Do the words you use shape your reality?

I’m a big advocate for coaching and for developing yourself. I’m forever telling people that I am on a journey and usually very proud of that! That being said, one of the recent exercises I went through with my coach threw me for a loop. She asked me to look at my word choice and to try reframing it. When I asked why, always my favorite question, she said that my word choice could be shaping my reality and preventing me from even trying to change. It was a difficult concept for my mind to get around, so we actually spent quite a bit of time on the exercise. At first, I didn’t see how changing a word or two would make that much difference to what I was trying to say – or worse trying to do. After all, it was the truth, wasn’t it? After working on it for several weeks now, I can honestly say that I do.

I would say things like, “I’m not that person,” or “That’s just not me” or even worse “I’ve never been good at that.” Very black and white, very definitive, with no room for change. With the help of my coach, I’ve reworded what I was trying to say and said instead, “Up until now, I haven’t had the opportunity to do that,” or “Previously, I wasn’t able to do that.” Writing the two versions of the phrases, I can see quite clearly that in the first version there is no possibility, and worse a solidification of a belief system that may or may not still serve me. The second version on the other hand, is headed toward another possibility and perhaps someday in the not-so-distant future, I could be that person. It’s a small change in words, but the difference in the attitude and thinking, at least for me, is profound.

It seems very obvious now, that by asking yourself and others to think about who they could be next keeps us from falling into the trap of believing we have arrived, and that keeps us living in a world of possibilities instead of protecting and defending the current reality.

To finish, I’d like to challenge you. Do the words you use shape your reality? Are you standing still and limiting yourself with your word choice?

Hope this helps!

Alesandra Blakeston

What is innovation?

I’ve been in my current role for 10 months now and have learned a lot about innovation as a result. One thing that I have noticed, is that there are many different definitions out there for innovation.  DBD International has one definition in the slideshare below, which really caught my eye.  Not only is it a great example of animation, it tells a great story and defines innovation easily and quickly!

Do you see the dots that other’s don’t see?

How would you define innovation?

+Alesandra Blakeston

What are your presentation fears

Do you create great PowerPoint or Keynote slides?  If not, why not?  This SlideShare by Esprezo looks at 5 of the main fears people have when making presentations that lead them to creating just awful slides.  What’s your greatest presentation fear?

  1. Fear of short content
  2. Fear of simplistic design and whitespace
  3. Fear of experimenting
  4. Fear of stealing from others
  5. Fear of feedback

Hope it helps!

+Alesandra Blakeston

The Future of Work

Just loving the bold bright design of this SlideShare by SprintBiz:

In addition to the great design, it has some really powerful messages:

  • When we go to work, we look for meaning; for autonomy; for recognition and affirmation.
  • And yes, for fun.
  • Only when you’ve hired the right people… Then – and only then – can you think about how to deploy new technology and to reinvent work
    • New collaboration tools can turbo-charge your teams.
    • New data, analytics and tracking tools can make you smarter.
    • Better tech can improve every process.
  • Change.  How well can you pivot?
  • Competition.  If they zig, can you zag?
  • Complexity.  Who will be the first to lighten up and simplify?
  • [It] always comes down to how well you engage your people.

What do you think?  Do you agree? +Alesandra Blakeston

5 ways to effectively probe to prevent misunderstandings

Are you good at listening and questioning?  How would you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10?  The sad fact is that most of us think we are good at questioning, when really the majority only listen long enough to be able to formulate an answer.  Then, when we are questioning we only go deep enough to appear interested or to validate what we think we already know.

I’m preparing some exercises for a training session on facilitation, which will of course, include listening and probing.  It made me re-evaluate my own skills, so I thought I would share some of my insights with you.  Of course, anyone who’s tried to improve their listening, questioning and probing skills will have heard phrases like “Tell me more,” and “Can you give me an example” which can be used to help dig a little deeper.  But how do you know when you’ve probed enough?


I just finished reading “Taking Responsibility for Receiving Intended Information: Clarification Tactics,” a chapter in Dr. Richard Halley‘s book, Listening Models and Procedures.  In it he says that the burden of understanding is shared between the speaker and the listener.  He gives a long list of techniques to help you probe and question, but here are my favourite five!

1. Discover and understand any hidden objectives

When speaking with someone, you might realise that they have an axe to grind.  If you are not careful, it can derail your whole conversation and prevent you from reaching an understanding.  Also, if someone has a hidden goal, it can be hard to get that person to focus on the question you want answered.  Instead of ignoring the elephant in the room, saying something about it can sometimes help the person focus more on your information needs. For instance, you might say, “The reason I approached you was _____________, but it seems you would like to talk about ____________.”  This will then allow the person time to voice their feelings and then you can bring the subject back to the matter at hand.

2. Ask for specifics

Reduce ambiguity, by asking for a specific description of what the speaker is trying to convey.  It reduces the chance of misunderstanding and add depth to the discussion.  For instance, “I really appreciated the way the manager took me to one side after the meeting, and took the time to listen to what I had to say” gives us a lot more information than “I spoke with the manager.  It went well.”  When you hear a phrase that is really general, ask a probing question to discover more, “So what exactly was it about ___________ that makes you say that?”  Or “I’d appreciate it if you could expand a little more on this.  What was it about specifically?”  Of course, even when they’ve given you more detail, you can continue to probe until you’ve exhausted the subject and there is no room for misinterpretation.


3. Try to find what something is not

Usually we are trying to understand what something is, but it is also useful to understand what it is no.  You might be able to eliminate categories of options and avoid misinterpretations in this way, especially when someone is having a hard time expressing themselves.  Phrases like “So, it’s not that it was horrible or anything?” will help to identify a mediocre experience.

4. Be aware of your assumptions

This is difficult.  We all have internal biases that can cause us to make false assumptions.  As listeners though, it is important to be sensitive to our biases and to check out any assumptions we have made.  When one customer tells you that they had a bad experience with a product, and you’ve heard from another customer that they also had a bad experience it could be natural to assume that they had the same experience.  Check the assumptions at the door and continue to probe to ensure you have the correct understanding.  It also works with people.  When someone is being quiet and retiring, don’t assume they have nothing to say.   Instead ask, “How about you?  I bet you have something to add to what the others have said.”


5. Ask the speaker to review

We can easily miss words or misinterpret what is said.  Asking the participant to review their comments, even if we think we know what they said, gives both the speaker and the listener a chance to add more clarity to what was said.  You might say, “I know you’ve already explained that once but it would help me really understand if you could go over it one more time.”  They will naturally use different words, and this can lead to more insights.  You can also weave earlier comments into your questions to make the speaker review what they have said in another way.  It also shows that you were listening and processing what they said and the speaker does not need to recontextualize their comment.  They can then pick up where they laid off – another way of probing deeper with the subsequent response.

What questions do you use to probe and dig deeper?  Let me know!

+Alesandra Blakeston

40 going on 4

Believe it or not, I actually turn 40 this year.  I have more in common with some of my millennial friends than with the typical 40 year old woman, and yet all of my friends have been telling me that I am getting old or have asked me if it bothers me.  The truth?  No.  Not even slightly.  The fact is that in many, many ways, I am still around four years old.  Old enough to know better, but still young enough to get up to mischief  I still love super heroes (Avengers and X-Men anyone?), I still devour fantasy stories (The Hobbit, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal to name but a few) and I still love Disney (Little Mermaid, Frozen!!!).  Of course, I’ve learned a lot along the way.  I’ve been hurt, knocked down and bruised.  I’ve laughed, loved and soared high.  Frankly I wouldn’t change a thing – even the REALLY painful parts.  Since not everyone I know feels this way about themselves and their lives, I thought I would share my life lessons in the hopes that it will help not just them, but others too.

It seems as though I’ve always been little miss confident, little miss independent as you can see from the photos below.  Was this behaviour learned or inherited, I couldn’t say, you would probably have to ask my family.  I do know though that I was the first and only one in my family to go to university, the first to travel outside of Europe and the first to work abroad.  Confidence can be learned, failure embraced and learned from, and fear should be seen as a motivator.  If you’re not afraid, you are not challenging yourself enough!  Why do I say this?  I present to you my facts of life:

20140502_0947241. Children learn by making mistakes.  You learn to walk by falling, you learn to ride a bike by crashing.  This first photo shows me at the age of three checking to see if my parents are watching before I sneak off to climb my neighbour’s six foot brick wall.  Funnily, there are plenty of other similar photos of me.  I once was grounded for peddling my tricycle on the main road.  There was a long queue of traffic behind me, the first and foremost of which was a six wheeler flatbed truck.  Everyone in my street was watching the funny parade of traffic following this 3 / 4 year old child being honked and blared at by the impatient drivers.  When I eventually turned off onto my side street, the lorry driver pulled up to talk to my parents.  When he asked “Didn’t I hear him honking?”  My reply was simple. “I was peddling as fast as I could…”

I have to admit I don’t remember either of these stories actually happening, but my parents (and their friends) have told me these stories and others enough times that they (and I) are village legend.  As you can imagine, I used to scare the pants off my parents on a regular basis!  I never fell off that wall, but I am sure I fell off enough smaller walls to be confident enough to tackle the bigger one.  I’m sure you get the point I am making.  Dont’ be afraid of falling or of making mistakes. Instead, be afraid of not trying.  Life is very very boring if you play it safe!  Also, you’ll never be noticed by doing what everyone else does.

20140502_0946442. Find out what makes you special and own it!  Both of my parents worked when I was young.  It was necessary as my parents weren’t rich by any standard.  This of necessity made me independent.  I used to walk myself and my brother to school.  In the small village where we grew up, it was perfectly safe back then!  As a result, I learned responsibility young.  That being said, I distinctly remember hating the dresses I was put in to go to school.  One of the parents of a classmate of mine was a dressmaker and almost every girl in the village wore these dresses as they were of a good quality and inexpensive.  Of course, I was a tomboy and hated dresses on general principle.  The only way my mother could get me into the day’s dress was if it had the colour red in it.  (I still prefer that colour to any other).  We also compromised with my school coat.  It had to have big buttons, so that I could use it as a cape when playing G-Force or Wonder Woman in the playground.

Growing up in a family where we had very little and in a village where everyone was related and knew everyone else’s business made me determined to escape, to be better and to be different.  Luckily for me, my mother encouraged me to read and let me live and play in my fantasy world.  I was always making up stories and little fantasies where I would be the hero and save the day.  Now I work for a global corporation, and have done not one but two different secondments outside of the UK.  My job entails creativity and innovation (I get to play and teach games for a living) and being a thought leader.

That being said, I went through a horrible phase (both professionally and personally) in the early part of my career with the company.  Work and home felt like a battleground.  During that time, I was lost.  I lost sight of who I was and why I should care.  I felt mired in failure and thought I couldn’t do anything right.  Fortunately one or two amazing people mentored me and helped me to regain that self-confidence that I lost for a while. They saw potential in me and helped me to bring it out.  I won’t name them (they know who they are) but because of them, I was able to win a National Training Award for the company and for a short while flew with the stars.  It only seems fair to pay that gift forward.

The fact is that everyone has a gift.  Some more than one.  If I can help just one person find what makes them unique, special and help them to turn that gift into a talent that they can leverage, then I have done well.  One of my friends is going through a bad patch at the moment.  She’s lost faith in herself and doesn’t know which way to turn.  She’s trying to fit in and keep her head down.  I keep telling her that regardless of what others around her think and say, it’s her opinion of herself that should have the most weight.  Value yourself and others will value you too.  Being different worked for me as a child, and being different is what has made me successful as an adult.  The truly successful are unique and original.

3. Be proud of your connections and help them to develop.  As the eldest child of three brothers and sisters, I was forever hearing “Take your brother / sister with you!”  or my favourite, usually when my brother had done something stupid and of course, it was my fault,  “Why didn’t you stop him?  You know better!”  Regardless of whether I was popular or not at school (and for a while, I really wasn’t!), I always had someone tagging along.  I learned a lot about teaching and mentoring and it made me a better person because of it.  I learned patience with my brother who is three years younger than me and I learned teaching with my sister who is eight years younger than me.  When I was a teenager, she was just a little girl.  I taught her to avoid all the mistakes I made.  Now I do the same with the young people I mentor at work and the interns whom I employ.  I learned that being responsible for someone (being a leader) means looking out for their welfare and development as well as bossing them around (like big sisters do).  You have no idea how proud I am of my little brother and how far he has come, especially since the birth of his gorgeous little daughter…  I feel the same way about my interns.  There’s nothing like the pride you feel when you see someone you have encouraged succeed.  The bike in the photo below eventually became my brother’s.  Both of us started with stabilisers and eventually moved on to a bigger better bike (I eventually moved onto a motorbike – but that’s a whole other story!)


4. You should never stop learning, regardless of your age.  Incidentally, I would never have gotten as good on social media and blogging if it weren’t for my younger friends helping me out and paying me back.  Just because you are older and wiser, it doesn’t mean you are better.  The younger generation has a lot to teach us about life in general (not just the latest tech and which apps you should have on your smartphone). Having a reverse mentor doesn’t just keep your outlook young, it can help you be more assertive and dare I say it more successful.  I belong to Generation X, but have Baby Boomers as friends as well as Millennials.  Believe it or not, I learned how to demand what I want from my job and my position from my millennial friends.  I learned diplomacy, tact and how to behave at work from my baby boomer friends.  No one knows everything, regardless of how old they are or how wise they are.  Being willing to change and adapt, understanding what to do with information, is more important in today’s world than being an expert.  Let’s face it, you can find anything you might wish to know with Google search.

20140502_0947165. Passion and Humour makes the day go faster.  This year, I will have worked for the company for fifteen years.  Strangely enough, that feels more like a milestone than my turning 40!  As a typical Brit, I am a master of sarcasm and wit (ask any one of my team!) and of course self-deprecating humour.  That doesn’t mean though that I don’t value myself or others.  In fact, the people that I am most fond of, usually get the most stick, myself included!  When preparing a facilitation session or a presentation, I always try to add in some fun and some jokes.  After all, if you can make people laugh, they are much more likely to remember you and by extension, your message.  After 15 years I have hundreds of co-workers (or should I say co-conspirators?), many with the same irreverent sense of humour, and I think  I have stayed so long because the company believes in its people and doesn’t take itself too seriously.  We’re passionate about what we do and it shows.  Frankly, if you can’t be passionate about your subject, then stop talking!  My blog is chock full of tips and techniques, musings and inspirations.  Above all though, it is about things that I am passionate about, whether that’s developing people, innovation, simplifying difficult topics, Excel charts or PowerPoint presentations.  As a child I grew up knowing that I was an odd little duck – my blog (and my twitter feed) is no different.  But I was given this advice by an old friend who mothered me on more than one occasion.

Stick out your tongue, tell the world to get in line, be good to your friends and march to your own tune!

Don’t you agree?

+Alesandra Blakeston

Who am I: Innovation Program Manager

A few weeks ago the communication department of the company I work for posted a soundbite video of me and how I’ve moved to the United States. This week, they are posting a video on what I do in terms of innovation.  You can watch it on YouTube below.  Hope you like it!


+Alesandra Blakeston

Intern Advice

A colleague of mine has recently passed her 40th work anniversary. That’s an amazing 40 years working for the same company. As part of our women’s network, she was asked to give her advice to new young women joining the company. Very inspiring stuff. In fact, it inspired me to pass on some life learning to my interns. Here goes…

  1. If plan A doesn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters! Stay cool – Claire Cook
  2. Life is either a #DaringAdventure or nothing – Helen Keller
  3. Don’t be afraid of being #Different. Be afraid of being the same as everyone else – Unknown
  4. #Don’tCompare your chapter 1 to someone else’s chapter 20.  Everyone was a beginner at some point – Unknown
  5. If you are working on something #exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed.  The vision pulls you – Steve Jobs

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Hope these inspire you!

+Alesandra Blakeston