Today, I interview Meredith Bell who shares an important childhood story and the fears of judgment, rejection, and criticism she has experienced and carried with her. She remembers being afraid to “speak her truth”.
As a professional adult, she later realized that the common thread within each of her projects was her tendency to think smaller than she should have. She has since realized that she can do more, perform better, and think BIG to accomplish her goals and make a difference!
Meredith Bell is co-founder and President of Performance Support Systems, a global software company providing assessment and development tools for the workplace. Their award-winning software and books guide leaders and team members to make the shift from KNOWING to DOING.
The result is permanent improvements in the way people interact with each other.
Meredith is an expert in leader and team communications, the author of two books, and the host of the Strong for Performance podcast. She has worked with thousands of business leaders, Human Resources professionals, and Learning & Development executives to successfully implement their tools.
Meredith co-authored her latest book, Connect with Your Team: Mastering the Top 10 Communication Skills, with her business partner, Dr. Dennis Coates. In it, Meredith and Denny provide an unprecedented, step-by-step how-to guide for improving communication.
Download Meredith’s Free Guide: https://growstrongleaders.com/free/
Watch the episode:
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Learn How to Speak Without Fear!
Transcript of Interview
Find Your Voice, Change Your Life Podcast
Podcast Host: Dr. Doreen Downing
Free Guide to Fearless Speaking: Doreen7steps.com
Episode #13 Meredith Bell
“Speaking Your Truth Instead of Thinking Small
(00:03) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Hi, I’m Dr. Doreen Downing and this is the Find Your Voice, Change Your Life podcast. And what I do here on this podcast is to interview guests who at some point struggled with having a voice, whether it was something that happened to them throughout their life, early childhood, or whether it happened later in life, something has been holding them back. And today we’ll be speaking with somebody who just told me that there’s more than just a history. There’s the continual progression of finding and developing more and more of your voice. So, I’m really excited to introduce you to Meredith bell today. Let me read a little bio about her. Meredith Bell is co-founder and president of Performance Support Systems, a global software company providing assessment and development tools for the workplace. Their award-winning software and books guide leaders and team members to make the shift from knowing to doing. The result is permanent improvements in the way people interact with each other. Meredith is an expert in leader and team communications, the author of two books, and the host of the Strong for Performance podcast. She has co-authored her latest book, Connect With Your Team, Mastering the Top 10 Communication Skills, with her business– oh, that’s with her business partner, Dr. Dennis Coates. In it, Meredith and Denny provide an unprecedented step-by-step how-to guide for improving communication. That in itself sounds so wonderful. That’s a voice to even be speaking in a book, isn’t it? So welcome, today, and we’ll just have you launch. I know that we talked a little bit before. And the first part is just more about what kind of struggle you’ve experienced in your life around having a voice.
(02:20) Meredith Bell:
Thank you, Doreen, first of all, for having me on your show. I love the focus. And I love the fact that each guest has their own unique story. And mine… I grew up in a happy home with two parents who loved each other and loved us. So, I didn’t have any real stifling of my voice at home. Although I was one of the more outgoing ones in my family and my mother used to, you know, talk to me about being a chatterbox. But not in a way that I ever felt like I couldn’t speak up. But in my childhood, I did attend parochial school– Catholic school, and had some teachers. When I was growing up. There were just so many rules, right? And I’ll never forget, I was in first grade. And the teacher left the room and she said, “Nobody get up.” You know, we weren’t allowed to speak, much less get up out of our seats. Well, I happen to notice this kid next to me was, I think he was filling out the wrong exercise in a book or in one of the workbooks. And I got up out of my seat. And I pointed out to him, the page he was supposed to be on. And the teacher apparently saw this through the window before she came back in the room. She called me up in front of the class and reamed me out, threatening to tie my legs to my desk if I got up out of my seat and was talking. And you know, that’s a lot of years ago. But I still remember that because I was so humiliated and mortified at– here I was trying to help. And getting corrected for that. I don’t know that that had a long-term impact on my speaking up, but it did make me really self-conscious. And there were some other instances like that where I got into trouble for saying something when I wasn’t supposed to talk. And so I guess I have carried some of that, just in terms of at times, being more afraid of speaking up what might someone think? You know, it’s more than fear of rejection, fear of being judged and criticized, that I think has held me back at times from speaking my truth.
(04:42) Dr. Doreen Downing:
I love that phrase, “speaking your truth” is like even as a young one in that classroom setting that you had something to offer, and you stood up and tried to offer it but then there was some kind of punishment and that goes a long way when we’re learning how to be ourselves in this world early on in life. So even though you said it might not have had an impact, it’s here today as a memory.
(05:11) Meredith Bell:
Well, exactly. And so, I’m sure there are times when that incident and others similar to it have, you know, caused me to respond a certain way or hesitate, maybe to speak up more. So, it isn’t so much public speaking about that’s its own track. Interesting. I always wanted to be a teacher. So, I never had any fear about standing up in front of a group of kids. That was not intimidating to me. And I enjoyed it when I did it. But a turning point in terms of speaking came for me when I was given the opportunity to do a workshop for other teachers. And I just really enjoyed it, and then somewhere– and I still don’t know, to this day, and that’s been decades ago– someone submitted my name to do a presentation at the state level for this reading association, because I was a reading specialist. And I did that. I was nervous, but I loved it. I loved connecting with the audience. It just was exciting to me. And so, a fellow teacher and I ended up submitting a proposal for a national event for this National Reading Association, got accepted. And we spoke before 200 people. And it was really exciting. And I think partly not so nerve wracking because I was doing it with someone else. And so, we were used to working together and used to, you know, bouncing off of each other in terms of energy. And so that worked out really well. And when I decided I was going to leave education because of bureaucracy and politics that I couldn’t deal with, I started my own consulting and training business around communication skills, not standing up and speaking, but more “How do people interact with each other at work and get along?” And I realized that that skill or ability to speak to a group was probably the best way for me to market myself. Because then people could sample, you know, my presentation skills and see that I knew what I was talking about and want to bring me in to work with people in their organization. And that did, in fact, work very well. That’s the thread though, that I think runs through everything I’ve ever done, is “thinking smaller than I might have.”
(07:48) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Oh this is good. This is gonna be real useful, I think, for listeners, because your story so far is, “Hey, folks, I didn’t suffer a lot growing up. I didn’t suffer a lot growing up. But gee, there are challenges just being yourself in this world.” And I loved listening to how you had the enjoyment of being in front of a group. And even so, there’s a challenge about your voice being heard. So yes, so tell us?
(08:21) Meredith Bell:
Well, it’s just I tended to think in terms of, you know, smaller groups that I could speak in front of. It was like, I didn’t give myself permission to think “how big can I go?” in those early years of my business. So, I tended to work with smaller local companies and you know, other types of organizations. And over the years, I’ve come to realize there’s, there’s more that I can do. And you know, having my own podcast now for almost two years has been a fabulous way of getting my voice out there in a different way. But I want to backtrack a little bit because there was an opportunity that I had that almost ruined me for public speaking. And that was, several years ago, I was a member of this organization that focused on helping small business owners and entrepreneurs do marketing. And I was a member for a number of years, and I had a goal to speak in front of that group. And so, what I did is I was providing, you know, serving other people, and especially the president of this, it was a private company, but that’s what they specialized in. And I just looked at different ways I could be of use, and I was on this podcast, or it was a monthly call they had. And he was on that call, and just was so positive about everything that I was saying. I thought, “I’m going to approach him about speaking at their next event on this topic,” because he seemed so thrilled with it. And sure enough, he said yes. And I thought he would probably have me speak in one of the breakout sessions. And he invited me to speak to the whole group, which was almost 1,000 people. And 10 years ago, or 11 years ago is when this happened, and I had not been out there speaking that much. We are a software company. Now having evolved into that. And so, I speak, you know, one-on-one or to small groups over zoom, but I don’t usually get up in front of an audience. So, I prepared for the longest time for this. Knowing these were a lot of people I knew, and I just wanted it to be effective. What I didn’t realize is, when I got up on stage, my mouth instantly went dry. And I guess this often happens, but I wasn’t prepared for that. It had never happened to me before. So, I had to scramble to go grab a sip of water before I even got started. And I just felt like I was getting off to a rocky start. And was self-conscious. Even though I had rehearsed, I’d practiced, I thought I was well prepared, I visualized and everything you’re supposed to do correctly, but actually stand there in front of that many people. The initial sense was, “what have I gotten myself into? I almost for a split second thought “I gotta get off the stage.” And then I got it together, I just flipped into, “You know your stuff.” Just you know, and all of this happened in split seconds. But it was amazing. One of my friends that was in the audience said, “Meredith, it was like you turned on a switch.” And it was. It was actually like that I could feel the shift. And immediately I was into the right mode, the right frame of mind, the right spirit of making my presentation, and it went really well.
And of course, in retrospect, I was beating myself up for those first couple of minutes, instead of looking at, “what’s the overall impact that I had?” Because I could tell from the audience engagement from people standing up at the end– not standing ovation, but to say, “Yes, I want to participate” in a certain thing that I was offering them. It really went very well. But I wasn’t totally prepared for the physical things that I would experience that kind of threw me for a loop there initially. But it built up my confidence in my ability to handle that kind of adversity. It’s– and you know what a big piece of it was, Doreen and you can explore this– a big switch came in focusing on them, and what I was there to deliver for them instead of how I might be coming across. What they might think of me, judging me, criticizing, all the things we do to ourselves that we then project other people are doing about us, right? So we can get off track easily with that kind of thinking,
(13:35) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Well, what a story. Both the being in the moment of panic, fright, the amygdala is taking over, adrenaline is surging through your body. And I’m sure that listeners have experienced that and that may be one of the reasons that they’re listening today. And, however, what you gave is a huge tip, is that if you do have this re-centering of yourself on the audience and not on those physical sensations that are happening, and you’re feeling like you’re about to go out of control. What– I love that idea of “switch,” that it is possible, even in the midst of all that stress, and with all the people looking at you, that you still can switch and the preparation you did was important but also the knowing what you were really there for is to pass on this information. And that seems like a higher value that you tapped into. And then lastly, I guess just that you trained yourself right then and there! You trained your body to say “okay, I could go from, you know, the terror to comfort or at least ease in presenting.” So, and then the feedback also. So, the whole loop, this story just, I think, represents everything that we’re talking about in terms of people overcome with stage fright: how to switch, and then to focus on the audience and then get the feedback. And the last thing I guess I want to say is that you also spoke to what it’s like to look back and rehash. And sometimes the rehashing is, we can be mean to ourselves.
(15:33) Meredith Bell:
Oh, yes, that’s a nice way to put it. Yes, because we have expectations for ourselves, you know, standards that we think we ought to live up to. And when we don’t, I think it can be difficult to accept what we think of as less than, you know, what we wanted to do and be? And so yeah, I think that it’s just so important to take that time to reflect and look at, “alright, what are the lessons I can take away from this?” And one of the things I do today that may be helpful for your listeners, before I have any conversation with someone on a Zoom or a phone call, that’s, you know, that scheduled, or, you know, an interview like this, it’s thinking about, “how can I best serve this individual or these listeners? What can I, what can I bring that will be of value to them?” And the more I’m able to focus on serving, the less I’m self-conscious about what I look like how I’m sounding, I’m just being. I’m being present, I’m being focused on the moment. And that makes all the difference in terms of feeling relaxed. In fact, one of my affirmations that I say every day (this may be useful for your listeners): “I am absolute calmness, clarity, and confidence.”
(17:12) Dr. Doreen Downing:
All three C’s.
(17:15) Meredith Bell:
Mm-hmm. And I will tell you of a situation where I needed to speak where that served me in a very powerful way. Because I was scheduled to give a presentation to an international audience one morning at eight o’clock, and the night before we lost internet connection. And of course, the provider indicated “Oh, yes, you know, it’ll be back up in a few hours.” Well, when I got up the next morning, it was not on. So, I immediately called their tech support. And I said, “Okay, I’ve got a presentation coming up on Zoom at eight o’clock, so I need to know how to make my plan.” And he said, “Well, it should be a back up by eight.” But you know, you know, that’s not trustworthy. So, he actually promised to call me when he had an update, which he did. But meanwhile, I was just able to stay calm because of this affirmation. My host, my point of contact, had wisely asked me to send her my PowerPoint slides the day before, so she had them. I had never used Zoom on my phone. But I thought, “alright, I can do that. I’ve got data I can use on my phone.” And that’s what we did. I was able to get my phone hooked up with zoom, so that I was able to visually be there with them. And she managed the slides. Now I called her, it was probably, I don’t know, seven or 7:30 and just gave her a heads up. I said, “this is what’s happening. This is what I’ve worked out.” And she said, “Meredith, you’re amazingly calm.” And so, I share with her my affirmation. I said, “Yeah, I can’t think clearly if I’m, you know, uptight.” And I think that’s an important lesson when we think about speaking, and using our voice, that if we are caught up in ourselves and worry and any of those amygdala-driven emotions, we can’t think clearly about our options. And it went beautifully. And then we got internet back before I had to do the session in the afternoon because it was two that day, and so we were back into a regular mode for that one. But I was interested in observing how calm I was able to stay in that moment, just because I had the confidence that I could do it and the clarity that there was a solution that would work.
(19:49) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Okay, one more time. That’s calmness, I am—
(19:53) Meredith Bell:
Absolute! “Absolute” is a key word for me there. “I am absolute calmness, clarity, and confidence.” So, there’s no question. There’s no ifs, ands or buts, no hesitation. I am it.
(20:08) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Oh, you’re right, that inserting “absolute” feels like it empowers the phrase itself. So, thank you for repeating it.
(20:18) Meredith Bell:
(20:19) Dr. Doreen Downing:
So, moving on to your glorious– what you offer in terms of the business world, tell us a little bit about that. Because obviously I know you’ve mentioned that voice is something that we always look forward to developing. It’s not something “I have a voice now and let me use it.” But in some ways, you are contributing, your voice is making a difference, Meredith! How, how– talk a little bit about that now so that people can know what you do and find you.
(20:55) Meredith Bell:
Oh, thank you. Well, we became a software company back in 1994, believe it or not, without any experience in that industry. But we were looking for a tool that didn’t exist. So, we decided to create it. And it’s a customizable 360 feedback tool that can be used really for any kind of survey, whether it’s helping a leader understand what their strengths and areas for improvement are based on input from the people who work with them. So, then we expanded that to be a broader survey that can assess an organization, employee engagement, that sort of thing. And we also knew though, we wanted to help people develop, so we created an online program that is a combination– get practice in the skill, get feedback about it, as you’re working on it, and get some coaching and support. So, it combines all of those into a single platform that helps somebody not just, say, attend a training program where they might get inspired and excited, but then it fades off and they revert back to what they’ve always done. And so, we have a process to help them really make changes. And so last year, with the situation with COVID, we decided that was an opportunity to put some of our knowledge and experience into book form. And that’s when in fact, right when the shutdowns happened in March of 2020, is when I was launching my first book, and I thought, “I’m doing it anyway, I don’t know when this is going to end. So, let’s just launch it.” And then one of my business partners, Denny Coates, and I, published the book, Connect With Your Team last fall, and then a companion book, Peer Coaching Made Simple, on how to work with another person to help you as you are working to improve your communication skills so that together, you can practice and improve over time. And so, what our goal is, is to sell a million copies of our books, because we’re very committed to making improvements in the workplace. And you’ve seen this, you know, Doreen, over the years, the pain and suffering people have from not being able to communicate with each other and connect, what, the things they leave unsaid that creates problems. And so, we want to really change that. And so that has challenged me to kick my voice up a notch or two, or higher. Because I can’t play small at all if I want to sell a million copies of our books. They don’t go together. And so, every day I’m, you know, having to ask myself, “alright, how can I stretch out of my comfort zone?” And just last week, just to let your listeners know, I think getting your voice is an evolution. It’s not a destination. I am constantly stretching ways to use my voice. And I use “voice,” of course, for my influence, my impact. I had a podcast host that I was talking to. I had gotten introduced to him. And he was interviewing a very famous author who sell hundreds of millions of books over the years. And he says “Meredith, why haven’t you invited him to be on your podcast?” I thought, “Yeah, why haven’t I?” It was a challenge. And at the same time caused me to reflect: “Okay, here’s an area where maybe I’m playing smaller than I need to. I’ve given myself credit for reaching out to other people that I’ve– whose work I’ve admired. But there are other ways that I could grow even more by questioning, ‘why am I hesitant to do this, what’s behind?’” And you know, it always comes back to the same kinds of things, Doreen. With your experience working with clients over the years, you know, fear of rejection, fear of being judged fear of who knows what, the things that just– these stories we tell ourselves that get in the way of us speaking our truth and asking and being more bold about just asking.
(25:26) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Yeah, being bold and asking and everything you say about change is not just something that you read a book and learn. Change is a process and it takes time. Well, you mentioned your book and a million copies. I think if you give us a way to go buy it that would be great…
(25:49) Meredith Bell:
Well, it’s called Connect With Your Team: Mastering the Top 10 Communication Skills. And that’s available on Amazon. And the other one actually was written by Denny– excuse me, Peer Coaching Made Simple. He wrote two books for parents too, that your listeners who are raising children may find interesting, and that’s Connect With Your Kid, for parents. Similar, the same 10 communication skills. And then Parents Coaching Parents: Working Together to Help Improve Family Communications With Another Parent Who Cares. So those four books to us are just so important to get out in the world because of the difference they can make. And all of them are available on Amazon.
(26:37) Dr. Doreen Downing:
And then to connect with you personally, would that be meredithbell.com or is that…
(26:43) Meredith Bell:
we have a website called GROWSTRONGLEADERS.COM and on that homepage, we have a video that explains how those two books, the Connect With Your Team and Peer Coaching Made Simple, how those can be used together in the workplace to help people really improve the way they connect and communicate with each other. And, and we also have a way for you to schedule a call with me, right there, “schedule a call with Meredith.” So, I’m easy to find if you go to GROWSTRONGLEADERS.COM and my podcast is on that website also, if somebody is interested in checking that out.
(27:24) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Wonderful. Well, I think we are enriched just by your stories and your inspiration around confidence, clarity, and calmness, as well as what you’ve just told us about growing stronger ourselves. It’s not just we’re, we’ve arrived and we have a voice, but there’s so much out in the world, more for us to be doing. And I get that that’s what you’re helping us all do is to be strong. Whether we’re leading a family, whether we’re leading ourselves, or a corporation, whatever it is, I feel that you’re holding out a big banner saying, “Grow strong, people!”
(28:11) Meredith Bell:
Well, you know, it is, and it just hit me– a question I think each person listening could ask themselves is “Who am I called to serve? And how can I”– it could be a very small group, it could be your family, you know, but who are you called to serve? And “how can I serve them in the most profound way possible so that during my lifetime, I have a positive impact on those that I am intended to serve.” And for me, I have realized with each year that goes by a bigger picture of who I can serve and who I ought to be serving. I take it as personal responsibility. People talk to me about retiring. “Meredith, you gonna retire? No, I’m not gonna retire. I’ve got too much work I want to do. I’m having fun. And I feel that I have this ability to have an impact. And I’m going to do the best that I can. While I’m here to do that.”
(29:21) Dr. Doreen Downing:
Wonderful last words and advice– doing the best you can. Thank you, Meredith. Thank you.
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