Building Lasting Relationships with Meredith Bell

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Episode Summary

Today’s guest on the Successful Pitch is Meredith Bell, who’s an expert at communication, connection, and listening. She said, “It’s really important that the people you work with and go into business with, that you have the same values, respect for each other and really look at the person with equality.” She said, “When you listen to what’s being said as well as what’s not being said, your intuition kicks in and the person can tell that you really care about them.”

She has some steps on how to be a better listener. They include focus, attention, and reflection. If you listen to this episode you’re going to learn exactly what those secrets are behind those three steps so that you’re going to become a better listener. She also teaches us how to break a bad habit that we might have, which could include not being a good listener but also why it’s so difficult to break them. Enjoy the episode.


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Building Lasting Relationships with Meredith Bell

Today’s guest on the Successful Pitch is Meredith Bell, who’s an expert at communication, connection, and listening. She said, “It’s really important that the people you work with and go into business with, that you have the same values, respect for each other and really look at the person with equality.” She said, “When you listen to what’s being said as well as what’s not being said, your intuition kicks in and the person can tell that you really care about them.”

She has some steps on how to be a better listener. They include focus, attention, and reflection. If you listen to this episode you’re going to learn exactly what those secrets are behind those three steps so that you’re going to become a better listener. She also teaches us how to break a bad habit that we might have, which could include not being a good listener but also why it’s so difficult to break them. Enjoy the episode.

Hello and welcome to the Successful Pitch. Today I’m very excited and thrilled actually to have Meredith Bell as the guest. She’s been an entrepreneur since 1982 and she’s an expert in helping companies develop the people side of their business. Meredith is the co-founder and president of Performance Support System, which is a global software company that’s based in Virginia. Their products are used by business consultants, executive coaches and human resource training professionals to help their managers become more effective leaders. Since it’s all about having a great team, Meredith is the expert on that.

One of her big strengths is building strong relationships. She and her business partners have worked together for over 25 years so that says something. Many of the clients and retailers have done business with her for 20 years. She really understands what’s required to build the loyalty and commitment that leads to repeat business and referrals. She takes great pride getting feedback like the one that said to her her system is really the epitome of the client centered high integrity, high support company, with world class products. You could look for a lifetime and not find its equal. I think that’s true not only of her software but of herself as a person. Meredith, welcome to the show.

Thank you, John. I’m really excited to be here with you today. I appreciate your kind remarks.

Well, I’ve gotten to know you and that’s what made me want to have you on as a guest, you really walk your talk. I always like to start with the story of origin. How did you, Meredith Bell, become this expert in people and relationships?

Like any other entrepreneur, it’s through a lot of scraped knees, might even say broken bones. I started out as a teacher in elementary school and got my Master’s and worked in three different school divisions in administrative roles and realized, John, I was not cut out for bureaucracy or politics. Which I think a lot of your listeners have probably experienced that along the way. I just jumped out and decided I was going to start my own business. I had not a single business course to my name or any business experience, but I am a learner and I had this inner confidence that I could do whatever I set out to do. You might call it determination too.

I had at that time experience of course doing training for teachers in addition to just being a teacher. So building on what I felt comfortable doing anyway, which was getting up in front of people, I decided I would do training around communication skills, which was one of my favorite passions. So I just started approaching local businesses and I leveraged what I already could do well, which was speak, into some local speaking in front of the chamber or associations or any group that I felt either could make a decision about working with me or introduce me to somebody in their company who would. That’s how I started out.

I love it because one of the thing that investors look for when someone’s pitching to get funding is, why you? Or the same thing is true is whether you’re pitching to get a new customer. They really typically want to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, that it’s not just a job, that it’s a passion. The fact that you were a teacher before you became an expert in training people how to be more connected with their employees makes perfect sense. That little story of origin is a great nugget for everyone to remember, “Oh, it doesn’t have to be I went to school to study this, but there’s something in my background that gives me the passion to want to teach people what I know, feel comfortable speaking in front of others and figure out that’s my business that’s going to make me successful,” and then you figured out a business model from there.

Yes. I met one of my business partners back in 1990. We started collaborating and we were very compatible. I think that’s a key think when people go into business and they think about forming a partnership, you look for good chemistry but sometimes you get so excited about that good chemistry that you assume everything else will work out, and it doesn’t. You have to make sure your values are aligned, that there’s mutual respect and a real sense of equality. That’s what we discovered and we brought in a third partner who managed the back end.

The three of us quickly came to appreciate each other’s strengths. It’s like a good marriage, you have to recognize it isn’t always going to be happy and everything working smoothly, but having the skills to work through differences is really critical. I think that was an advantage we had because we were already in the business of helping other companies improve communication skills, develop strong leaders. So we had some of that as an advantage in working through differences that we encountered over time.

Let’s talk about that, what communication skills do you think are essential for not only getting along with your co-founders but getting along with your clients?

Great question. Number one, the foundation of everything is listening. People often think, “I’m a good listener, what do I need to know about that?” But that is one the most important skills that is not taught in our world for the most part. There’s no class that most people take on listening. To me, it’s listening to what is being said as well as what’s not being said. It’s using your intuition and noticing the non-verbals along with the actual words, so that you get the full message and you’re not being quiet to just wait your turn, you’re truly trying to understand this other person.

Source: Pexels

[Tweet “Listen to what is being said and not being said”]

Honestly, John, I think that’s one of the key takeaways of everything else we might talk about today, that willingness to set aside your own needs, your own agenda, to truly understand this person who’s in front of you. Because when you have that attitude, they sense it and they become more relaxed, less confrontative because you’re making it safe for them to be honest with you. Whether it’s a potential client that you’re hoping to do business with or somebody that you have to work closely with as a partner, that sense that you value them as a person, no matter what they might say, and you’re not going to take it personally.

You really have to set your ego aside to be able to be willing to have an open mind and not assume you know what the person means. Listening is a combination of taking in what the person is saying, but it’s also interactive because you need to ask questions to make sure you got it right, because I’ve been guilty of starting to jump in and respond to things people say and it’s not even the question they’re asking or the issue they’re bringing up. So taking that time to step back and clarify and state in your own words, just to make sure you’ve got it right before you ask them to continue or before you respond.

That’s so important. I see that happen a lot, when people are pitching to get a new client or pitching to get funded, is they’ll get asked a question and sometimes it might even come across as an objection, and you can’t get defensive. If you don’t answer their question because you didn’t hear it properly, they’ll think you’re trying to avoid the question and really not trust you.

You can eliminate all that by just saying, “Okay, so what I heard you say is,” and then you answer the question. “Is that right?” “That’s right, yes.” “Okay, then here’s my answer.” Then I love to put in a little extra bonus at the end and say, “Did that answer your question?” Because sometimes it didn’t or they have another question from that, and then you really start having a dialog, as opposed to you just presenting, presenting, presenting.

Yes. You know, that word dialog is also key in this whole idea of listening, because to me the very definition of a dialog is keeping an open mind, where you are trying to understand the reasoning behind the position they hold, or the opinion they have, and then also setting the stage for you being able to share what your thoughts are and the reasoning behind that. I think that’s one of the key skills in addition to listening, is in terms of any relationship working well, is being willing to ask, “What’s behind that?” Because, again, we can make assumptions and start judging people and drawing all these conclusions, and we can be totally off base. These are stories we’re telling ourselves about this other person that aren’t even real, but we believe them and we act upon them, and that in itself can create all kinds of issues.

Yes. We’re going to Tweet that out, what you said, “Listen to what is being said as well as what is not being said.” I just love that. You talked about a lot of people think they’re already a good listener, and for the most part, we’re not because we haven’t been taught a class. You’re also an expert on how to rewire our brains to master a new skill or habit, so I think this is a perfect segue to do a little side journey on that because it’s such a key factor to relationships as you said.

Is there some tip you can give us, so we say, “Okay, Meredith, I agree with you. Listening is important and maybe I’m not the best because I’m jumping to conclusions or assumptions, and I’m only just listening, I’m waiting for my turn. How can I … It’s a habit, right? So how do I break that habit of not being a good listener?”

Thank you, I love that. We have a simple three step process that I think people could start using as a way to really start changing the way they listen. We call it focus, action, reflection. If you decide you’re going to focus on listening, then start also focusing on one thing you could do differently than what you do. Maybe it’s, “I’m going to stop interrupting people and let them finish their sentences.” Because that habit can be, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got so much to do, you’ve got to get this finished. Get on with it.” We want to help them along, but we’re disrespecting people when we do that, so that might be a goal, is, “I want to quit interrupting people.”

Source: Pexels

[Tweet “Focus, action, and reflection are key to listening”]

Then you commit to taking action. You hold it in the front of your mind, when I’m in a situation I’m going to catch myself if I find myself starting to jump in. You’re not going to be 100% because the old way is actually hard wired in your brain. You’re trying to lay down a new pathway and that requires practice. The third step is reflection, which means you think about what happened after it happened. So you don’t just keep action, action, action, without processing the experience and learning from it. You look at things like, “Okay, what happened? Why did it happen that way? What were the consequences?” You think about, “What would I want to do differently next time?”

So there’s learning that’s happening it sounds like.

Yes, exactly. It’s even better if you write down your answers to those questions and not just think them, so that you’re repeating that, focusing on the behavior, then acting upon it and then reflecting on it. Repeating that process is laying down the pathway in the brain for a new behavior. John, probably the easiest way to think about it is the old way that you are doing things, the current habit is like a roadway you drive every day to work. It’s automatic, that’s how you do it.

What we’re trying to do now, is create this new pathway but it’s at this point a gravel road. It’s going to be bumpy and uncomfortable and you can experience what we call the crunch point, where you encounter these challenges because it’s hard to get it right when you are competing against the old way. What you have to do is stick with it and persist, and eventually that rewiring with that additional practice over time, the new wiring will eventually overcome the old way of doing it.

You want to stick with it until that new way becomes a very smooth road that you travel in comfort in a way, so you’re not struggling with doing that. So catching yourself when you got to interrupt becomes the natural way that you do it, you’re not having to fight it so much. You’ll have more successes over time.

I think you also gave us an answer on why it’s so hard to learn and master something new, is we’re repaving that road, right?

Exactly. If you’ve never learned something before, then it’s a brand new thing that you’re learning, you don’t have the competing pathways. But for most of us, those inter-personal skills are habits we’ve acquired over time, so we have an existing way of listening to people, of giving feedback, of receiving feedback, all those elements that make a huge difference in our relationships.

Speaking of habits, what personal habits do you think have served you to be so successful all these years?

I would say one of them is that I am an eager learner. I keep an open mind about the fact that there’s always a better way to do things. I’m not locked into doing it one way. I’m also open to feedback. If somebody points out something that they wish I would do differently, I’ve grown a lot in this area because I used to take it personally and get my feelings hurt or think it was, “What’s wrong with them?”

Instead, I look at, “Okay, so let me examine that and see, is there something I’ve done here that I could do better?” One of my favorite quotes to answer that is Steve Chandler says, “Ask yourself, what’s the gift in this?”


I think that is so important because it prevents us from judging the other person, from taking it personally, instead of looking at, here’s an opportunity to examine this input and see if it’s valid if it’s something I want to consider changing. I think that’s another critical piece. The other thing that is related to that is I try to look at things that I try because you know as entrepreneurs, we are always experimenting with one thing or another. Whether it’s a marketing strategy or anything else that we’re doing.

When something doesn’t work, again this comes from Steve Chandler and another fellow, Brian Johnson. Put on your lab coat and your goggles and see yourself as a scientist, where it’s all an experiment. So what happens as a result of something you try is simply data.

Yes. It eliminates the fear of failure, doesn’t it?

Exactly, well at least it minimizes it if it doesn’t eliminate it altogether. Because again, it’s not about you personally failing, it’s the fact that you’ve tried this, and whatever the result is, you can learn from it. That has been really valuable for me.

I love it.

Because it keeps me from getting discouraged or giving up. It’s like, “Okay, I just have to think of what do I need to do differently if this didn’t produce the outcome that I hoped it would?”

I love those three habits. Stay open to feedback, be an eager learner and ask yourself, what’s the gift in this? Now that we have those new habits that we can start using, what kind of thinking or mindset’s required for us? Let’s say we want to start reaching out to people and make new connections either for reaching out to investors or you’re just reaching out to potential new customers, what’s your tip there on what we should be thinking about?

Source: Pexels

[Tweet “Be an eager learner and open to feedback”]

There are a few things that I would recommend there. Number one is an overall attitude about being of service to this person and not thinking about, “What can they do for me?” That is so fundamental to forming good relationships. Again, people sense this, anymore, I think everybody’s radar is up, “Is this person going to try to sell me?” I think that it’s very important to have that attitude of, “How can I help them?”

Part of that involves being genuinely curious to learn about them, because again it’s like with listening, most people want to tell you about themselves, so you really will stand out if you ask questions where you’re genuinely interested in learning more about them. Doing some homework in advance I think is also really valuable. When you do, like in reaching out to people, let’s say on LinkedIn. If you want to meet them, their profiles can tell you a lot about them. Instead of just sending out the generic LinkedIn request, you can personalize that invitation so they know that you’ve taken time to check them out. That, that sets you apart from other people without having to say anything about yourself.

You could even do a tie-in and say, “Oh, I see we both went to college in Chicago,” or, “I see you’re involved with XYZ charity, that’s something near and dear to my heart too.” So it’s personalized and letting them see a little bit of who you are, without obviously trying to sell yourself but you are having … I think that’s what you’re really the master at, is personalizing something and at the same time letting us know a little bit about yourself, why you do that.

You have so many great stories, and you know I love stories on the Successful Pitch. Can you tell us the story of how you’ve used your expertise in being of service, letting people know you appreciate their talk or their book, and how that’s turned out to be something really wonderful for you that you didn’t even anticipate?

Yes. You know, there are a lot of them. I think underlying everything John, we’re talking about a way of being, not a specific strategy that you implement.


I think that is so important because this one story I want to share with you is all about that. It incorporates another habit that I’ve developed, which is taking action. For many years I went to this conference called GKIC, used to be Glazer-Kennedy. Bill Glazer was the president there for many years. I’ve put on live events myself, so I always made a point of going up to him at some point in the conference and simply saying to him some specific things that I was really enjoying. It wasn’t to butter him up or anything, I just know how people complain about the little things.

Yeah, “It’s too hard,” “It’s too cold,” “There’s no water,” whatever. Yeah.

I would come up with specific things, it might have been a speaker or something he had said, and just go up and say, “Bill, I just have to tell you, I loved ABC.”

Let me just ask you to pause there, because that’s so important. When you give feedback to somebody everybody, don’t just say, “That was a great conference,” or, “That was a great talk.” It’s so much more powerful if you say, “I really liked that analogy you used,” or quote them back, “I’m really going to be able to use that instantly.” That’s so much more meaningful when you give specific feedback.

Yes, excellent point. One of the times I did this, he said to me, “You know Meredith, could I get you to call me every day?” He said, “Because you always say such nice things.” It just goes to show you, because you know Bill was a millionaire back then, many times over I’m sure, and yet all of us as human beings have this need to be affirmed for what we’re doing.

Nice specific feedback, that’s what he wanted, not just, “Oh, have a nice day.” You were really giving specific nice that made him feel good because you took the time, as you said earlier about the preparation, to make that feedback meaningful.

And you know, you just reminded me, one of the other things that happened there is after that particular conference, I sent a thank you note to him. I listed a bunch of different things that had been valuable for me in that conference. The next edition of their newsletter, he had put my thank you note in there, in a full page display.

Yeah, because it’s so rare that someone, A, takes the time to write a thank you note, and B, is that specific.

I think that was really the reason why he did it. But here’s the more interesting evolution of that story, I ended up being featured in their monthly CD that they send out to members, because I had read a newsletter and I had sent a pitch to another person there, saying, “I think I could add value to your members in this particular area.” This other person and Bill were both on the call, and Bill was eating up some of the things that I was saying. So afterward I thought, “I wonder if I could pitch him on the idea of speaking at one of the conferences.”

I sent him a note and I said, “You know Bill, you seem to really find this valuable. What do you think about me putting together a presentation around this at one of the conferences?” He loved it. He said, “Yes,” but what was really unexpected to me is he said, “I think this ought to be a general session.” I ended up speaking to 900 entrepreneurs at one of these conferences. It was one of those things where the relationship was built because I had given him what he perceived as value in advance of making that request, so I had paved the way and made it easy for him to say yes. That would have never happened if I had just contacted him cold and said, “Hey Bill, I’d like to speak at your conference. Here’s what I could do.”

Right, right. It’s so valuable. I think some people might be really curious, maybe we’ve all spoken in front of a conference room of 20 people, maybe if you’ve been a keynote speaker your audience is sometimes 150 people. But speaking in front of 900 people is a whole ‘nother ball game, isn’t it?

It sure is, because I had never spoken to that large a number before. Yes, that in itself was a good learning experience for me.

Right, it’s the same amount of preparation but you’re not going to be able to make eye contact with everyone in the room, let’s start there, right?

That’s exactly right.

You are such an expert on relationships and breaking habits. You help a lot of people who are in human resources at big companies or even small companies. You model it for yourself with your own company and your co-founders. Is there any last piece of advice you want to leave people with? Who’s your ideal client? “Here’s my advice if you’re suffering from this particular challenge.”

I would say that if there’s someone you really want to connect with, learn more about them in advance and look for ways that you can be of value to them. You reach out from the perspective of, “How can I add value to them about something that I can see would be useful to them based on what I’ve learned about them.”

I think not being afraid. I think fear is a key thing that really paralyzes us and prevents us. It’s that inner critic from, “Who do you think you are?” To, “Why would they want to hear from me?” All the things we say to ourselves that get in the way of us taking action because we can so easily talk ourselves out of doing things. It’s all driven by a fear, by the stories we tell ourselves. I think that adjusting our thinking and asking ourselves, “What’s the worst that could happen if I take this step? Well, they won’t want to do business with me. Guess what? They’re not doing business with me today anyway.” So why hold back?

I’m trying to remember if it was Sheryl Sandberg might be the one from Facebook. Anyway, someone had said, “Every day do something that scares you.” It doesn’t have to be huge but something that you normally would be a little fearful about. Take a baby step, just do a little something because what that does is the more you show courage, the more you build up self-confidence. You don’t build up confidence by just doing a lot of self-talk, “I’m confident, I’m confident.” That doesn’t do it. It’s taking action and showing yourself, “By golly, I can do this.”

Therefor, just making a commitment to yourself that you’re going to step out and do something today, because honestly John, we all have a responsibility to show up as our best selves. Somebody is not getting the best of us if we don’t do that. I remind myself of that every day, who am I? Who’s not learning about what I could be sharing if I don’t take this step?

I love it. It’s not just telling yourself you’re confident, it’s taking steps because then that reinforces you have, what I call stacking your moments of certainty. I took this action and that worked, so you remember all the positive things that came out of taking action to continue inspiring you to continue to take action instead of just telling yourself something.


You’re an avid reader Meredith, I’m asking you to recommend one book, but if you want to recommend more than one, that you would think would help people with business, with life, with communication, anything that you really want to share and promote.

I have to say at the very top is a book called “Straight Line Leadership” by Dusan Djukich. I’m always saying it’s in my top three but I can never come up with one that’s ahead of it. The reason I love it is because it’s immensely practical. I recommend every entrepreneur read and study this book. It’s short chapters and not academic at all, it’s very practical, direct. What he does is he positions, he is encouraging you to take the stances that are going to help you show up in the world in a very powerful way.

He contrasts two ways of being in every chapter, like trying versus committing. He has a series of questions in one of the chapters that he asks potential clients. The book is worth getting just for that. I have a way of getting a free copy for people, so if any of your listeners want to contact me, I’ll be glad to tell them how to get that.

That’s very kind. Please tell us the best ways to contact you?

I’m on LinkedIn a lot, so Meredith Bell on LinkedIn. My email address, I’m happy to share, is I’m on Twitter @MeredithMBell.

Nice. I can’t thank you enough for sharing your wisdom, your expertise on listening, on breaking habits and connecting with people in a way that makes you of service instead of what’s in it for you. It’s great advice. I’m sure I can see why you’ve been in business for so long, I can see why your clients love working with you because when you can get them to shift that mindset, they’re all going to be more productive and get along. That’s what the name of the game is.

Exactly. John, it’s such a pleasure being with you. Thank you so much for having me.

My pleasure. Thanks for listening.

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