‘I would encourage every author to have their own-book-shaped plan and their own-marketing-shape plan that is theirs, because that is what creates the books that really reflect our own message and that are really full of integrity.’
If you’re tired of formulaic approaches or cynical marketing tactics, this will be a breath of fresh air. Alice Sheldon had a powerful message to share but found the obvious writing route and standard marketing tactics didn’t sit well with her. So she created an Alice-shaped way of authoring and promoting her book, a way that drew on her strengths and drew in help and support from a whole team of ‘book friends’.
In this conversation we talk not only about the transformational Needs Understanding framework, the ‘surprisingly simple secret’ of the title, but also the way that by understanding your own needs as an author you can create a way of writing and marketing your book that is not only effective but also joyful and authentic.
Alice’s site: https://www.needs-understanding.com/
Alice on Twitter: https://twitter.com/alicesheldon
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2022: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks
Alison Jones: Well, this is an absolute joy: I am here today with Alice Sheldon. After graduating from Oxford University with a MA in Psychology and Neurophysiology, Alice’s strong interest in how we can contribute to the creation of a more inclusive world took her on a career journey which included being a secondary school teacher, a barrister, and the Head of the Bar’s national pro bono charity, Advocate.
And it was during that time that Alice came across two life-changing pieces of understanding. The first was psychotherapy and the second was nonviolent communication, NVC. She became a certified trainer with The Centre For Nonviolent Communication and she developed a model of Partnership Parenting, which has helped hundreds of fellow parents to create thriving relationships with their children.
And this became the springboard for her creation of the broader Needs Understanding model, which brings a partnership approach into all spheres of life. And she now shares that approach globally with individuals and organizations. And brilliantly, she’s also put it into a book Why Weren’t We Taught This At School, which is out now, this week when this podcast goes out.
So welcome to the show. Alice, it’s just brilliant to have you here.
Alice Sheldon: Thank you very much for having me.
Alison Jones: Oh, it’s always a joy when I’ve sort of been involved right from the start of a book and I get to reflect back on that whole journey. So I’m looking forward to this.
Alice Sheldon: Well, I really remember from the beginning actually, just joking that this day would come, and here we are. So it’s a real pleasure. I kind of feel we need the champagne, but it’s great to be here.
Alison Jones: Yes, it could go downhill quite quickly if we are quaffing the champagne.
We can maybe do that after we’ve pressed end, but I want to start with Needs Understanding and the whole concept, because I remember, when we were talking at the beginning and I was: what is it?
And you were grappling to explain it and we didn’t have a phrase for it. So tell us what it is, show us how far you’ve come.
Alice Sheldon: No pressure.
Alison Jones: And also where that name came from in the end.
Alice Sheldon: Yes, absolutely.
So it turns out that there is a really helpful way of looking at the world that no one teaches most of us. And it’s when we start to understand ourselves and other people and the world around us through the lens of our shared human needs. So these aren’t just food and water and the sort of survival needs, but they’re the deeper, emotional, and psychological, spiritual needs that we have, for example, fun or belonging or creativity. And probably the easiest way for me to explain it then, and now, is through an example. So I’ll use the example, as you’ve just waved the book, that I go through in chapter one to help the reader to understand what this looks like. And the core principle is that it’s to interpret everything that I do or that someone else does as an attempt to meet those needs. So this is an example, a parenting example, but I hope that people will easily be able to translate it into the professional sphere as well because Needs Understanding of course operates both in our personal life and our professional life.
And so this is as the parent of a young child, I imagine this to be familiar, you know, you’re trying to get out of the door, child is completely refusing to put coat on. Child wants to stay and play with toys. Child had agreed to go out earlier on whilst you were kind of, you know, pushing Polly Pocket around the floor and child is now refusing.
So I don’t know about you, but in my household, I would quite easily run through a gamut of parenting, kind of, you know, bribery and persuasion and you said you would and generally, dissolve into shouting at the end of it and everyone’s unhappy.
So if I put the Needs Understanding framework over the top of that, then what I ask myself is what am I needing when I’m looking to go out to the cafe, what am I needing? And you know, everyone would have different needs in that situation, but for me the key needs or two of the key needs are about aliveness, I need to have a sense of connection and aliveness that I don’t get if I sit on the floor all day playing Polly Pocket. And the second thing is something about knowing I matter, and I’ll come back to that one in a second.
For my child, maybe it’s something about choice, it often is with younger children in particular. You know, they don’t get a lot of choice in society, but also about she’s wanting me to hear her, she’s wanting to be heard. There maybe a range of other things, to have fun, of course, because she’s playing.
So what Needs Understanding says then is if I actually connect with those needs instead of just arguing about the coat, what happens and I’ll say, I know we are time limited Alison, but it does feel important just to spend time on this right upfront.
So the first thing that happens in the four kind of skill areas that I talk about in the book, the first thing that happens is that I will talk differently with my child. I might empathize with her. So I might say to her instead of any of my other strategies, I might say to her, ‘I can see that you really want to stay and play now. I can see you’re having such fun here.’ I’m not trying to fix it. I’m just being with her and that’s very powerful.
So there’s a section of the book about empathy, at work, at home, doesn’t matter, it’s the same underlying principles applied slightly differently. The second thing is that I empathize with myself and I said I’d come back to the need to matter, because this is often a key moment for Needs Understanding learners is knowing that we have fingerprint needs that get triggered.
So when you get triggered into usually either anger or shame, it’s usually because there’s a very old need being touched on, one from my past where I didn’t feel I mattered in my family. So my daughter, of course, it’s not her job to make me feel I matter. But if she doesn’t put her coat on I’m left, some childish part of me is feeling like, well, what about me? I don’t matter.
And if I know that, I can interrupt that in ways I explain in the book. Last two bits, quicker to explain, when I speak I’m more likely to stop arguing about whether or not to put the coat on.
That’s just the strategy, it’s not really what the debate is about. The debate is about what’s going on underneath, so I’m less likely to talk about putting the coat on or not, and start talking about my needs for aliveness and her needs for fun and how we might be able to meet all of those needs.
And the very final part is a lovely bit about problem solving and bringing her on board.
And in this instance it’s remarkable how easy it is for that other person to come on board and say, yes, I’ll hold all those needs with you. And let’s find a way forward.
I promise that’s the longest monologue I’ll do throughout this conversation, but it did feel important just to be clear about it upfront.
Alison Jones: No, it’s brilliant. And it actually is a really, really good example of how giving an example brings the topic alive, because it’s quite easy to talk about this sort of stuff in very abstract terms. And we start to struggle because we’re not really designed to think, but when you tell a story and when you put it into a situation that we can all identify with, then suddenly it makes sense.
And yes, I mean, certainly if you have, as you say, been the parent of a small child, trying to get them out the door and then they don’t want to go that will resonate with you, but you can also map it across, I’m sure, to any kind of situation where you’ve been feeling like you’ve been surrounded by idiots and people who just don’t get it. Okay. So it’s very, very powerful. So thank you for giving that example.
What I also love, I should say personally, been transformational in my parenting. So thank you for that, but also it’s really interesting how it’s both of you. So it’s not simply about understanding someone else’s needs so you can get more out of them. It’s also answering your own and not about becoming a doormat, but about bringing that person on board to help you meet both of them. So that’s really, really powerful.
Needs Understanding sounds now really obvious. Of course that’s the word that you would use to describe this? It didn’t feel that way at the time, did it?
Alice Sheldon: It really didn’t. I mean, you and I had many conversations and pinging backwards and forwards of ideas that, along with other people in my wider kind of community, and it was really hard to arrive at. And I think the central point of grappling is that needs is not a very comfortable word.
You know, in the English language, it’s got all kinds of connotations of neediness and even if it is used in the same kind of sphere as I’m using it, then it might be used in different ways. It gets muddled up as a verb and noun. So we did really struggle with it, but in the end, I’m very, very glad with where we’ve ended up.
Because I think one of the beauties for me, of this volume of work, I’m not someone who likes to have like 23 checklists in my mind when I’m trying to know how to live. And what I love about this is if you forget everything else actually, and remember what are the needs? What are the needs? That’s already, you know, you’re halfway there. So having it named right up front, I think was important in the end.
Alison Jones: Yes, I agree. And one of the other challenges I know you faced was, and related to that really, normally when you deliver this sort of work, when you’re engaging people in experiencing it, you’re in the room with them and you’re taking them through and you’re doing X, it’s very experiential.
You’re a very people person and suddenly you’ve got to put that into a book and you’re not in the room with a person, you don’t know their situation and you can’t show them what you mean and do it kind of in real time with them. And I know you really struggled with that.
What did you discover through that process of having to think how to present it when you’re not there with them?
Alice Sheldon: You’re absolutely right and I think I’ve discovered two things. One is that it was really important to me to try to do as well as I could with that, that wasn’t one of the things in the book that I could compromise on, because the magic that I experience happening when I’m in a room, you know, of course it looks different in a book, but I wanted some of that magic to come across. Because obviously this stuff really matters to me and I’ve seen it transform people in large and small ways. So I didn’t want to lose that because the connection had got lost.
So that was the first thing I learned. The second thing I learned was that I needed help.
Clearly I couldn’t do this on my own and that was quite an early learning for me, that I was going to need to really draw on all kinds of different sorts of support.
Alison Jones: Well, let’s dig into that a bit because you have written a book. You are not one of the world’s natural writers, are you? This is not your preferred mode. Tell us about how you write a book without writing a book.
Alice Sheldon: So, I mean, you know, again, it’s so lovely to sit here and laugh with you about it because as you’ll know, I really tried very, very hard to write and I’m really not used to failing at something. You know, I have a strong academic record, but the first time that I showed chapter one, which I had agonized over to an author and writing coach.
She looked at it and I think, quite apart from the volume of red pen that was on it, it was also the word unreadable that really kind of threw me. And I remember that you and I had a conversation at that point, I dissolved into quivering jelly. You know, this book that I want to write, oh my God, I can’t, you know, I can’t write it.
And you are a little more diplomatic, but I mean, essentially the message was the same in the format it was in, it was unreadable. Fortunately, we came up with a different strategy, nice to get the Needs strategy division there, a different strategy, which was to bring on board the wonderful Ginny Carter, who wrote alongside me. So we were a team on the book and that was just an amazing, amazing gift in so many ways.
So yes, I’m very grateful to you for the recommendation and to Ginny for the amazing job that she’s done.
Alison Jones: Yes, she’s pretty good, isn’t she, Ginny, formerly of this podcast, Carter. Yes. Well, what made that partnership work so well, do you think?
Alice Sheldon: Well, it’s really interesting because again, we’re very different people and I mean, the thing I think that at the bottom of it what made it work really well, was that we both really respected the other person’s skill. So I think it’s fair to say that she could see what I was bringing and certainly I could see what she was bringing.
I do, I mean, I teach this stuff for a reason. And so the amount of mental chatter about, does she like me, does she think I’m doing this in a good way, am I just the worst author, all of this stuff, it actually doesn’t happen very much. So that’s great because it left me free to deal with actually what was coming up between us.
So when there were glitches and certainly there were points where one or other of us had a misunderstanding by email or you know, I was very unwilling to let go of an idea, or she was thinking about how to phrase something, it just left it quite clear to be able to communicate that. And so I remember Ginny saying that there was a point at which I remember her saying, and I hope I quote her accurately, that she found it very easy to receive feedback from me. And I didn’t hold back on feedback, I have to say, but the reason she found it easy was because it never felt personal. And certainly for me, it felt very clear to deliver again just because the relationship was clear.
So yes, it was a real delight and I feel very excited about the time when we actually manage to meet in person, because of course all of this has been in different parts of the country during COVID times.
Alison Jones: Yes, we’re speaking pre-launch party. Cannot wait.
But it’s interesting that point you make about the nature of the relationship and the ability to get the job done, in what could actually be quite a vulnerable situation or a difficult situation where you’ve got competing priorities and putting any kind of writing makes you feel vulnerable, but because you’re using the principles of that relationship management, you’re actually free then to just get on with the job, aren’t you? It’s quite interesting.
Alice Sheldon: Yes, and it was fantastic having another close team member on board who really knew the material well, and I still remember with the light, when you and I had come up with what we thought was an excellent analogy to use, which was a prism splitting lights into different colors. And I went back and I said, Alison and I’ve come up with this excellent analogy and metaphor and let’s put it in.
And Ginny was like, I don’t think that works Alice, I’m having real hark backs to my physics lessons. No, we are not using that. You know, it was a lot of fun as well as, there was all of the pressure of this matters a lot to me and I really want to get it at the level I want it to be.
And Ginny has absolutely achieved that. I’m so delighted.
Alison Jones: And what’s lovely as well as it’s your voice, which I think is such a skill of hers, isn’t it? That’s great.
Alice Sheldon: Yes, yes absolutely. And that links into the book friends group that we might touch on because… let’s go there. And so when I asked for feedback on the voice, when 10 people came back and said, it sounds like you, I was like right job done. That’s great.
Alison Jones: And it’s an absolutely kind of natural segue from working with Ginny and that sense of seeking help, where you need it… you are a person who is very much resourced by people. And I think you said to me very, very quickly, I’m going to need lots of support around me to do this. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody do it quite so naturally, elegantly, effectively.
Tell us about Book Friends.
Alice Sheldon: I love that, elegantly. I’m going to save that.
So Book Friends was started right at the beginning of the writing process. Exactly as you say, I love the way you put it, I am resourced by people. So what I did, people kept saying, oh, you need to, if you’re seeking support, you need to give them something in return and right through this book, I needed to find what was true for me.
And actually what I did was I just asked people who were really interested to hear about this book, because of course the wonderful thing about this book is it’s not about a narrow area of life. So it’s potentially very attractive to all kinds of people. So when people expressed interest in the book I would just say to them, you know, if you’d like to come and join my support team, you don’t have to do anything, it’s a Facebook group, I will join you up to the group. There’s no pressure to comment, like, even read anything. And it’s a place where I can lean in and ask for support and then people who are able to give it, who do have capacity can meet me in that. And so I didn’t have a thing for people that they were going to get.
It was just how I do my relationships, which was to be quite straight down the line and say, you know, I really would love some help and if it doesn’t fit for you, absolutely fine. And so that group has just been quite remarkable. They’ve read, you know, we published, didn’t we, all the initial drafts just freely for people to comment on.
And, you know, people helped me with the cover, the tone and, I mean, anything really that there was, anything that I was worrying about I just would put a little note in there and someone would send me a big hug or something useful, you know, so yes, they’ve been great. And of course that team is now shifting over to grow and to become the team that will support the first year of the book going forward which is delightful.
Alison Jones: It’s really interesting, isn’t it? You’re right, there’s so much received wisdom about, you know, your lead magnet, how you can attract people and so on and it was really quite radical just to say it’s up to you but, if you’d like to, if you’re interested than then do join me and I think that intrinsic, it’s a very different, it’s a more human relationship isn’t it, than the transactional one. And that changed the quality I think, of the nature of the people in the group and their expectations of it.
Alice Sheldon: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right and it’s interesting. I love that you used the word intrinsic because of course that again is a piece that comes up in one of the chapters of the book, which is around how we make requests and also how it comes up in a parenting situation or not a parenting one, actually.
I can’t remember. Anyway, whatever context it comes up in, but this idea that when we reward people, we’re fixing their eyes on what’s going on outside of them rather than on what’s going on inside of them. So it’s a much cleaner way to be able to request support if you know that you’ve given people the opportunity to say no. Because if you’ve given them the opportunity to say no, then when they say yes, you can really trust the yes. And we’re not good at that in our society actually. And I think we suffer because of it.
Alison Jones: I would normally about now Alice be asking someone for their best tip for someone who’s about to write their business book or who’s involved in the early stages of writing their business book. I’m still going to ask you, you know, I mean, I know that it’s very interesting actually… side note: when we do our Friday campfires, we do our writing sprints, Alice you do a thinking sprint, don’t you, occasionally writes something down, this is my mode. It’s a bit different to yours. It’s not writing.
But actually, you know, writing a book is so much more than physically writing a book. It is, it’s about structuring and thinking through the examples and finding the metaphors, and then of course it’s all about, as you say, coordinating the people, getting the marketing together and the launch team and so on. So from that breadth of experience, what would be your sort of single best tip for somebody about to embark on that?
Alice Sheldon: So I do have one, but I am also going to allow myself a side note too, because of Friday campfires. What has been really amazing for me is to be included in those campfires even though I don’t have books to recommend usually, and I don’t write but it’s more important than that because for a long time, as a child, I would feel different, but if I allowed myself to express that difference, I didn’t belong.
And so here I can be different, but I’m just one with everyone else. I’m not special any more than anybody else. I’m just like, you know, like everybody else, but doing things a bit differently. And that is absolutely thanks to you and the way that you have set the whole thing up. So that’s my side note.
Back to the tip actually I do have one and it leads on from what we were talking about just now, what I would say is just encourage you to find your path with writing your book. Exactly that, try to really check in with what’s true for you. And if what someone else is suggesting doesn’t fit, that’s okay. And either you’ll talk about it and find a way that it can fit or actually it’s not for you. So I know it’s a little bit unspecific, but I think there was a point Alison, where you and I were talking about marketing and we came up with a sort of Alice-shaped marketing plan.
And I would encourage every author to have their own-book-shaped plan and their own marketing shape plan that is theirs because that is what I think creates the books that really reflect our own message and that are really full of kind of integrity.
Alison Jones: Yes, I know there’s so many templates out there, aren’t there, there’s so many sort of five-step plans for marketing your book and you know, this is the way you do it and so on. And actually of course, what that does is, it means that you’re not playing to your strengths. And when you create the Alice-shaped plan, the whatever-your-name-is-shaped plan, then you identify your zone of genius and you really play to it.
And you have the courage to lean into that. And it means nobody else is going to do it that way, which is really exciting and great for other people to be involved in because of the energy with that.
Alice Sheldon: Yes. Yes.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And again, I normally ask somebody to recommended a business book, I’m going to extend it right out, you know, tell us something that apart from other people, that resources you, or something that you enjoy and what you might recommend to other people.
Alice Sheldon: So I have actually got a book. I’m not sure I’d describe it quite as a business book, but you won’t be surprised to see what it is.
I can’t see myself, so, no, you can see what it is. Right. So this is the amazing Nonviolent Communication: A language of life by Marshall Rosenberg and it is an extraordinary book.
So famously Satya Nadella when he took over Microsoft gave it to all his senior execs to read. And if you sort of like the sound of what you’re hearing from me, this is a much earlier take on it. And there’s a lot in this book that I think is great. So that is the one that I would encourage.
Alison Jones: That is brilliant. And I hadn’t heard of nonviolent communication, I don’t know how I hadn’t heard of it, until I met you. It really, I do feel it should be, why weren’t we taught this at school? You know, it’s one of those sort of foundational principles to have in your head whenever you are a bit, well not just in conflict whenever you’re dealing with other people in any relationship really.
Alice Sheldon: That’s right and I think what’s amazing about it is that it can dive very deep if you want it to, or it can stay on the surface. And I love that kind of range of inclusivity. If you just want some good ways of sending emails that are more likely to land, it’s covered, you know, if you want to understand why you’re yelling at your child, it’s covered, you know?
Alison Jones: Cracking recommendation. Thank you very much.
And Alice, if people want to find out more about you, more about the book, more about the work that you do with Needs Understanding, where should they go?
Alice Sheldon: Well, I have a new website.
As we’re recording this, I wouldn’t say it’s exactly live yet, but it will be live. So it’s needs-understanding.com
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I will put that link up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, obviously along with the transcript of this conversation.
And it has been just such a joy talking to you, Alice I’m so glad we’re here. We got here.
Alice Sheldon: So am I, I have to keep slightly pinching myself. A bit like I did when I was abroad this summer. It’s like not until my feet are in the sea.
I would say one other thing, Alison, sorry, just about the contact things. If anyone feels resonance with me and would like to come and just experience what it’s like to be part of Team Book, which is the new Facebook group, that’s also totally welcome.
So I don’t know how you do that, let me know, somehow. It would be through the website wouldn’t it.
Alison Jones: They can contact you through the website. Brilliant.
And to give the book it’s full title: Why Weren’t We Taught This at School: The surprisingly simple secret to transforming life’s challenges by Alice Sheldon.
Isn’t it gorgeous? There you go. Brilliant. Thank you so much for your time today, Alice.
Alice Sheldon: Thank you so much for having me.