They are the rock your world, head-slapping conversations. Or the slow, burning a-ha talks.
They occur with those we know well and with total strangers. They can take five minutes or five hours.
But at the end, we are not the same. The conversation changes us. We are more and better because of them.
I’ve spent the last five years immersed in study of these particular types of interactions. I’m a leadership coach and author, and my area of specialty is helping leaders build an engaging and motivating presence. Despite all the corporate hype about grand inspirational efforts, it’s during these small conversational moments that inspiration typically occurs.
I stumbled onto this area of research partially by accident. In my work I speak to audiences in workshops and keynote settings at companies around the world. As a warm-up exercise for the topic of my last book, leadership presence, I began posing a simple query: Who inspired you and why?
And here’s what happened. As the audience talked among themselves, the room would visibly shift. Faces lit up. Eyes shined. The volume rose. As the participants recalled those who have had an impact on them, the room erupted in a groundswell of energy and positivity.
I’ve heard about first bosses, coaches, parents, colleagues, friends, teachers, managers, CEOs, direct reports, co-workers, strangers and family members. I’ve heard stories about everyday occurrences and ones that are so unique I’ll never forget them. The situations and people vary greatly, but I noticed great similarity in what these inspirational people did. And it wasn’t anything momentous or grand. The inspirational people mentioned communicated in certain, specific ways that made this kind of light shine in people’s faces even decades later.
This set me on a course to truly understand what was happening and how we could have more of it in our work, our communities and our homes. After qualitative and quantitative research and personal testing of concepts with leaders, I brought the ideas down to an actionable level and wrote the just-released book, The Inspiration Code.
Because what inspires one person, inspires another person. And how we inspire others is also how we inspire ourselves.
We could all use more of it.
Inspiration, The Break Down on the Build Up
We may feel it like a flood, but inspiration is a process rather than an event. Notable inspiration researchers for twenty years, psychology professors Todd Thrash and Andrew Elliot, have produced numerous studies that uncover what transpires within us when we catch a spark of inspiration.
Thrash and Elliot have determined that inspiration is a culmination of several components coming together: (1) Transcendence: We rise above our perspective to discover new or better possibilities, (2) Motivation: We feel energized, or even compelled, to bring an idea into action, and (3) Evocation: We are receptive to an influence beyond ourselves.
Inspiration happens with a trigger. It can be a reading or a video, but most often, it’s interpersonal. We hear someone’s words, or we watch them in action, and we’re opened up to new possibilities. Role modelling is very inspirational for this reason: we see someone demonstrate a behavior and realize that we can do the same.
Let’s first talk straight truth: you can’t force someone to be inspired. Rather, you can create conditions where someone is most likely to be inspired. You lay the path, they decide to walk on it. This is different than influencing, another key leadership skill. We can push an idea for influence, but the more we push, the less likely we are to inspire someone. We choose to be inspired for ourselves.
Now, consider how much money and effort goes into cultivating inspirational leadership in organizations. Trainings are conducted, grand visions are developed, and cultures are aligned. Yet, our organizations aren’t brimming with inspired workers. Gallup’s annual engagement survey shows that 70% of U.S. workers are not engaged at work – a figure that’s held steady for 15 years.
Clearly, something’s not working. My research shows that rather than selling ideals and visions, we should be focusing on teaching people how to have conversations, and to communicate intentionally, in ways that create a light in others. In most organizations, we’re going about it completely wrong. We need to stop selling big and start talking small.
We’re Making Inspiration Too Hard
The good news is that inspirational behaviors are straightforward and within reach. As a matter of fact, we already know how to do most of them. We just need to act with understanding and intention, so we plant more of the best seeds for inspiration to grow.
Inspiration typically happens when certain behaviors are present. I developed a research-based model called The Inspire Path to make inspiration transparent and accessible to anyone. If we want to be an inspirational force for another person, it’s most likely to happen when we communicate in a way that is:
- Present: We’re focused on the person in front of us, not distracted by the swirl of our day, visibly stressed, or beholden to our agenda. We keep an open mind, and let conversations flow.
- Personal: We’re authentic and real, and listen generously. We notice what’s true about others and help them find their potential.
- Passionate: We infuse energy, and manage this as one of our greatest tools. We blend logic and emotion, and show conviction through our presence.
- Purposeful: We are willing to have courageous discussions about purpose, and role model how to live into our own.
You may be thinking that these sound like simple concepts in the abstract, but actually adopting these behaviors may not be as easy. That’s definitely true, though just knowing what to do is a huge first step.
More good news: You don’t have to incorporate all of the actions in the Inspire Path model—any one behavior can be a trigger.
The Part that Really Surprised Me
After hearing about inspirational stories from hundreds of leaders, I knew I’d captured the major themes but I couldn’t weight the behaviors. I commissioned a survey with The Harris Poll, a highly respected research firm that’s been surveying public opinion since 1963. For this research, 2,034 U.S. adults were asked to consider a time when they were inspired by someone whom they’ve personally known in their adult life and to select multiple inspirational behaviors that this person did, in terms of communicating, that had the greatest effect on them.
The results surprised me. 50% of respondents stated that the behavior that was most inspirational to them was not speaking – but listening! Speaking came in #2, but not as you might expect. The second most cited behavior was that the person said what they meant and spoke with authenticity.
To sum it up, to be more inspirational, you should listen more and speak from the heart. It’s not saying just the right thing the right way, having perfectly clear and messaged points, or advocating a compelling vision.
We inspire when we focus on another person and are, simply, real.
Why Inspiration is Good x 3
It may sound obvious to say that inspiration is a good thing. We know how great it feels when we have it, and the sleepwalking feel of its absence. But it’s more than that – inspiration is important to cultivate for multiple reasons.
First, inspiration increases effectiveness, engagement and performance. We all want more motivated and inspired teams, who are able to manage through uncertainty. Inspiring others greatly enhances our ability to lead change, manage people, sell an idea, and gain buy-in.
Second, inspirational people inject positivity, energy and forward momentum into the environment. They help companies, and communities, to grow and thrive. Inspiration makes us happy, and happiness spreads.
And finally, being inspiring to others comes back around to us in a multitude of ways. When we inspire others, we’re often inspired in return. People want to work for us, and be around us. We create inspiring conditions for ourselves when we set about to create them for others.
Inspiration is a virtuous cycle that starts by a small moment, a certain conversation, and a choice that any of us can make.