulate Real and Clear: The Shifts In Conversation


Three takeaways:

• Be aware of the shifts in conversations.

 Communication is much more than words.

 Create habits to succeed, not to sabotage ourselves


Hilary: I am Hilary Blair and I run a company that uses the skills of the performer with all kinds of people in business to enhance their communication skills. So what they think they are trying to communicate lands on the listener as what they actually were trying to communicate.

Bob: Well, wait a minute. If I'm talking to someone doesn't that mean they understand me?

Hilary: Have you not lived life? Oh, if only, if only... That would be fantastic.

Bob: Hilary is just a great soul. She is so energetic and so fun, and we got to know each other only about six months ago. And you were sharing how you had started out at a little company out in Massachusetts, somehow a little local store or restaurant, right? What was that?

Hilary: Yes. I started out working like everybody does when you grew up in a resort town, with all the different businesses, and I started with The Black Dog. The Black Dog started on Martha's Vineyard.

Bob: Along with the cool logo.

Hilary: I'm a townie from Martha's Vineyard. Yeah, with the cool... Totally, with the dog. And I started out in the bakery, and in the bakery, we had T-shirts. You know, it's always good to say now the T-shirts are these crazy massive business with catalogs and stores everywhere. And going back to when I was a kid, I'm behind the counter. You come in. You're the annoying summer person, and I'm like, "Uh-huh." Right because I roll my eyes because I'm a townie and you want a T-shirt. And I haul a chair over, and I step on the chair because I'm not very tall, and I reach up to this cupboard that's too high. I unlock it. I open it and I show you two different designs of T-shirts. One with the Black Dog, and one with this boat on it. And I go, you know, "Do you want one of these?" And I go, "These are the colors we have and these are the sizes. This is it." Like, it's two little stacks of T-shirts. No one believes me when they hear that, right, because now it's this crazy business, and that Black Dog logo is on everything. Yeah. Yep.

Bob: Well, did you ever think that you would be looking at communication skills when you were begrudgingly pulling out a T-shirt for these summer people?

Hilary: No. No. And I think I thought that was part of the charm, right, to be the townie who like rolls her eyes, like, it comes with the territory, right? Yeah. I was a taxi driver too. When I was a taxi driver on the island, I tried out different personalities to see who got tipped better.

Bob: And who gets the worst?

Hilary: The worst was the eager nerdy person that I am at heart and the person who got better tips was...had a little bit attitude was the townie with a little bit attitude.

Bob: Wow.

Hilary: I don't know. Maybe they're hoping I would get off the island if they gave me more money. I don't know what happened there.

Bob: Well, so maybe that's what I should be telling people in the restaurant business that you're way too welcoming.

Hilary: Well, I think maybe I was a little intrusive is what I'm thinking.

Bob: You?

Hilary: I know, right? Shocking. So I think when I was that really eager, "Hey, what's up?" I think it was too much, and so it's that middle of the road where you're polite but give them...I mean, they're on vacation, right? Give them some space.

Bob: When I made my name, my first client was in Newport Beach, California and a little hotel about 24 rooms. I remember this one guy, he came in and he came marching down the stairs. You could hear him, he's on the 3rd floor. He came marching down the stairs. You could just hear this pop, pop, pop, pop. After he checked in, he goes, "This room was supposed to have two rooms and it only has one bedroom." And the employee is just kind of thinking like, "Okay. How do I say this?" And he's looking to me and I'm kind of like, "Okay." I go, "You know, you just came in from Phoenix, and that's a long..." What is that, six hours? "Eight hours with my kids?" He's like, "Eight-hour drive." "Okay. And you probably just walked in and opened the door, right, to the left." He goes, "Yes." And I go, "I don't really know how to say this in an easy way but if you would just shut that door you would've seen the other door into the other bedroom. And I'm sorry but that's kind of it." And he like didn't say anything, embarrassed, and goes up, comes down like an hour later. "I'm so embarrassed dude." It's like, "It's perfectly all right. You are on vacation. You don't have to be rational. I'm good with that, right? I'm good with that."

Hilary: Right.

Bob: Well, I love speaking about your background because you have been a performer. You are a performer. You're a professional speaker. You're a professional speech coach, a trainer, and we have an awful lot of overlap. And what I particularly like, I think about both of us is, how do I get people to open their hearts to another human being in a world that pretty much says, you know, "People don't want to be talked to, and I want to hold all my cards close to my chest." And, you know, what do you think? Does that sound about right? I mean, is that the world we work in?

Hilary: Yes, and I'm gonna to say a weird thing. I'm gonna say the way you get people to open their hearts, and their wallets, and their needs is...this is gonna be weird, through voice, is through the vowels and your breath. I've been a voiceover actor for a long time, and this isn't about being fake. I'm not talking about being fake. We don't want that. What I'm talking about is that our voice rests on our breath. Our breath is who we are, and our inspiration, and all of that. And when we cut off our breath, we are, "Playing it safe." We can't cut it off fully because our voice, you know, you have to have some breath to make sound, but the tighter our breath, the less we're sharing. I'm doing it now. My voice is shifting. It may not carry quite as well over this signal, but some, right? So it's tighter. I'm not sharing as much of me, and now I'm talking more inside my mouth.

Then when I let the breath flow, and I let the words float out, and I am sharing the breath out, I'm sharing more of me. And that breath is our vulnerability, and when there are...is more of a vowel sound being used in our speech there's more breath, and people can connect to us in a better way. So a quick little way that I use to explain this is the trick of what do we say to babies? We go, "Ooh-ooh, wu-wu-wu-wu," right, where it's all vowel energy, right?

But what do teenagers do? It's all consonants with very little vowel, and if they add a vowel to, you know, the old people around them, it has a little sarcasm like, "Ta," right. It has that energy. We don't think about our vowels and our consonants as much. It's not something that we talk about except when you're a voiceover actor or even a stage actor, right, or learning Shakespeare. As crazy as it is, my Shakespeare training helped me with my commercial work when I was a voiceover actor doing mostly commercials. It was incredible how much came through... How much of that training came through. And back to your original question, how do you connect? You connect by being vulnerable and the vulnerability shows up in our voice by having the breath flow.

Bob: Wow, that's amazing. And I really could hear the difference with that, Hilary. I really love that!  I was a choral director and the breath has always been where everything lies... how does it sit? And you take a breath in it's like that ... that comes in and fills up. But let's face it, when people are in retail a lot of times they're afraid that someone is going to hurt them or a customer is gonna say something. So it's kind of like eat before being eaten, isn't it? 

Hilary: Yes, yes, absolutely. And it's helpful to know like, okay, what happened? If we're aware enough to know that's what just shifted in my voice or that's what's just shifted in their voice. So it helps on both sides, right? Oh, their voice just shifted. Somehow I made them defensive. We may be picking up on it in other ways, but often the voice is the first place. And if they start closing up a little, talking about mirroring, right? People say we should mirror in order to connect with people, and yet who starts the mirror? So in retail, when we work with salespeople, because we work a lot with salespeople, not on teaching sales, believe me. That's not our area of expertise. What we're great at is activating the skills that you all already have, and so playing with the idea of if you open up your voice first then they can mirror that, right?

Let's put it in body language. As a teacher when I was early being trained, one of my great teachers with young kids would say, "Open up your body and then they'll follow you." Not that if they're closed up, I should be closed up. If I open up then I start to see when they're opened up. I also wanna say that we have instincts to protect ourselves. Always, our bodies are doing things to keep us safe. So as leaders, as salespeople, as human beings moving through the world, we have to consciously decide, "Am I overriding what my body is suggesting to keep me safe?" So when you cut off your voice, when we cut off our nonverbals, whatever we do, right, it's because someone is being icky, scary, rude. And so we get to decide, "Okay. Yeah. Can I override? Is it cool for me to override and open up now or they're not good?" Yeah.

Bob: Well, let's unpack that. To your point the dinosaur brain is what told you, like, I can't trust this guy, or something is wrong, or this boss is gonna, you know, call me out, or something.

Hilary: Yes.

Bob: It's fascinating and so you're consciously... choosing what comes out of your mouth. The worst thing is that, there's this driverless car, body walking around not being driven, and whatever bumps into it says whatever it feels. So you're saying that the body understands something might be happening and you are saying, "Okay. I hear that but I have to override you?" Is that what you're saying?

Hilary: Or do I want to. So what we will say is, right, we create habits to succeed, not to sabotage ourselves. So if I cut off, if I start using a weird voice because I'm not feeling comfortable with this person who is in my store with me, right, they are there, they're being rude, then I get to say, "No. Actually, I don't... That is not worth the risk. That person is not worth me opening up." Or, you can say, "Oh, they're having a bad day. I bet I can open up. I get to choose to be vulnerable and meet them where they are, and help them have a better day and serve them that way." So we get a choice and we... So what I say is honor your habits. Your habits are trying to keep you safe. Do we go with what our instinct is doing or do we override it? And so it's a choice.

Bob: Well, my goal would always be to try to be that second person to try and make their life...because, right, we have no idea that somebody has probably got a kid that's in rehab, and the mom with Alzheimer's or a million of them, right?

Hilary: Totally.

Bob: All you're seeing is this 1% of a human being, right?

Hilary: Yes. So you get to go there, and it's a choice, right? So recognizing that your body will just say, "Oh, not kind person. This is not safe." "Beware, beware, beware." And you get to decide. I get it but they're having, as you just said, so many things may be going on. I'm gonna override that and remain open and vulnerable. So honoring, honoring our system, our body system for what it's trying to do for us. And then we're like, "No. We're gonna be that open person." Yeah.

Bob: I was just flashing on choirs I've had.  I studied with Rod Eichenberger who was really big at USC and taught us all about the way that the hands are what...you have no idea. Your choir looks...sounds like the way you look. And understanding the power of just your hands, and the way you approach the choir. So if you have your hands like really up by your...you wanna be quiet, but you bring your hands all the way up by the mouth, and you're doing it small, it's like you realize what you've done is constricted their vocal apparatus. But also you've pretty much disengaged the breathing apparatus. So when you heard a choir he would be like, "So what are you hearing? And is that master conductor?" He didn't say like, "No. You don't want that." It was more like, "Did that conductor choose that tone?" And I think that's what we're talking about, correct?

Hilary: Yes, absolutely. That's great. 

Bob: I also wanna speak with you quickly about a video you created recently. It was so powerful to me ... you talk about what happens when you kind of move up the ranks in an organization or even... Well, it's two ways. You move up the organization, and suddenly you have a position, and someone else who you've been buddies with doesn't. But you also talked about how there's this feeling certainly from entrepreneurs, or managers, or owners that we're equals, and so we kind of expect something. So could you just elaborate out without me stepping all over your words?

Hilary: This was a discovery on my own, and other people have mentioned it other ways. This is how it came to me. I was coaching a woman who was phenomenal. She had moved up the ranks, and she turned to me, and I mentioned to her, and I said, "You've got to be careful how you're mentioning that," to this person she was talking about. She was, "Oh, come on. She knows what I mean and we're just colleagues and everybody knows who I am." And I went, "Well, you have moved up and she has not, and your words are landing heavier than you realize that." And she went, "What?" And I go, "Remember from down below people look like they are higher up. When you get to the top you feel like you see it as a flat situation. Even organizations that are trying to be flat aren't fully, right? We can't really be as much as we try."

And she went, "Oh, I have to pay more attention to that." Fast forward to me being in my own business now, I co-own the business, I have a fabulous person who works for me, half my age. I realize when I'm speaking with her I'm thinking, "We're colleagues. We own it. We're running a small business." She's amazing at what she does. She's running the front desk. She's doing all kinds of important things. I'm talking to her like we are co-runners of an organization and we are moving things forward. She sees me as the boss, and older, and speaks really quickly, and all kinds of things, and can fire her if I want. I can't imagine what's going through her head.

So the example I use is if I say, "Hey, where's that email?" And I ask it thinking that we are on the same level playing field, that we are colleagues and, "Same status, same power," she's not hearing it that way. The visual I have is my words go out of my mouth, and I think she's at the same level as me. She's down below. So my words tumble out of my mouth, and as they head towards her they gain momentum and lands flat with far more power than I anticipated on her. We call it the Alex effect. Being completely unaware, thinking in our hearts that we're being good people, things are landing harshly on...without us meaning to.

Now, if my co-owner I say, "Where's that email?" To my co-owner, it does not have the same heavy landing at all. It's like, "Hey, where is that email?" Really simple. It comes with words. It comes with tone. We're so much about tone, and we're so much about words, and then we sometimes forget about the difference in our status, the difference in our power. And that is an element that no matter really how I shift my words and tone is gonna shift the fact that she's feeling that she's at a different level than me. It's not a bad thing. It's that I need to be aware and figure out, "Okay. Am I gonna ask a question?" Instead, it's a different tactic. It's not just a simple shift in words of tone. Does that make sense?

Bob: Well, I love that, and this whole idea of yours is the same thing I would agree to, which is all a choice. In the old days it would be like we just put up with it, right? You're just like you're my employee, "Do what I say. Damn it." And that's it. Well, with unemployment at 3% and more importantly with young people who have grown up in a different environment without putting this...you know, casting aspersions on them, we can shut them down without even knowing it. And the problem is that you have to have a certain amount of verbal skills, don't you Hilary, to be able to say that. To be able to say, "Hey, Hilary, that hurt." Because what I heard you say is, "Where the hell is the email?" Like, it was my fault to have it for you. I didn't know it was my fault. And you're like, "Well, but I didn't really say it." All I was like, "I can't find that email."

Hilary: Right. I think what's even the insult to injury and is it me as the boss, I'm trying to be buddy, buddy with you. So my attempt to treat you as an equal is even worse, right, because I'm like, "I treated you just like you were my buddy, my pal." It's having the opposite reaction, right? It's like, "Oh, my gosh." And I think that's where a lot... I mean we're always miscommunicating, right? If we weren't miscommunicating you and I wouldn't even have jobs.

Bob: Yes. Right.

Hilary: So we're working on this all the time, and this has been fascinating because heart in the right place, intention in the right place, everything seems to be right. How come they're hearing me incorrectly? And this was an explanation for these other factors that we don't even think about. And for me that momentum that it gathers speed and weight as it heads down was eye opening for me as now, you know, being a boss, and owning a business, and all of this, and being older, all these.

Bob: Hey, you're younger than me.

Hilary: Yes, that aspect. I mean, it would start to go the other way, right, where being older will have less impact. So I have to grab it while it matters.

Bob: Well, we're all trying to figure it out. I think that's the thing that is a little different in 2018, 2019 that we have this understanding that we are trying to figure out. It is a challenging time in no uncertain terms but, you know, somewhere 20 years from now people are going to be saying, "That was the good times." And we think like, "Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding?" I mean, I remember my mum talked about seeing people steal the gas out of their car during the Depression, and they had to dust it for prints to try to keep people away. I mean, there's a very different life we live than there, but the human aspect is what to me is the most interesting because I think it starts from being curious, isn't it? It's like, well, why did I say that? Or, what...isn't that kind of it? So what tips could you give our listeners today that might help them like, "Here's how you may not be..." Maybe you're a little clueless. Here's some way to tell, or when you get that inkling if you look at a couple of things. Anything you can add on that would be great.

Hilary: Yes. And I'm gonna reemphasize the word curious. I'd written it down and then you said that it was perfect. So, remaining curious instead of getting...because our first instinct will go to defense, without meaning to, we will often go, "I didn't mean that." We'll start there versus going, "Oh, how did that end up landing that way?" So being curious, being fascinated by the communication. So the tip that I often suggest to people is think about take-off and landing. And think about my intention is the take-off, and the landing is how you heard it, and asking questions about it, if you're seeing a reaction going, "Whoa. Whoa. I'm feeling like that didn't land as I anticipated. What did you hear me say?" Asking questions, being open to it, and recognizing that there are elements that we are not aware of that are impacting. We have tone. We have words. We have body language. Remembering that's not enough and to remember, "Do I have more power than this person? Are they giving me higher status?"

And then making sure that we are not what I call, the toothpaste problem, which is we are not pretending to be open, and we're not really. So we're squeezing it out and shooting out someplace you don't mean to, right? 

Bob: Implied, "You idiot."

Hilary: Yes, exactly. That's the implication, right? And what's really happening is I feel horrible, and I'm beating myself up. And we had some crazy things in the voiceover world that we were aware of if you were the engineer and you were recording me in the voiceover. In voiceover, you get three takes... I mean, who knows if it's there anymore because I still do voiceover, and now only for clients I've had forever. So the voiceover, if you have three takes, that's when...when you get to the fourth take now you're wasting people's money. So then you start beating yourself up. You get three takes to take the direction and move on. If we're onto the fourth, fifth take, inside we're like, "Oh, my gosh. I'm terrible. I'm wasting money. What's going on?"

What happens is if that goes into my body, if I'm thinking that inside it starts to ooze out in what I'm saying. And I don't know what kind of, you know, audience you have here, but in the recording booth, we call the flip off rate [SP]. So hang on. Let me tell you why. The reason was the engineer you hear me getting mad at you, and I'm only getting mad at myself. And when I get mad at myself you are hearing the anger, and assuming it's about you. So that what I'm saying is to be aware that the thoughts you're thinking, "Oh, my gosh. I can't believe I offended my employee. I don't want them to leave. I really need them to stay. Please don't get mad at me." All of that can start coming out in your tone. It can come out defensively.

Even though you're not thinking it's coming through in your body language, your words, you know, all that, it could be. So if I start to panic, and get mad at myself for having upset you, you may hear me as mad and upset, and you assume it's at you. So careful of the toothpaste ooze shooting out in ways you don't intend, and what we fondly called in the voiceover world the flip off rate.

Bob: I like that.

Hilary: I know. Careful. So, yeah. So recognizing we have to be transparent. We have to go, "Wow, I didn't mean it to land that way. What's going on?" Be curious, and be intentional.

Bob: And be aware because that's...

Hilary: Yeah, self-aware. That's what we call, we call it SCIFI, right? Self-aware, curious, and intentional for impact, SCIFI. Self-aware, curious, intentional. 

Bob: So we are in this kind of a weird time. You know, when you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or maybe you lost your focus temporarily, what do you do, or what questions do you ask yourself as a self-aware person?

Hilary: The first thing is that I state what's going on with me internally. I go, "Wow, I am feeling panic. My heart's racing. I'm feeling nervous." Like, I internally do a scan of myself and acknowledge to myself what's going on. Does that make sense, or is that's weird? And then, yes, so I know.

Bob: And then, so you know, like I really upset her. She's treating me badly even though...that's what it feels like even though all she did was ask for that email.

Hilary: Yes. And then I...we talk about...we train people in being transparent, removing the word because. So that would mean that, "Wow, I'm finding myself getting a little frustrated." Different than, "I'm finding myself getting a little frustrated because of what you said." The because, the minute you put the because, you're into a fight zone, right?

Bob: I just want to share. I just have to ask, because of you.

Hilary: Yes. Exactly. So what happens is if you speak the transparency... We put story on everything. That's human beings, right? That's how we're designed. We are putting story on things to see whether something is safe or not. So we can't stop doing that. What the transparency does is it helps them recognize that we get what's going on. So if I say, "I'm getting frustrated." I wanna make sure I'm clear about this. Then they go, "Oh, she is oozing icky energy at me. I'm not making that up." And then we move past the story versus going, "Well, what's going on?" And I have a story going on, "She's carrying it." If I pretend nothing is going on with me then we're out of alignment. We're not experiencing the same thing.

When we talk about transparency in communication, it's not about over-sharing. I don't need to tell you my life, and why, and where I am, and all that kind of thing. It is transparent about the fact that I understand that I am having this feeling, and it might be showing up to you a certain way. So transparency. First, you have to scan. You have to be self-aware enough and understand that being self-aware doesn't mean self-involved. It simply means aware. I mean, it's okay to be aware. Yeah.

Bob: And always realizing what your space and what you're doing in the universe is at that very moment without getting too esoteric. But I think it's certainly the thing that I don't think I ever saw dealt with in retail before and, you know, we kind of tell people like anyone who works in retail, it's like, "Not really." Because you've gotta be able to like people before they like you, and be able to... I like to think the best salespeople...the best teams that I work with are able to open their heart and realize the party is in the aisle. And it's like I have something to learn from this person versus I need to get rid of this person, and get your money or something like that. Does that make sense?

Hilary: Yes, totally. Well, I was working with a whole team of sales guys up in New York a couple months back, and we were on a little bit of a break. And one guy came over and he goes, "Can I ask you something?" I said, "Of course." He goes, "People tell me I'm fake because I sit in a doctor's office, and I communicate with each person in that waiting room differently." And I go, "Fake? That's the high skill of an excellent salesperson. You adjust your communication for each of those people and it's an instinct for you. Some people never adjust and they don't know how to communicate with people, and it's not fake at all. You're excellent at that." So for what I'm hearing you say there was, "Yeah. Being open and connecting to them." And I'm like, "Yeah." And the thing I don't think you even realize you may be doing, Bob, is you're slightly adjusting for every single person, because highly skilled salespeople have that inside... I don't wanna say barometer. I don't know what it is, right? That sense of... Yeah.

Bob: No, I would agree with that. I mean, to me the name of this podcast is, "Tell Me Something Good About Retail." And I honestly believe that, you know, most of the people who are higher functioning came through the crucible of retail and maybe moved on to something else, entrepreneurs or something else. But what they learned is that it really is about somebody other than me, and then held onto that curiosity. Which is what I think we're, you know, we're talking about here.

Hilary: Yes, absolutely, in that instinct. And I do think some of you don't realize that you have an amazing ability that somewhere along the line someone might have slammed it, right? That's common with high skills, and I think it's a great gift. Connected to that is someone saying, "Someone mocks me for the fact they can tell when I'm talking to my mother on the phone." And I said, "I should be able to tell you're talking to your mother on the phone. You should talk to your mother differently on the phone than you do to other people." That's a good thing. That's not a bad thing. And so for you to reclaim your ability to read a situation and connect with people is fabulous. That's a gift.

Bob: Well, that's exactly it. And you've been so generous with your time today, Hilary. I know you're out there in Colorado, and how can they find out more about you and your wonderful programs?

Hilary: I would love to connect with people through the website which we have as articulaterc.com. Articulate, and the RC stands for real and clear, right? Also, on LinkedIn, I'm a big fan of connecting with people on LinkedIn. We have an Articulate page and we also have mine, Hilary Blair, and I'm Hilary with one "L" in Colorado.

Bob: Wonderful. Well, you've been graceful with your time and I'll have those links in the podcast as well. So thanks again for sharing your time, and opening your heart to us today.

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