What if there were an easy way to change your business team, change your relationships and improve your world? And what if that way was on the tip of your tongue?
Bestselling author and leadership expert Krister Ungerböck understands that language can create confusion and misunderstanding. But it also can build bridges, increase understanding and elevate the quality of all our relationships.
The secret is to shift the way we talk to others.
Ungerböck is author of The Wall Street Journal No. 1 bestselling book 22 Talk SHIFTs: Tools to Transform Leadership in Business, in Partnership and in Life. Before he wrote the book, he was CEO of a $200 million global event management software company. But he left the corporate life at the age of 42 and embarked on a journey to become an expert in leadership and in language. As he learned more about leadership, he realized he had failed the people who worked for him when he was a CEO. In his quest for business growth and leadership success, he neglected his relationships with those who helped build his company.
He eventually learned the secrets of universal communication that uses emotional intelligence to drive connection, growth and performance. His book reveals ways that people can use language to communicate more authentically and improve their listening skills. And the lessons he teaches apply equally to the business world and the family environment.
Ungerböck travels the world, speaking about the lessons of effective communication, often illustrating his talks with stories of his own successes and failures. In this interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, Ungerböck discusses what inspired his book and how you can be an inspiration to others on your team.
PAUL FELDMAN: Can you tell our readers about your career and how it helped you write the book 22 Talk SHIFTs: Tools to Transform Leadership in Business, in Partnership and in Life?
KRISTER UNGERBÖCK: Two elements of my career helped me write the book. One was running a successful software company that ultimately was valued at more than $200 million. The other was opening businesses in multiple countries and doing business outside the U.S. and in other languages.
From a business side, Talk SHIFT helped me to have a multicultural understanding of different business cultures, how language plays into that, and some of the differences between language and words across cultures.
When I left the business world, I surrounded myself with all the things and all the places that I wouldn’t have looked to find secrets back when I was a CEO. I looked for all the things that were more touchy-feely. I looked at the marriage counseling world in the new age; I looked at the spiritual world.
My intention was always to keep my CEO hat on, and find out how can I translate some of those tools from those worlds into language that could be used in a business context. And that was how I formed Talk SHIFT.
I took things from the business world and applied them to relationships and parenting, and I took things from the relationship and parenting roles and applied them to business.
FELDMAN: What is Talk SHIFT?
UNGERBÖCK: Talk SHIFT is a simple fill-in-the-blank phrase or question that can shift someone’s perspective and shift the course of a conversation. I was an engineer, and I started programming when I was 12. I always wanted to write a book, and I wanted to write simple things where as soon as you read one chapter, you could say, “I could use that tomorrow.”
Just use this phrase. Boil it down. Simple, actionable tips.
FELDMAN: Your book is a leadership book, but it pertains to all realms of life.
UNGERBÖCK: I started out to write a business book. I think the original title was going to be something like “Seeking CEO Secrets.” I admit I didn’t have a lot of passion around writing purely about leadership, but I was really interested in writing about leadership in the context of business. And I was more excited about how to write a leadership book that could work equally well in the context of leadership of a team and leadership in any relationship.
That was a much more interesting challenge for me. It ultimately was also something that benefited me personally, because I had read plenty of leadership books.
FELDMAN: I took the Talk SHIFT assessment from the book, and it was eye-opening. It was something that made me realize that as a leader, we say a lot of things that are not helpful.
UNGERBÖCK: When we started collecting data on this assessment, we found 90% of the people who took it were average or below. So we changed the scale for people who are doing the assessment online and showed people how they scored compared with their peers. And we found there are some powerful communicators out there.
FELDMAN: You speak three languages but one of the parts of Talk SHIFT I liked was where you wrote about doing a presentation in French when you were just learning the language, and how learning a different language gave you a different perspective on something called "modal verbs." Can you explain modal verbs and what words to use instead of them?
UNGERBÖCK: “Should,” “could,” “would” — these all are modal verbs. There’s a certain tense called the subjunctive. Anyone who has learned French will tell you their French teacher says you don’t need to learn that because it’s really a nuanced thing. This subjunctive tense is used when you’re making a recommendation or a judgment about something. So when we translate it into English, it sounds like “you should do this” or “you wouldn’t do this” or whatever.
Even though this foreign language informed a lot of my book, I didn’t learn these things when I moved back here from Europe in 2007. Because language is such a habit, I never thought to apply some of these lessons to my native language, English. It wasn’t until I started writing the book book, and experiencing the events that led me to write the book, that I started thinking in my language.
For example, instead of saying, “You shouldn’t do this,” or “You must do this,” just drop the “You should.” Instead of saying, “You should come to work early,” just say, “Come to work early.” Now you can make a command by dropping the “you should” or if you want to soften it, you can say, “Please come to work early.”
Or instead of saying, “You should get the project done on time,” turn it around into a question and say, “Would you consider getting the project done on time?” Depending on the context of the situation, asking a question may be more appropriate.
FELDMAN: Where do you see Talk SHIFT making a difference in sales?
UNGERBÖCK: I think it can be more around questioning someone instead of telling someone.
Ask them, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you to solving this problem?” Mostly because it diffuses. If I ask, “Are you ready to solve this problem? Are you ready to buy?” If someone subconsciously answers no in their head, they may not tell me that; they may say yes instead.
Here’s an example I use in the book. I could say, “Do you think our communication is good? Or say, “Do you think you’re going to buy my product? Are we going to solve this problem in the next six months?”
Similarly, we as leaders might say, “Do you think I’m a good boss?” Or we might ask our spouse, “Do you think we have a good marriage?”
And having a yes/no question like that is where someone’s probably not going to say anything other than yes. But what happens when they say no in their head, when you kind of solidified the no for them? Because no may not be a socially acceptable answer in that situation, maybe they feel pressured to say yes.
“Am I a good boss?” “Do we have good communication and a good relationship?” “Do you want to solve this problem?” Flip that and say, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you to solving this problem?” “On a scale of 1 to 10, how good is our communication?” And ultimately, asking, “How good is our communication?" is a great proxy for asking how good your relationship is with someone without asking them how good your relationship is. Because if your communication is bad, your relationship is bad.
In some cases, I recommend exaggerating the scale. So I’m asking, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how committed are you to solving this problem? With 10 being like there’s nothing more important than this problem and it needs to be solved tomorrow, and 1 being it’s not important at all.” And then let’s say the answer is a 7 or a 6. So we say, “What can we start doing or stop doing to go from a 6 to a 9 or a 10?” to physically move it up the scale. Now we start to help people identify their own path of step-setting in a sales environment.
Instead of saying “What can we start or stop doing to make a difference between a 6 and a 9?” how about saying “How committed are you to solving this problem?” What are the obstacles that are the difference between a 6 and a 9?”
I think in a sales context, where a lot of Talk SHIFT applies, if people can come up with their own solutions to problems, then they are more committed to making those solutions happen. So we can ask them the questions that move them to conclude that our solution is best, or that we need to take action more quickly than they would have done otherwise.
FELDMAN: What about asking leading questions?
UNGERBÖCK: The leading question is usually one where you’re leading someone to the answer. They are almost always yes/no questions. But they’re usually solutions disguised as questions such as, “Do you think that reducing your employee turnover would help you with this problem?” “Do you think that buying this software would help you to reduce your turnover?”
Those are leading questions. And people see through them fairly quickly.
FELDMAN: How does the English language get in the way of communicating?
UNGERBÖCK: Here’s an interesting thing: If you look up the word “to feel” in French, the word is “sentir.” And if you looked up “to think,” in a French thesaurus, you would not see the word “penser,” which is “to think” as a synonym for the word “feel.” But if you look up “feel” and “think” in an English thesaurus, they are synonyms.
So often, what happens is, I’ll say something like, “I feel.” “I feel like you were trying to hurt me” or “I feel like you betrayed me” or “I feel like I was run over by a bus.” And whenever I say, “I feel that” or “I feel like,” the words follow our emotions.
I started using the words “I feel” more frequently, and I thought I was talking about my emotions. But I was always saying, “I feel like,” “I feel that,” and I really was just talking about thoughts. Those thoughts typically don’t create more connection.
The antidote is to say, “I feel,” and then have the next word always be an emotion. For example: “I feel sad,” “I feel angry,” “I feel afraid,” “I feel hurt,” “I feel guilty,” “I feel embarrassed.” When we start conversations this way, now it creates a different conversation. If I start with thoughts disguised as feelings, those thoughts often can be judgments.
I think that, in a business context, the most common emotion that many leaders experience is anger. There’s kind of a subtle thing that happens if a boss or a leader says to someone who works for them, “I am angry” or “I feel angry.” That typically puts the other person into a state of fear. And when we’re in a state of fear, neuroscience tells us that the part of our brain responsible for problem-solving shuts down.
Let’s say somebody is doing a poor job on a project or they turn a project in late, and I say, “I’m angry with you.” What I’m doing as a leader is putting the other person in a mental state where they’re less likely to be able to solve the problem that caused me to be angry in the first place.
But I can have a different conversation. I can say, “I’m scared about what’s going to happen if we don’t get that project on time. I don’t know what that will mean for bonuses. I don’t know what that will mean for our customer service,” or whatever it may be. Now that’s a different conversation.
Even if I said, “I am embarrassed because the project was late,” if you and I have a good relationship and you respect me as a boss, and you want me to be successful and you believe I’m looking out for you, then you probably don’t want me to be embarrassed, right? Now, if you do want me to be embarrassed, then that’s a whole separate conversation and we have a broken relationship.
But assuming we have a reasonably good working relationship, having a conversation about the emotions behind the words is a much more productive approach, and you have some tricks to quell your fear.
FELDMAN: If you tell someone you’re angry, how do you make that more than just a command or a statement to someone?
UNGERBÖCK: It’s really about psychology. Many psychologists say anger is not a primary emotion; it is a core emotion. So there’s a subtle nuance in language there.
But anger is a secondary emotion, meaning that another primary emotion is always behind our anger. And those emotions are sadness, hurt, guilt and shame. “Embarrassment” is another word for “shame” or “fear.”
Whenever we feel anger, we can ask ourselves, “What’s the emotion?” What emotion am I experiencing beneath my anger? I always try to make it a multiple-choice question: sadness, fear, shame, embarrassment, anxiety, guilt or hurt. The reason I do it as a multiple-choice question is that when people first started asking me about this, I wasn’t able to pick any of those emotions, because I was so out of touch with my emotions. But I may have felt “sadness,” but I wouldn’t use the word “sadness.” So I would pick a word that’s closer to what I feel and ask, “What’s a synonym for that?” Maybe “fear” is a word that’s closer to what I feel.
But I might be afraid to say the word “fear,” so I would say I feel “anxiety” or “stress” because those are more corporate-accepted words. Because when I asked business leaders and executives what emotions they were experiencing, they would say, “I was frustrated.” That’s just a synonym for “anger.” So I would ask, “What’s another word like that?” and they would say, “I was disappointed.” Well, that’s just another synonym for “anger.”
So when we kind of get beyond those initial responses, sometimes even the word “stressed” can be a synonym for anger.
FELDMAN: In sales, we must listen more than we speak, and we must ask really good questions. You say we must listen for needs. Can you explain?
UNGERBÖCK: If you’ve ever seen that person who talks too much in meetings, or if a salesperson is doing more of the talking within a sales context, it’s often illustrative of a deeper need within themselves, or even a fear that they’re going to lose the deal, right? The more we’re afraid we’re going to lose the deal, the more we start talking, and then people can feel it.
But in a broader context, listening for needs can be a great way to reframe, and to shift and change our perspective.
So let’s say someone is talking about their accomplishments. And then we ask, why does someone feel the need to talk about their accomplishments? Maybe it’s because they have some insecurity within themselves that they’re trying to overcome; that’s why they’re talking about their accomplishments. Maybe it’s because they don’t have anyone else who’s giving them positive feedback about their accomplishments.
But sometimes if we reframe those annoying behaviors to understand what need they could be feeling, we can start to get an insight and develop more compassion for someone’s behavior, instead of thinking we don’t like that person.
FELDMAN: I really liked the part in your book where you give the three secret words to inspire followers: “Do something inspiring.” Tell us more about it.
UNGERBÖCK: I used to read a lot of motivational books and study ways I can motivate people with inspiring speeches. And when I give speeches, it’s my hope that I do inspire people. But inspiring an employee on a day-to-day basis is another thing.
There’s a story in the book about one of my closest friends. He has multiple sclerosis, but he ran a 140-mile ultramarathon three years after he was diagnosed. Following him and seeing the roller coaster of emotions that he went through and the grit that was required to do that inspired me. So I ran a half-marathon and I finished it, but I walked most of the way. But I’m more proud of that than I am of any business accomplishment I ever had.
It wasn’t until I left my business that I realized I was fortunate to attract some really capable people, and we had employee engagement rate levels of 99.3%. But I also realized that people followed me because of my vision to build a billion-dollar company.
If you go to somebody who’s a go-getter executive and say, “My vision is to build a billion-dollar company, and I can show you I’ve been on track to do that,” that’s pretty inspiring. However, there are only one or two people in any organization who can talk about the organization’s vision and use that as a tool to inspire people.
People didn’t want to follow me as an individual; they wanted to follow the vision. I realized that being someone who others want to follow, along with having a vision, is a powerful combination.
FELDMAN: In your book, you say criticism is lazy leadership. How can an entrepreneur or business owner do better when it comes to criticism?
UNGERBÖCK: If there were one thing that I regret the most, it’s that I led with criticism. I always felt my job was like, if someone got a 99% on a test, my job was to tell them about the 1% they got wrong.
When I was a CEO, one of our people really worked hard on a project. He spent two or three weeks on it and worked late hours, and he did a good job. And all I told him about was the two or three things that I didn’t like. He was totally deflated. He was like, “What’s the point of working 50, 60 hours a week if the only thing I’m going to hear about is what’s wrong?” And he actually knew about these two or three problems anyway, so I was telling him what he already knew.
What I learned is that I didn’t know the language for giving people positive feedback. Now I find myself much more frequently saying, “I just want to acknowledge that you worked hard,” or “I want to acknowledge the changes that I’ve seen,” and then separating any negative feedback, addressing it in a separate conversation that can be an hour later, or it can be the next day.
But I also had someone bring me a report they had been working on for a while. I was really busy that day and didn’t get a chance to read it. So we met later to review it, and I asked, “What are the three biggest things that you think need to be improved?” And the person said, “It’s this, this and this.” I said, “Why don’t you work on those three things, and then let’s meet next week?”
I went from what would have been an hourlong meeting that would have walked them through those same three things they already knew, and cut it to a 60-
FELDMAN: How do we Talk SHIFT?
UNGERBÖCK: When I started thinking about the way we talk, I began to think about how anger is such a powerful emotion. Listening for needs is important, but if someone is angry with me, there are ways to reframe our own thinking by asking the same questions of ourselves.
I did a weeklong intensive French class, and I asked my teacher how you learn French quickly. And his answer was to practice it everywhere you go.
It’s the same with Talk SHIFT. You can pick up some of the Talk SHIFTs and practice them with the people around you.
When you ask people what’s the most important thing in their lives and they say it’s their marriage or their children, or when you ask them what their biggest problem is and they say it’s their teenagers, these are places they can practice Talk SHIFTs.
Then what happens is that it kind of rubs off, and you end up using it at work as well.
I’ve had 75-year-old grandmothers tell me they are experiencing Talk SHIFT with their children who are in their 40s and having challenges in their relationships. And for me, that is being able to have a tool that people can use equally to transform their communication, their broader family and the culture.
VOCABULARY OF NEEDS
When speaking of needs, It’s important that we have a clear vocabulary of psychological needs. Below is the list of core needs.
• Someone’s need for CONNECTION may be expressed using the words acceptance, appreciation, belonging, friendship, love, trust, respect, security, stability, support, to understand, or to be understood.
• Someone’s need for AUTONOMY may be expressed using the words freedom, independence, space, or spontaneity.
• Someone’s need for HONESTY may be expressed using the words authenticity or integrity.
• Someone’s need for PLAY may be expressed using the words fun or humor.
• Someone’s need for PEACE may be expressed using the words ease, equality, harmony, inspiration, or order.
• Someone’s need for MEANING may be expressed using the words awareness, challenge, competence, contribution, creativity, growth, or hope.
• Someone’s need for PHYSICAL WELL-BEING may be expressed using the words food. sleep, shelter, sexual expression, safety, or touch.