Mary Claire O’Neal is author of Becoming What You Want to See in the World. Her book has won three national awards, has been translated into several languages and has been sold in more than 30 countries. It is now in its second edition. I wanted to learn more about her work as a consultant and coach, work she’s been engaged in for more than 15 years with Fortune 500 companies, health care and educational organizations, nonprofits and individuals.
Q: Let’s begin with the services you offer.
A: I offer a variety of services in the areas of executive, resilience, communication, and life-change coaching.
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Q: What sorts of issues typically bring an organization to your door?
A: I’m often contacted by a business or an organization with a manager or an employee who needs to work one-on-one with me. They’ve identified some difficulty that the person’s having, and organizations that care about their employees want to invest in them. As an example, I got a call from an industrial engineering firm. They had a very promising young engineer who is brilliant, but she was challenged in her communication skills and had a tendency to be condescending. But she was very, very conscientious. The area of work that she was in required a lot of attention to detail because if it’s not done well, it could be dangerous to thousands of people. I can’t go into detail because it’s all confidential. But she came to me and very early in the process, she embraced how to become better at communicating in a way where people are hearing her and she’s not putting them on the defensive.
Q: That was an example of a person sent to you by her organization. How about a client coming to you as an individual?
A: When they start the coaching relationship, they have a pretty clear idea of where they want to go, which is great, because that saves time. They’re already seeing where they need to strengthen either their communication or leadership skills. Or this might be someone who is starting a business and wants to learn how to better communicate about their brand or what they want to accomplish. Or it might be an independent professional who wants to learn to communicate better with clients. We are ahead of the game when someone comes on their own and wants to begin the coaching process.
Q: We’re living longer and remain productive later in life. Do you have people come to you who have reached retirement age and see it as an opportunity to do something new and different with their lives, but are not sure how to proceed?
A: Oh yes. I’ve got several clients who have had a job for 20 years and they’ve decided to switch gears and do something they’ve always wanted to do.
Q: And how do you work with such a person?
A: I help them clarify their values and what it is they really want, so that they come up with their goals and where they want to go.
Q: What’s your approach to problems like feeling overwhelmed and stressed?
A: If someone comes to me feeling overwhelmed, I first ask: ‘What is on your plate right now? Don’t look at the whole thing. I just want to know what the whole thing is. We’re going to work on breaking that into pieces so that you feel like you’re accomplishing and you’re moving on and you’re not looking at all of that at one time, because it’s impossible to do all of it at one time.’
Q: How can you help a client become a more effective communicator?
A: Helping a person find their own voice is first and foremost. Of course, the number one fear people have is public speaking. I help them disempower that fear and go through a process where they become stronger in their ability to find their own voice and their confidence. I’ll sometimes videotape a client and go through it, give them notes, and show them places where they can work on strengthening. It might be inflection. It might be pacing. It might be vocal tonality. It might be something very technical, or it might be just helping them build their confidence.
Q: Maybe overcoming a fear of embarrassing themselves, of being humiliated?
A: Yes. That’s a big one. The what ifs, you know. What if I blank out? What if I say the wrong thing and I’m embarrassed? What if everyone in the room is smarter than I am? Those are really typical and they are part of the human condition. We all have those at one time or another.
Q: You help people build self-regulation skills. Can you elaborate?
A: Self-regulation is basically self-awareness and knowing where your strengths lie, and where you could be stronger and knowing how to plan for that and regulate one’s self. Emotional self-regulation is typically what I help people with. Some people walk around not even aware they’re in a bad mood. They’re exuding it, affecting people around them. ... There are some tools and techniques to help smooth that out.
Q: Would being better at self-regulation help you be a better communicator?
A: Oh yes. For one thing, if you are good with your self-regulation skills, you’re not going to communicate when you are in a state of anger or frustrated. You’re more discerning about what you say, and you’re more concerned about being understood than being hurt.
Q: You’re now a certified HeartMath trainer. What is HeartMath, and what services do you offer in this area?
A: HeartMath is based on over 20 years of research in the field of neurocardiology. Extensive research has found that the heart sends more messages to the brain than vice versa. There are some tools, very simple practices and techniques, to allow a person to synchronize their heart with their autonomic nervous system to create what neurocardiologists call “coherence” — when your heart is in sync with your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The signals being sent to the brain are not ones of alarm or urgency. Instead, they go to the thalamus in the brain, and the thalamus, as the gatekeeper, is then able to send it to appropriate places, so there is more clarity of thought, there is more resilience, more capacity to prepare for and adapt to situations in the face of stress and challenge. Without those tools, many times the signal will go from the thalamus to the amygdala — the fight-or-flight response. Using HeartMath techniques, you send messages to the thalamus that then sends it to the neocortex. You can then sort it out with clarity of mind so that you have a filter system. Over time, it can actually retrain the nervous system to no longer have those knee-jerk responses. It’s quite wonderful and elegant in its simplicity.
Q: Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, says your book could not have come at a more opportune time. “A ray of hope amid chaos,” he said. What is the story behind this endorsement? And what was he talking about?
A: I have several Gandhi quotes in my book. Mahatma Gandhi would never tell anyone to do anything that he would not do himself. That kind of integrity was a great model for me. So, I emailed Arun, founder of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, requesting permission to use these quotes. He asked me to send a few chapters of my book. I did, and the next day, I got an email from him that said, “I loved this. You can use the quotes. And not only that, I’d be delighted to endorse your book. I loved this.” It was the chapter on compassionate communication that he just loved. He said he hadn’t seen anything quite like it before and that it worked so well with the values that he holds and that Gandhi held. It also is about resilience because when you know how to regulate yourself and speak in a way where you’re not just absorbed within your own needs and your own understandings, but you’re attempting to go outside yourself and really connect with another person, I think that’s what he meant by “a ray of hope amid chaos.”
Q: Must have been fun getting that email.
A: Well, it certainly made my day.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.
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Mary Claire O’Neal’s website is Maryclaireoneal.com.