Implement daily, short, team-building activities. With that, you effectively replace the water cooler conversations. By staying connected, with topics that can be fully unrelated to work, you continue to build on relationships. And with these activities being recurring, and structured, people now interact with others they wouldn’t even pick out for a water cooler conversation.

We are all competing in an attention economy. From pings and dings to blinks and rings, companies and content constantly compete for our limited time and attention. How do great leaders turn down the noise and tune in to the messages that matter most? What does it take to be heard above the noise? And how do we create communication that cultivates community and connectedness in a distributed, distracted world? To address these questions, we started an interview series called “Can You Hear Me Now?: Top Five Strategies Leaders Use to Diminish Distractions & Win in the Attention Economy.” As a part of this interview series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Hanne Wulp, from Communication Wise.

Hanne Wulp is the owner of Communication Wise —– and specializes in: training teams, and coaching individuals in leadership communication & conflict resolution skills. With a background in litigating disputes as an attorney, mediating, and facilitating tense, and multifaceted interpersonal issues, she has learned how to de-escalate effectively and guide participants to change perspectives and use conflict resolution skills. She believes in empowerment, taking responsibility, and ultimately continually creating harmony.

Thank you for making time to visit with us. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is one of your most memorable moments, and what made it memorable?

One of my most memorable moments is two-fold: an incident and a clear change.

A few months into the pandemic, beginning of May 2020, I received an email from the elementary school of my children. It informed the parents that the children wouldn’t return to school until at least after the summer vacation (another 4 months). That email triggered a huge reaction in me. I got very angry at the world, at the school, at everyone in my vicinity. I screamed and cried, and slammed my laptop shut. That cost me my laptop. I had damaged the laptop’s camera so badly, that it didn’t work properly anymore. Right after that, I felt guilty that I had let myself go. Who was I, to teach de-escalation skills to groups — including police officers — and I couldn’t keep myself in check?!

The second memorable moment was the decision the next morning. I made a commitment to myself to become more aware of my thoughts and feelings, to catch them early so I could self-regulate and eventually become more peaceful and even keeled. I started doing internal cleaning-up work I had been neglecting. During the first few months of the pandemic, people around me — family, friends, and neighbors — all seemed to be heavily affected by it: worrisome and fearful. While I had lost all my job assignments and had recently separated from my children’s father, I seemed to be totally fine. But apparently, I wasn’t.

Since that day, I regularly check my mood and thoughts throughout the day. And I meditate. And I write in my journal when I find some free time. It has always been natural for me to check in with others, but to do this with myself was new.

What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?

When I moved to the US, I originally thought I’d leave for one year, and come back and continue my career as a litigating attorney. But I stayed, which meant I lost all my legal credentials. I started focusing fully on mediation, and then after that on group trainings in conflict resolution skills and individual coaching. During the pandemic, I became a business owner, and since then I fully work out of my own business.

I discovered I am now doing what I’m truly meant to do. I love it.

According to a recent Harvard Business School study, the most essential communication skill for leaders is the ability to adapt their communication style. How do you adapt your communication style?

Depending on the need of the group/team I work with, we do the “Communication Wise Conflict Management Styles Test”, which I developed based on various tests, and my own experiences. At least once a year, I complete the test myself, so that I stay aware of my current dominant style. Because communication styles come close to the core of my work, I am hyper-aware of communication styles, and I can work fairly easily with others’ styles. For example, when I am interacting with a person who is relatively loud/abrasive, I constantly check in with myself if I’m still ok. If not, I use the self-regulating tools I know, so that I won’t become defensive (either verbally hiding, or verbally). When I am interacting with a more shy, quiet person, I have to check myself to not fill in the silence with unnecessary comments, and just calmly stay interactive with that person.

Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?

Attention is everything. When I notice another person is unclear about something I have said, I check in with them and ask if my directions were clear. When the other person is distracted, I wait for their attention to come back, or ask them when a good time is to continue the interaction. In group meetings, I ask what’s going on when a person is clearly distracted. I also use simple words and try to use short sentences. I am extra aware of this because I’m not a native English speaker.

In a very practical way, because I work with individuals and groups in different time zones, I have learned to always add Eastern Time to (potential) meeting times in emails, before I send out calendar invites.

We often discover what works by experiencing what doesn’t. Tell us about a time when your communication didn’t lead to the desired results and what you learned from the experience.

In the past, I used to guess how another person might feel about my guidance/feedback, and leave out certain details that I suspected would hurt their feelings. But that would always lead to unclarity, and eventually hurt the relationship. I have learned to not take responsibility for another person’s feelings, and to give feedback/guidance with a mutual goal in mind. I want the best for them, and me. So I’m no longer holding back difficult messages, but I do share them in the kindest way, when I truly have their, and mine, best interest in mind. I share that mutual ground, and long-term vision as the reason for bringing up my concerns/feedback. I check in with myself before I give the critical feedback, and when I notice I’m (still) annoyed, or frustrated, I realize I’m not ready and quickly get myself together, or just wait for a better moment.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are struggling to have their messages heard and actioned?

Check in regularly. Build relationships. With the team as a whole, and with as many individuals as you can. Listen carefully, and don’t try to fix things right away. You want to create an atmosphere of trust, so that as much information from different layers gets to your ears. You can then filter the information and decide which topics you’ll want to influence/steer.

Also, regularly ask yourself this question: would you listen to you? When I ask myself that question when I feel others’ attention is fading (or absent), I change something: the setup of the meeting, or the length, or the time of day (early morning as opposed to late morning, etc.).

Leading a distributed team requires a different communication cadence and style from leading a team in person. What are five strategies any leader can deploy to improve communication and clarity when leading a distributed workforce? Please share a story or example for each of you can.

Top 5 strategies:

  1. Implement daily, short, team-building activities. With that, you effectively replace the water cooler conversations. By staying connected, with topics that can be fully unrelated to work, you continue to build on relationships. And with these activities being recurring, and structured, people now interact with others they wouldn’t even pick out for a water cooler conversation.

2 . Because some non-verbal communication is much harder to pick up on during virtual meetings, describe what you see (when everyone has their cameras on), and check in if that’s correct: “I’m observing some distraction, who is in need of a 2 min break with cameras off? Or is there anything else going on?”

3 . Set clear expectations: “Can everyone turn their cameras on when you get to this meeting? It is much easier for me to detect potential issues when we are discussing A/B/C, when I can see everyone’s faces.” Call out the individuals who don’t comply with your request. If they have reasons to refuse, listen to them and decide if an exception is reasonable.

4 . Keep an open-door policy, even if that door is virtual/digital.

5 . Have the leaders go through conflict management skills training, or leadership communication skills training with a focus on conflict resolution. Conflict will happen, it is inevitable. The way we handle conflict can either lead to growth, or destruction. When leaders have insights into conflict, and use the right skills, they can help their teams manage conflicts effectively and guide the entire team toward growth. Growth, making progress in meaningful work, motivates all employees. Teach employees effective speaking-up skills. When, for example, they don’t think certain meetings add value and that’s why they let themselves be distracted, you’d want them to express that and start a discussion about whether these meetings do in fact add value, and if so, how they could be structured in a way that everyone stays engaged. Make attendees WANT to attend.

What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competing for attention?

  • Start acknowledging that we can only do one thing at a time. When we read an email, we can’t pay attention to the meeting we are in.
  • Put your phone away during meetings, and ask everyone to do the same, or at least mute their notifications while the meeting is in effect.
  • Use a notepad and pencil to write down notes when you really (and only) want to pay attention to what is being said.

What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?

Conflict resolution skills. When a leader detects an issue and does NOT use force to make everyone what he/she wants, and does NOT avoid the issue — instead makes it a topic of discussion and makes it safe for everyone to share what they think of it, will create a jointly supported solution for the issue (growth) AND have strengthened relationships along the way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d start a movement of openness to different perspectives, of skills that help people experience psychological safety even though another person looks/thinks differently.

How can our readers stay connected with you?

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.