She has been working as a trainer and consultant in the field of human behavior for over twenty years. He compiles individual development programs for managers of companies such as Google, Mercedes Benz, BDO and Louis Vuitton. Often quoted Dutch communication expert Anne-Maartje Oud gave an interview to SZ Byznys as part of the Conference of Negotiators at Prague Castle.
Her specialty is also communication with complex and dangerous personalities. These include, for example, people with narcissistic disorder who always devalue others and overestimate themselves. A larger percentage of these people are said to be in the fields of law, politics and medicine.
However, not every boss is a despot or a narcissist. Many top managers still need to learn and improve their communication skills. The pandemic brought new challenges. One of the hardest things, she said, was when a boss had to fire someone online.
The pandemic has trapped people around the world at home, they had to learn to communicate differently, through online tools. How has it changed communication?
It was very difficult for humans, and they still suffer from it today, because communication was devoid of emotion, interpersonal and physical contact. As humans, we love to interact. Especially difficult were the situations when especially elderly people could not meet their family, or died alone in the hospital. In personal contact, we were stressed that we had to maintain a safety distance of 1.5 meters from others.
It was also more difficult from a business point of view, because in an online environment you don’t see the whole body language like in normal communication in a meeting room, where you can sometimes pick up different signals very quickly, for example when two people look at each other. I personally have never been so busy because people had to learn how to communicate effectively online, how to use body language better, not to slouch during a Skype or Zoom meeting, and also how to conduct meetings. People did not know how to interrupt others, how to engage, attract attention, how to say something quickly and effectively.
What type of virtual communication is the most difficult to master? For example, is an online meeting with an important client more demanding than regular meetings or internal meetings within the company?
I think the biggest challenge is to handle emotional meetings, for example when you as a boss are unhappy with the result of your team workers or you have to fire someone. Doing it in an online environment is really rough because you have distance, it’s cold and it’s a very uncomfortable situation. For example, you see someone crying, but you can’t react in the way you might have been used to. Saying “are you okay?” and leaning in will always have a better effect than just asking the person if they are okay.
What advice do you give me when I have to fire someone over Skype?
It is important to recognize the emotional aspect of the situation. Therefore, prioritize creating a comfortable environment and prepare not only what you will say, but also how you will deliver the message. Make sure the person can see and hear you. Also, be prepared for their reaction. Watch their body language. They may need to express their emotions or take some time to process the information. Your role is to support the person in question to handle and process the unpleasant information as best as possible. This will also be helped by empathic listening and showing genuine interest in the other person.
After covid, people partially returned to work. Have they lost their communication skills?
Returning to the normal world was difficult for everyone. We were under stress before, but suddenly the forced distance of 1.5 meters ended and groups of people learned to communicate with each other again at work. Some employees only had the first opportunity to meet at work after the pandemic, and this brought a sense of uncertainty into their mutual interaction.
Live communication has many advantages. What can I learn about a person in a meeting from their body language, hand movements, eye contact even before I talk to them? And how to quickly benefit from this advantage?
The key to success is observation. And it doesn’t start with you being in a room. You can find out about people on the Internet, find out what they have been up to. You can observe their clothes and behavior on the spot, but be careful not to get too preoccupied with it. You can see that the person in question is stressed, breathing rapidly, or otherwise relaxed.
You know that it will be easier to have a conversation with someone who is relaxed than someone who is stressed, breathing fast, has a puffy chest or wrinkled glabella (the area between the eyebrows and the bridge of the nose) etc. When you realize this, it’s for you advantage in conversation and negotiation. Sometimes dealing with a person who feels discomfort is ineffective, but it can be improved by lowering your voice, giving the other person a little more space, or talking about something unrelated to the discussion.
What role does clothing play?
I once coached a high-ranking manager who wore a suit that was too big. I told him: look, while we’re talking about streamlining communication, maybe you’d like to check your outfit as well. Three years later we met, and he excitedly recounted how the store turned out to have a suit three sizes too big. He got a new one and suddenly people were coming up to him, complimenting him and telling him he looked confident. He just changed his suit. Yes, he’s changed his suit, but with that usually comes a slightly more level-headed demeanor. It’s not all, but the fact is that people perceive a lot about the visual side. You don’t always have to wear a suit, but if you see someone taking care of themselves, they benefit from what’s called the “beauty dividend.”
You train managers of top companies such as Mercedes Benz and Louis Vuitton. What are their weaknesses and strengths in general?
I can talk about my clients in general terms. I work with companies in the field of health, finance, luxury goods and other fields. In larger corporations, it can be challenging for managers to stay in touch with the team. Sometimes they are so busy with their busy schedules that they lose sight of the human side of driving. And there is a big gap between what happens on the lower and upper floors. The directors of these companies ask me for feedback that their colleagues do not dare to give these top managers. In smaller companies, this tends to be less of a problem because people find each other faster and are more equal.
Does this pursuit of equality translate into areas such as different benefits, relaxation zones, more free time?
Yes. People work very hard these days, but sometimes you see how exhausted they are. Working is great, I love my job too, but we need to find time to recover and rest so we can communicate not just about business goals, but how we’re doing. We have to reflect on ourselves. Can you communicate? Are you approachable as a boss, and if not, what can you improve? I’m lucky to be brought on board by companies that want to learn, but unfortunately I see a lot of companies that should be doing a lot more.
Are young people too confident, as is sometimes said?
It is a question of how to look at self-confidence. There is a difference between being confident, domineering or even self-centered. It is not bad that young people sometimes really know what they want and have more opportunities to choose a profession than older people. But sometimes their self-confidence stems from insecurity, because they feel that those around them don’t take them seriously because of their age, and that’s why they have to show themselves. I teach young people and it’s fantastic. I know they sometimes seem like they know everything, but mostly they are willing to learn new things.
According to HR professionals, sometimes this manifests itself in the fact that graduates demand unrealistically high salaries. Is it the same abroad?
Yes it’s right. On the other hand, why not give it a try? I don’t have experience in the Asian market, but in Europe, UK and USA money is very important because it helps to fulfill our plans. In addition, you should clarify what you expect from work or training. You shouldn’t just focus on salary.
You also specialize in communicating with complex and dangerous personalities. Who are these people?
Complex and toxic personalities are very focused on themselves and their interests in the sense of I want this, you have to give it to me. Dangerous personalities irritate us, get on our nerves or are downright toxic, for example some bosses. When you have a discussion with someone like this, you may feel physically and emotionally drained when you get home. They affect you psychologically, financially, emotionally, mentally and physically.
We divide dangerous personalities into four groups. To summarize: narcissistic personalities always devalue others and overestimate themselves. Emotionally unstable individuals have a very disproportionate way of reacting. They get very angry, act theatrically or throw things. Paranoid personalities are suspicious of everything. Finally, predators are very heartless people who take and take. When you work with people like that in a company, they are really dangerous. They don’t care about others and that’s terrible. Narcissists in particular do not see you as an equal and only focus on their own needs.
Do you see many such people in influential positions in business and politics, where these qualities can in some cases help in career advancement?
They are successful also because they are not interested in their surroundings, they only focus on their goal. And they can make decisions that other people sometimes can’t. When they lack empathy, it may be no problem for them to fire two hundred people. But of course, this does not apply to every boss.
Dangerous personalities exist in every profession, but we encounter them more often in positions of authority. They are found in higher percentages in law enforcement, medicine, and politics and law. Interestingly, if you ask them if they are a narcissist, they will sometimes proudly admit it. Some dangerous people make headlines as sex offenders, but many are unknown and hurt others in their daily lives. For example, they are tyrannical bosses who yell at people or terrorize the team.
For example, the convicted financier Bernard Madoff was very successful in his own way, and so was Elizabeth Holmes, who gained a lot of confidence in the way she presented her company Theranos (editor’s note: this company developed the Edison medical diagnostic device, but for a long time it was a secret that the device was ineffective). Suddenly we see what is under the carpet. But for many people, we don’t know the real story.
If someone has a tyrannical boss, how should they deal with it? Should she stand up to him, write a petition for his removal, or try to negotiate with him?
Dealing with a tyrannical boss can be difficult. How you deal with this depends on your particular situation and how much of his behavior you can tolerate. Focus on your well-being first. Former FBI agent Joe Navarro asks a crucial question in his book Dangerous Personalities: “How long is this sustainable?” It’s a question to be asked.
One important step is to keep detailed records of their behavior. When, where and how often it occurs. The key is to understand whether this is an occasional problem or an everyday issue. With this information in hand, you can decide, depending on the circumstances, whether to raise the issue with HR, your colleagues, or even your boss.
Remember that every situation is different, but seeking support instead of going it alone can be a big help.
How do you stand up to a person who enforces opinions by yelling at subordinates?
Emotions come in different ranges. Laughter, crying, silence are all emotions and forms of communication. The difference is when someone is behaving out of proportion to the situation and yelling, throwing objects, etc. If this happens once, it can be a sign that it is very important to the person and they want you to know “what’s going on”. But if it keeps happening, it could be his way of emotionally manipulating you.
For example, I am currently working with a CEO who has someone close to him who is very emotional and aggressive. He bangs his fist on the table or yells at the staff and blames them. The CEO no longer tolerates this aggressive behavior. For example, when this person is not communicating calmly, the boss leaves the room or asks them to write an email. The director wants to listen to him, but the way of communication must be respectful and effective.
I know it’s not easy, but if someone is yelling or very emotional, let them tire themselves out because at some point they won’t be able to do it anymore. You don’t want to solve the problem in a power play by shouting at each other, but only when the other person calms down. So many things can be solved just by listening. Of course, it’s good to set boundaries.
I was at a meeting where a woman heard an opinion, and she didn’t like it very much. She grabbed the mug and threw it to the floor where it shattered into a thousand pieces. I said I wouldn’t tolerate it, took her into the next room to isolate her and talked to her about what happened. She was quite stressed from her actions. We must be able to tell ourselves that we will not tolerate such behavior. And when these situations occur, talk back about them. Stay calm, set boundaries, let emotions subside, listen and address disruptive behavior. And most importantly: contact the department that will help you.