Deb Smolensky: Pivoting with Empathy and Curiosity

In this episode, Steve Fretzin and Deb Smolensky discuss:

  • Missteps companies are making as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Retraining our brains to be our best, authentic self.
  • Mental health and mental wellbeing.
  • Bringing positive energy into the micro-moments of your life.

Key Takeaways:

  • We need to show up with empathy and curiosity as we meet with people. Pause to get your footing with each scenario and each individual.
  • We are in a period of awareness. We are not the same person, things are not the same. Ask the curiosity questions, don’t just default to the old way.
  • You can’t do two things at once. Your brain is not at peak performance if you are doing more than one thing at a time.
  • When you are in your head in a conversation, that is when you stop listening. Put yourself in your shoes and deep listen to what they are actually saying.

“For those leading an organization, remember that what you’re feeling or thinking isn’t exactly what other people are feeling or thinking. Role model, and then pivot with curiosity and empathy, because they might not be there.” —  Deb Smolensky

Connect with Deb Smolensky:  



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LinkedIn: Steve Fretzin

Twitter: @stevefretzin

Facebook: Fretzin, Inc.


Email: [email protected]

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Call Steve directly at 847-602-6911

Show notes by Podcastologist Chelsea Taylor-Sturkie

Audio production by Turnkey Podcast Productions. You’re the expert. Your podcast will prove it.




business, micro moments, question, person, people, listening, brain, law firm, pandemic, breaths, lawyer, thinking, leader, world, meeting, nfp, life, individual, shook, clients


Deb Smolensky, Narrator, Steve Fretzin


Deb Smolensky  [00:00]

People are slow to change, you know, we don’t want to change. That’s at the crux of it. Nobody wants to change whether you’re a law firm, accounting firm a hospital, like no one wants to change and understanding that you have to be aware of that and kind of look for change and approach it in a positive curiosity manner is finding the key.


Narrator  [00:27]

You’re listening to be that lawyer, life changing strategies and resources for growing a successful law practice. Each episode, your host, author and lawyer, coach, Steve Fretzin, will take a deeper dive, helping you grow your law practice in less time, greater results. Now, here’s your host, Steve Fretzin.


Steve Fretzin  [00:49]

Hey, everybody, welcome to be that lawyer. I am Steve Fretzin, your host, and I hope you’re having a wonderful day of the weather here in Chicago. Not that you needed the forecast, but I’ll give it anyway. It’s absolutely perfect. And so people that hate Illinois and hate Chicago, suck it because we’re having great weather and too bad if you’re somewhere hot. Anyway, you know, this show is all about, you know, helping you the lawyer to improve your life, improve your business development and have more independence and just live a more full, wonderful life. And there’s no better guest than who I have today, who is a leadership expert, while being an employee engagement expert. She’s the senior vice president of NFP, and her name is Deb Smolensky. And I didn’t mess it up too bad.



Not too bad.


Steve Fretzin  [01:32]

I thought I might. But I know I thought I could handle that. I did get it fine. All right. All right. Well, I appreciate that. How are you today?



I’m well, thanks for having me. This is great to be here.


Steve Fretzin  [01:42]

Yeah, well, I’m so happy to have you and you came so highly recommended. And we had a terrific chat prior to this recording. And if you’d be so kind as to give a little bit of, you know, Reader’s Digest version of your background and kind of what you do with it, NFP, that’d be terrific.



Yeah, sure. So I’m a seasoned veteran, 25 years in the benefits, employer benefits space. But really, my background is in accounting. So I bring that business acumen and elements to the leadership venue and creating really strong, thriving individuals. So we can have our best lives at work as well as organizations as well. And what does that whole ecosystem look like? So I spend most of my day helping organizations and leaders bring that forward and solutions and frameworks and skills and apply it to their business? So ultimately, both employees, individuals and businesses thrive? Yeah.


Steve Fretzin  [02:37]

Okay. That’s wonderful. And obviously, we’re clawing our way out of this pandemic, and hoping things, you know, stay positive and good. What are you seeing as a relates to the way that employers and employees are handling? You know, the epidemic of the pandemic? I should say? And then coming out of it, what are you kind of seeing on your because you’re on the front lines of this whole thing?



Yeah. I mean, NFP is an employer benefits and insurance organization with 50,000 clients. And I sit on top of that, as a practice leader. And I mean, the two things we’re seeing right now, and maybe the two missteps is actually telling ourselves, you know, things are changing, we’re not in crisis mode. Typically, we follow a linear path, right? We need to do this. And then there’s and life just keeps flowing linearly. But we need to be treated like a transitional circular path. And right now the crisis is over. And we need to be really addressing and businesses are addressing how do we want to show up as a new person, as a new organization, because none of us are the same as we were a year ago, and either as any organization. And so that’s really where we’re focusing our time, this next three to six months is what does that transition space look like? Are your values the same? Are your dreams and goals the same as as an individual and in a business? Are your employees? Are you the same? And if not, we need to be curious and figure out who this new person is and who this new organization is, in order to thrive going forward?


Steve Fretzin  [04:04]

Yeah. And then what are the challenges that employees are having? And obviously, you know, I’m working in the legal space. So, you know, we’re talking about, you know, law firms were generally, you know, there’s a lot of camaraderie, there’s a lot of mentorship, there’s a lot of sharing of ideas, and and all that, and it’s been gone. I mean, it’s been everybody’s been separated for so long. So now coming back into that, is it going to be the same? You’re saying it’s going to probably be different, I’m assuming, right?



Yeah. So I guess the worst thing of business or a law firm can do is assume it’s going to be back to the same. That’s kind of the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and expecting different results, especially in a different world. So to your point, you’re spot on. This is all about recognizing the challenges of working in a hybrid, you know, environment, the challenges of doing business, although we’re on zoom in a different way when somebody’s not in the room. or somebody wants to come through even the challenges of not shaking hands in a meeting, like these are all going to throw our games off and not allow us to be the bright individual we know to be true, because our brains are going to try to figure out this new way of working. And that becomes a challenge.


Steve Fretzin  [05:17]

I mean, it’s really interesting. I mean, I’m fully vaccinated. And I just assumed that people that are without mass are as well. And I mean, yesterday, I met a painter and I shook his hand. And then before that I met someone, you know, for a networking meeting shook his hand. Now I’ve got a live event coming up this Friday, with 25 people coming to meet for beers and tacos. Are we not shaking hands? Or are we I mean, seems like we are people just are going right back to that, though.



Yeah, what you can’t see and what we can’t see, because we’re not trained, right, it’s going back to the normal way is, there is a response for that other person, like, oh, wow, he’s putting out his hand, I really don’t want to shake it. Like, you might be throwing that other person off. And they’re just shaking the hand because that’s what we used to do, or that’s what he thinks. And then you might not have a great relationship after that, or a great conversation, because he’s still like, oh, my gosh, I’ve shook somebody’s hand. I wasn’t ready for it. Like, we need to show up really, with empathy and curiosity. So how do we greet each other, you know, those awkward moments or conversation moments, we actually need to pause until we get our footing with each individual and each scenario?


Steve Fretzin  [06:29]

Yeah, I just wish there was someone that could spearhead a universal bowing or elbow bump. I think it’s possible for a while. So I don’t know if we all should just agree to elbow Bob. That’s it. And we’re done with the handshake, right? I’m a bit OCD and have been for many years in my adult life, which now my whole family is turning, especially my wife is turning into me, which I think is funny. But I’m all about the Purell. I’m all about idea that we could stop handshaking. As much as I like that connection of that eye contact. And that pressure and connection that happens when you depress flush, as they call it in the sales world. You know, I’m always then thinking about don’t touch your face. When can I get to a bathroom? Where’s my Purell? Can I do that in front of them? Is that offensive? Right? All those things happening in a split second of my mind, because I used to think I was crazy. Now, everybody’s sort of come up to my level of anxiety. And now I’m falling back into weird. Bingo post pandemic is traditions.



For your listeners, if they just listened to our first five minutes of conversation, this is going to be the plague on our mental well being in our stress, because you have just use such brainpower on how to get to the nearest bathroom versus showing up as your authentic, brilliant self and transacting business, right? We are, this is a brain training skill for optimum business success, our file cards right now are so messed up on the way we interact and what we’re thinking about, that we can’t be our best selves until we are aware, so good for you being aware, right? Of what you’re thinking and feeling at every given moment and pausing and saying that’s crap, let’s bring myself back online into reality, so that you can connect with that person in front of you, or in that email with your best sound?


Steve Fretzin  [08:14]

Yeah. Well, I don’t know that we have an answer other than maybe we want to lead with an elbow or a barrel or something, and then see what the other person’s responses. Okay, be that



role model. And so for those leading an organization, remember that what you’re feeling or thinking isn’t exactly what other person is feeling or thinking. So role model, and then pivot with curiosity and empathy, because they might not be there. So the biggest mistake right now, people are making is assuming everybody wants to go back to the office. So you’ll see articles saying that you have to be in the office. And those are the first companies that are going to lose key talent because people aren’t ready. And they’re not taking that individual approach to the best way for success for that business.


Steve Fretzin  [09:02]

And so let’s transition then to the leaders. And what’s the scoop on like leadership and how leaders are handling all the different the changes to that environment of the law firm, the location, the space, the people, and then people working from home and everything that happens in between? I mean, there’s got to be a major pivot that some are going to do and some most are probably not.



Right? So leaders, you know, are individuals at that organization that have some type of influence or connection. And so every leader right now needs to be evaluating where they’re at. They need to tell themselves, the crisis is over. They need to recognize what they’ve lost. Maybe it’s a graduation, maybe they lost a person, like there’s some grief coming in and if we don’t clean up that baggage that comes forward and how we do business. So that’s why this is a really essential pivot time to really I understand awareness internally first. So every leader should be doing that.


Steve Fretzin  [10:04]

But let me just point out that, you know, I hope I’m not offending anybody. But you know, look, the practice of law and running a law firm is very slow to change. I mean, if you look at all the different industries that exist, it’s probably one of the slowest rivaling, you know, maybe accountants. But so when we think about change, and we think about what needs to change for the post pandemic world, how our law firm managing partners and leaders going to know to pivot or no to change, or No to they don’t have anyone, you know, really helping them with this mostly on an island trying to figure it out on their own.



Well, right. That’s why it’s just really important to have these conversations. And so I’m so excited that you’re talking about this, because that’s all I do spending my time is making awareness, the front and center, it’s just an awareness concept. And so to be on your own, it’s just challenging your own thoughts, like, Oh, I didn’t even think to stop and say, Oh, should I shake this person’s hand? So right now, we’re just in a period of probably three to six months of just awareness, am I knowing that we’re not the same person knowing things are not the same? So again, it’s just asking a curiosity question, Should I be doing this? What’s the new way to do it, you know, don’t go back and default to the old way because it won’t work. So catching yourself there. Those kinds of awareness practices are really key. So all I’m doing literally, every day is pausing before I write my email response. And I’m like coming from a rational perspective, do I really understand where this person is in their world, or any interaction, but to your point, law firms are slow to change, actually, every organization is slow to change, and it’s the leader that slows us down because people are slow to change, you know, we don’t want to change. That’s at the crux of it. Nobody wants to change whether you’re a law firm, accounting firm, a hospital, like no one wants to change and understanding that you have to be aware of that, and kind of look for change, and approach it in a positive curiosity manner is find the key.


Steve Fretzin  [12:16]

Alright, so let’s get into the topic of mental health and mental well being I’ve heard both mentioned in the past. What’s the difference between those? Can you define those for me a little better?



Yeah, thank you, that’s gonna be my platform for the next two years, because I think both are needed. And unless we separate them, we’re not going to be successful as individuals. So mental health is absolutely critical. It’s more of the clinical aspect. Like you mentioned, OCD. I’m an OCD person to right, like clinically, there’s something that we need a therapist or a doctor or somebody smarter than us to help us understand what’s going on. So mental health is clinical, about 20 to 30% of us every day might need a clinical aspect, either from a trauma, a divorce, a big life event, or a clinical illness or diagnosis. But for the rest of us and including those 20 to 30% mental well being is the ability to thrive daily, not have those dips that take us out not be burned out, not be you know, exhausted, angry, anxious all the time. So I always think back, like if we have worked driving to work in our old world, and we, you know, have a flat tire, that would kind of ruin my day, but I can’t call my therapist and just tell them and they helped me fix it. Or I get a call or I see the nurse from the school on my phone. You know, you gasp and you hold your breath. Those are happening 60,000 times a day to our brain. Wow. Yeah. And so mental well being is a skill set. It’s brain training, its peak performance at sports, like it’s handling those daily issues that could take us down and kind of rising to the top based on mental fitness training. So that’s


Steve Fretzin  [14:09]

now here’s a question so my MO people that know me is that I’m like a very calm person. I don’t you know, I there’s just not a lot of agitation that I answer the question and maybe this is for a therapist, I need to go see is Am I just a chill dude? Or am I burying things inside that’s going to be harmful to me, you know, in how I sleep or how it comes out in anger, how it comes out, you know, in maybe, you know, stress or pain. I don’t know if there’s anything that you work on with that or any thoughts you have about that people that may just be bearing things.



I am not a therapist, so I can’t say so I’m gonna send you to a therapist, but this is what I will say. There’s always a way whether like you’re emotionally regulated is what I kind of call that you still might need to upgrade your brain training so your your best self meaning Have, you might exhaust your brain for multitasking. So my husband’s the same way. And the other day, he said, If I was an f1 racer, because he loves the f1 formula series, I’d be talking to my pit crew all the time telling him what’s going on, because nobody really talks. And I’m like, when you’re driving 230 miles an hour, your brain can only do one thing at a time, you’re not going to have chit chat with like the pit crew all the time. And he really didn’t understand that concept until I told him to watch CNN and tell me what they’re talking about and what they’re posting on the reel that goes across the screen. You can’t two things at once. So you might be having great emotional regulation. But are you really performing at peak performance based on how your brain is in taking in all that input?


Steve Fretzin  [15:48]

Yeah. And sometimes, you know, I try to work while I’m listening to a podcast or something. And I ended up just hitting pause, because it’s really not possible. I’m not really able to do it to actually pay attention and focus on the article I’m writing or the email I’m putting together. So I think you’re spot on with that. And I think I am bearing stuff, but I’m seem to be functioning. Alright. And it seems



it’s all relative. It’s all perspective until you’re not. And hopefully the key is, you’re aware sooner rather than that a heart attack, right?


Steve Fretzin  [16:23]

Yeah. Well, I’d also like to think that my 14 year old is training me for how to be a calming person around adults, because he pushes every button he could possibly push. And if I could sort of manage that in some kind of calm way, then maybe I’m training my brain for adults. My because yeah, right. There’s no competition between agitated conversation with an adult and my 14 year old.



Right, exactly. And if you can bring that training forward, like you said, it’s training to your clients, especially when they’re agitated and not get triggered, then you’ve got your


Steve Fretzin  [16:55]

feet down. Yeah. And I mean, I have the most wonderful, positive clients in the world. I mean, lawyers that want to develop books of business have to be positive, they have, yeah, not all the time. But they have to want it and have desire. And what happens is, this is like the problem with success, is they get busy, they get more business, they get busy. And then that’s when they need you. Or they need to start figuring out some of the ways to balance and keep that positive attitude that mental well being right, while dealing with the stress of now I have all this business, which I wanted, you know, it’s like Be careful what you wish for. And now I’ve got to deal with that, and the billable hour and my family, what are some things that you recommend for people to do, to keep organized into keep, you know, in a positive mental state when they have all those pressures of everything going? Right,



right? Yeah, I mean, even the busiest most productive person needs to have strategies to continue their success. Otherwise, eventually, you lose those relationships, or eventually you don’t have that business coming. So it’s what I call micro moments, and practicing micro moments. And really any communication, any email, verbal, whatever, you can either have a negative impact or a positive impact. So your umbrella might be positive. But at that moment, if your child was sick, and you got an email, you need to know that you’re coming in with baggage and to bring your brain back online. So that’s called a micro practice. So I think it’s taking that positive attitude, which is great to hear from all your clients about what a gift and bringing that into the daily micro moments of their lives. So what are those transition periods? It might be between meetings? are they dropping what they learned from the last meeting, those triggers are the that stressor and showing up as a complete individual ready to listen at this new one? Those micro moments are either doing a quick awareness practice of where am I at? Do I feel any tension because tension equals you know, stress, and just take a breath to relax it or setting an intention for this meeting, I really want to show up just listening. Or I just want to slow down for a minute and see how this person is doing. These are skills. This will pick one, practice it for 30 days, every day once you know and because this programming, like you had said has been built since the beginning of our time, our brain has not been upgraded. Since the caveman. We are running on a flip phone of technology, which is our brain and nobody wants to do that. So these are skill sets. So these micro moments, figuring out where you’re at setting an intention. Even doing three quick breaths like right now I’m kind of anxious. I’m having fun. I’m positive I hope. No Yeah, I’m tense to not like in my best zone. So while you’re asking a question, I don’t know if you can tell but I’m just doing three quick breaths because it triggers a lever in our brain literally, to come back online, instead of being offline.


Steve Fretzin  [20:08]

Yeah, no, I actually wasn’t observing that must be spacing out. No, but pardon. If I don’t watch your breathing, that’s a little creepy. Anyway, I watch you when you’re sleeping, too. Anyway. So I think this is important. And, you know, I would even say, so important for before you enter a meeting, a prospect meeting, a networking meeting, to get your head straight about the questions you’re going to ask and how you want the relationship to go. And preparedness as a part of that preamble for that conversation is so important, because going into a meeting unprepared, right? That’s only going to create tension and stress on you trying to figure out how do I get into this. So for example, before this podcast, I’ve got a page of notes, I’ve got questions, I’ve got all this stuff laid out. And then I continue to take notes as we’re talking to keep me in line and make sure that I’m, you know, keeping on top of things, right, in prospect meetings, too. And so I think lawyers need to really understand the importance of those micro moments as you put them, I think that’s so brilliant to take some time to chill out and take some breaths, and get you know, make sure you’re prepared and walk in with a really positive mindset, and an idea of where you’re going to take this as opposed to walking in, and then just hoping that things all work out. Right.



And, you know, presidential campaign, they grab a glass of water when they need a minute to think before responding, right? Or so take some water, or the best question you can say to give yourself more time and to really understand is just say, can you tell me more? Oh, my


Steve Fretzin  [21:39]

favorite question.



Yeah, is the three words that is a pause that brings you online, so you’re not on the defense in your brain saying what do I say to look good to get them to? Like, because the minute you’re in your head, you’re out of the conversation? Because your job is to do deep listening and to meet their needs not to talk about you.


Steve Fretzin  [22:00]

Right? Yeah, I agree. And tell me more? probably my second favorite question. My first favorite question that I teach my clients is, so let’s say they’re meeting with someone who could potentially, you know, has legal needs, and is to say, you know, with regards to that specific, you know, issue, you’re having kind of what are your challenges, frustrations, concerns, as a way to start getting all the problems on the table? And then once you’ve done that, to take the one that’s maybe the most meaningful to that prospective client, and then say, you know, it sounds like, you know, being sued by one of your employees is terrible situation, can you tell me a little bit more about that, and then, then just zip it, right, for five minutes, the person goes off, and when all the details and you just sit there and take notes and relax and make eye contact and think of other questions to ask, but it’s the one of the best questions for sure.



Well, and let me just underline, in that, you know, read feedback, you just stated, what you had said was brilliant, too, and is a tip, you had said, it sounds like So your first step in even listening is deep listening, not being in your head and trying to figure out an answer to everything they’re saying, but to put yourself in their shoes. So I love how you say, sounds like this is happening. You know, tell me more. Those are two mindful brain training, peak performance. I don’t care what you call it, keys to success of building a relationship and getting your business on track.


Steve Fretzin  [23:30]

The flip that I’m working on every single day with clients is to stop convincing, presenting, solving, selling, like those are the dirty words that we need to remove. And we’re trying to be prepared, ask questions, listen, demonstrate empathy, repeat back what people say to show we’re listening. And what people really want. I’d love to get your two cents on this is they want to feel understood. Yeah. So go with that.



So what you are basically, you know, helping clients do is mental well being skills, because we’re not, it’s all about me, it’s about keeping me safe. It’s all about making me look like it’s all about that’s how our brain is built. And it’s been built that way forever. But the new science shows, we just need to practice those skills you’ve just mentioned. That’s brilliant. And those are the keys.


Steve Fretzin  [24:24]

And that’s what I’ve based most of my methodologies on. And it’s really working. Many of my clients, they find when they get done talking to somebody, they don’t even have to present they don’t have to sell anything the person’s like so where do we sign up? Right, like lawyers don’t understand that can actually happen if you have a good process. And I want to tell you a funny story. This is when I first started my business back in like 2004. I had this South sider named Stu and I was working with him and teaching him questioning and teaching him the skills he went down to Florida with his family. And he calls me out because I can’t do this Chicago accent but it was like d’affaires the balls like this kind of real thick accent he goes Steve, what’d you do to me? I said, what’s going on? Steve? He goes, my wife tells me, I’m asking questions. I’m nice, I’m acting nice. What did you do to me? You know, like, I’ve ruined his life, but actually right made his wife’s life better, because instead of him, just talking over everybody, I was teaching him the skills that he was then using with his family, asking his family, his kids, his wife questions and then listening. And it was like, you know, who is this? You know, crazy? Who is this man I didn’t know before. And I just thought that was like, that summed up so much what I’m trying to do. And I think what you’re trying to do is that awareness of how we can be and behave, that’s going to get us further along than, you know, just talking over people and one upping people and talking, you know, just trying to sell, you know, sell things or sell people on your ideas.



Right, that old way is dead, and they will be out of business, like yesterday, because everybody’s competent. in some regard. Everybody has the same kind of knowledge, the softer skills, and that relational skills, and the Self Mastery is the only thing in this new world that is going to make you successful and keep you successful. I agree on all aspects, business and personal,


Steve Fretzin  [26:09]

right. Yeah. So just in kind of wrapping up, I mean, this is all so important, especially coming out of the pandemic. And then also thinking about the mindset, you have to be successful in your job or to be a leader, any kind of final words of wisdom to share, before we kind of wrap up,



I think we just need to all know what you’re saying is so important, the soft skills are going to be the winning skills. And we just need to understand our brain has been programmed since the beginning of time, and it won’t change. It won’t react to this new world unless we upgrade our mindset and mental models through these micro moments, taking a pause, connecting and humanity, and really helping each other thrive by deep listening, and relationships. So this was my favorite part of my day, I think you’re spot on with what you’re doing. So I really appreciate being able to share some of this with


Steve Fretzin  [27:01]

you. Well, it’s been a pleasure on my end. And I appreciate you spending some time with me sharing your wisdom. And this is the things that people aren’t thinking about unless it’s sort of not forced upon them, but you know, put in front of them to hear and then absorb and consider. So just thank you so much for coming on the show.



Thanks again. Great to be here.


Steve Fretzin  [27:20]

Thank you. And hey, everybody, listen, this is the kind of stuff that we need to consider because you can you know, grow a law practice and lead a law practice. But if you’re not thinking about the soft skills, if you’re not thinking about your well being and other’s well being and how things are changing, you might miss something kind of major. So I think that’s really an important takeaway from today’s show. And then also, just if you liked it, if you found value in the shows that you’ve heard in this one, please don’t be shy about liking, sharing, giving stars whatever that people do these days on the platform that you’re on. I don’t know how you’re listening to this. I just I’m glad that you are and hopefully it’s valuable to you. And listen, it’s all about being that lawyer someone who’s confident organized in a skilled Rainmaker. Be safe be well take care.


Narrator  [28:05]

Thanks for listening to be that lawyer, life changing strategies and resources for growing a successful law practice. Visit Steve’s website For additional information, and to stay up to date on the latest legal business development and marketing trends. For more information and important links about today’s episode, check out today’s show notes