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Dr. Nashater Deu Solheim: Unlocking the Key to Willing and Winning Relationships

By Kicki Pallin

One of the biggest challenges we face in management and business is navigating how to motivate people as a leader. This is something psychologist Dr. Nashater Deu Solheim has over 25 years of experience in and she doesn’t plan to stop. The CEO of Progressing Minds and bestselling author has had incredible achievements in her career by centring her values in everything she does.

Recommended by Forbes and Harvard Business Review, Dr. Nashater has been able to incorporate her experiences as a trained psychologist into her work ethic. By using her own “PIN Code”, the key to willing and winning relationships, she has helped international corporations achieve results in a completely new way.

You are the CEO of Progressing Minds, hold a doctorate in Psychology from the UK and you are also an Expert Negotiator from Harvard’s Program on Negotiation. But how has your leap into leadership and becoming an accomplished moderator and speaker been for you?

It wasn’t so much a leap into leadership but more of a natural progression because it followed on from being trained as a clinical and forensic psychologist. Once qualified, it’s quite natural for psychologists to take on the responsibility of supervising and leading both trainee psychologists and other qualified professionals. For example, in the hospitals where I worked, I led nursing staff in professional development and in the cases we worked on together.

Another natural progression was leading other teams of psychologists on projects and programs that we would design and co-work. I was very used to conducting group training and group therapy as a lead facilitator and the skills were very similar. In these cases, you’re facilitating a discussion around an agreed focus, making sure that everybody is able to speak and move towards their individual and/or group goals. I learnt so much about how to build rapport, most importantly actively listening and empathy to secure collaborative relationships built on trust, the need for clarity in setting direction, and of course conflict management in the time when I was working with high-security offenders with challenging mental health and personalities including those classified as Psychopaths. 

Once I moved into more formal executive leadership roles in business that weren’t so much about leading tasks and projects, but being directly responsible as a leader for people, those skills that I’d learnt as a psychologist were very useful.  So, it was more of a natural progression into leadership from my experiences of being a clinical psychologist, and that helped me immensely when working in diverse environments such as prisons, with the military and in corporate business.

Your book “The Leadership PIN Code – Unlocking the Key to Willing and Winning Relationships” which was published in 2020, ended up on Forbes list of 8 books “that will make you reconsider how you manage relationships”. Please describe your feelings then and what happened after you found out? 

I found out while I was in Austin, Texas where my publishers are based and the book had been released at the beginning of March. I had never imagined myself to be an author and indeed in the process of writing it, there were many times when I didn’t think I’d go as far as publishing the book because of feelings of self-doubt. There was a moment when I said to my publisher, “I don’t know if I’m going to go ahead and actually publish the book”, and they asked me why. I said, well, there are so many great books out there written by incredibly skilled, competent people, so, what is it that I’m saying that is going to be of value and really make a difference? They said if that was true, there would only be one Italian cookbook in the world! It made me realize that although people may be delivering on similar topics, we all do it differently and bring our unique experiences to it. This conversation was the ‘aha moment’ that has remained with me because it reminded me that you are unique and that there’s a place for that.

I had made a commitment to meet the publishers in Austin Texas and have a champagne moment together if I ever published! And once I was there, Covid-19 kicked in with force and the Norwegian PM put out a call for all residents to return home immediately.  I remember thinking “I’ve only been here 48 hours and I’ve got to start planning flights to get home”. I was also supposed to be meeting with Harvard Business Review in Austin for a podcast but it had to be cancelled – though luckily they had me do it from Norway later. 

Amidst that chaos, I remember walking along the streets of downtown Austin, and when my publishers called to say Forbes had recommended my book on their list. I have a very strong memory of standing on a cycle lane next to a pedestrian crossing where I had just pressed to cross the road, reading the mail on my phone. I was totally in shock and overwhelmed by a surge of emotions. Somebody said, “Aren’t you going to cross the road ma’am”, in a strong American accent because I was just paralyzed in the moment – so shocked to get that endorsement at all and for it to happen so quickly. So that really was what happened around finding out about Forbes. I was on my own in Austin with COVID really creeping up fast on me, trying to get out of Austin on the first flight I could, having been there for only about 72 hours in total.  Meeting a few of my publishing team and getting the Forbes review actually made the whole whirlwind trip worthwhile.

Being the author of this well-known leadership and relationship book, and an expert in how we create successful relationships, how has this experience influenced your own relationships?

I don’t count myself as being an expert in creating perfect relationships all the time!  I’ve certainly learned some impactful lessons and developed helpful skills along the way in all aspects of my life – through losing my parents when I was younger, from my education and experiences as a clinical, forensic and neuropsychologist, in building my own businesses, as an executive leader in corporate and then as a coach, and most significantly, of course, being a mother – well, you just pick up experiences and skills along the way!

The more I’ve studied other people, spoken to them, learnt from them, and had my own experiences I learnt several things. It’s taught me about how non-verbal communication is so powerful – more so than what we say, though it’s also taught me what to say when things are difficult or challenging – you have to be conscious of the words that come out of your mouth and your tone of voice. How they’re going to land on the other person, what they want to hear rather than what you want to say.

Probably more importantly than that, it’s taught me about when to stay and when to walk away; both in personal life and in business. The reason I raise that is because there’s an assumption when you write a book about relationships, even if it’s about the business environment, that all relationships should be long-lasting and thereby successful – that all of them should work out well and if they don’t, you’re failing in some way because you’ve done something wrong or you’re not using the skills properly. Yet my lesson has been different and great negotiators will say the same – there’s a time when you have to look at whether staying is better or worse than the alternative of walking away. There are definitely times in business where I’ve developed partnerships and thought this is not going to work out. We were not on the same page or wanting the same direction, we’ve tried different solutions but it’s now time to walk away and try something else. It’s the same with personal relationships too.

When I was reflecting on this question, I thought, but it’s true, isn’t it? That not all relationships are lifelong, nor do they need to be. When they have run their course, it’s okay to let go, no matter how much they once meant to you. It doesn’t have to be a traumatic end and wrench. It can be a positive exit into something else for you both or however many people are involved. It can be helpful to be able to say “that was then, and this is now”. The amicable end of my marriage is an example of that. It definitely taught me a lot about how successful relationships can have their own time or their shelf-life so to speak.

A great mentor once said to me, “Everything has its time and there is a time for everything” and I live by that. I don’t try to hang on to things endlessly where they are no longer bringing joy and just bringing pain or stress. I’m much better at letting go and thanking the universe and my life experiences for those opportunities. But also, be ready to move on and create space for whatever else needs to come in.

How much would you say your career, overall, has affected your personal life?

I actually chose my personal life over my career many times. My mother died of cancer when I was 18 and my father died of a heart attack when I was 21. So I valued my personal life even more after their devastating loss.   There was no plan B, we weren’t wealthy as a family, we had what we needed. It made me evaluate what I was going to do, and I was already very interested in psychology by then. So, I decided I was going to become a clinical psychologist and the big part of that motivation was that I love psychology and helping others. I also knew it was a career that would bring me some kind of long term stability.

After receiving my doctorate in Clinical & Forensic Psychology, I went backpacking around the world on my own for several months and put my career on hold. I’ve always loved travelling and the spontaneity and discovery of backpacking have always been a core driver and freedom is a core value. It’s how I met my later husband and we travelled a lot between working – we even had a small side business in global villa rentals so we could travel even more. So, I did choose my personal life and really invested in it.

When I had my son I decided to take a four-year career break. I put him first because I really valued and do still value being a mother and creating a family. In the background, I was certificated as a business coach because my brain didn’t want to completely switch off from my passion in psychology whilst at home. By the time he went to kindergarten (in Norway by then), I was working part-time in my own business as a consultant.  There have been times when I worked in corporate organisations where the work-life balance has tipped more towards work and taken over – my view has been to have balance overall in my life than try to have it every single day. I accept there will be times when one takes over. Don’t get me wrong though, I’ve had moments when travelling with work meant I couldn’t be home as much as I wanted and after a while, I felt I was really missing out on family so I changed roles. 

Where I have put my career first is now much later in life. When I decided I wanted to run my own business, my son was older, he had his own life full of sports and friends. It was time now for me to really dig into running my own business without needing the safety net of a secure job. That’s when I launched my own business. I’ve been more focused on personal life than my career and I have allowed my career to develop at a natural pace alongside my core values of meaningful relationships, freedom and new experiences.  Then really only later in life, I decided to write a book because it was the right time in my career.

In everything you have done over your 25-year career, which has fulfilled you the most?

I’m very blessed to have had some incredible successes and achievements in my career. From qualifying as a psychologist to some fascinating jobs like working with the Ministry of Defence, working in international business, and writing the book, I feel like I’ve had some great highlights such as being endorsed by HBR and Forbes. But in terms of fulfilment, I would say still it’s when I get that individual feedback from somebody I’ve positively impacted. Every time it happens, it still touches me in the same wonderful way.  Certainly, when I was a therapist and I worked with vulnerable people who had experiences of extreme trauma and were suicidal – on occasion where they say I’ve really turned their life around. Or helping someone figure out why their relationship wasn’t working or why they needed to make the change they were too scared to make before. It’s when I feel I’ve really enabled or helped somebody positively progress- I think that’s what it is. That probably comes from my clinical psychology background because I still really connect to that.

When you meet your clients, what are the most common questions they ask you? 

Some of the most common questions I get are, “Why is my message not getting across to my team? Why do they not understand me?” “How can I get my team to be more innovative or engage more?” “How can I resolve the conflicts in my organisation or remove the silos”. Those tend to be the frustrating questions that lead people to come in and ask for help. Then there are the vulnerable personal questions. For example, “How can I be more impactful when I’m dealing with people who are more senior than me, or who make me feel intimidated? How can I feel and show up as more confident and competent with others?” I get that a lot from women leaders in particular.

Right now, during COVID, the questions I’m getting asked most of the time is, “How do I motivate my people when times are hard and we’re furloughing them and cutting back on budgets? or “How can I keep them engaged when I don’t get to see them because we’re all in remote areas? I do a lot of work online with companies and their teams coaching leaders on how to do that – how to reach out to people and keep teams feeling connected so that even if we never get back to the office fully, we still have that feeling of belonging to a team and to each other.

Nashater Deu Solheim, Progressing Minds.

Can you please also give our readers the favourite tips you like to share?

I’m going to give the tips that I get the most feedback on when I’m doing interactive presentations and which you can apply immediately. The first tip is to be aware that your mindset is going to show up in your body language and facial expressions. If you find somebody irritating or annoying, when you’re stressed or preoccupied, people will notice that even if you don’t tell them. So do a face and body scan and release all tension, then check that your mindset is clear. Get yourself into an open frame of mind before you start the conversation that you’re about to have.

The second tip, move your chair. What do I mean by that? There’s a lot of research and evidence to show the way in which we set up the chairs in a room for the meeting can have a huge impact on the feel and the influence of the conversation. Instead of sitting across the table at 180 degrees staring directly into each other’s eyes, which can feel a bit confrontational and a bit direct, think about sitting at 90 degrees. This way you’re creating a space between you and focusing on the task. You’re sitting side-by-side at a subtle angle that allows you to have natural eye contact. Your body language will naturally ease and be more comfortable.

The third tip is of all the questions when something goes wrong, and you have to speak to somebody about what happened – the worst question to ask is why. “Why” creates a defensive response and often feels like a blaming question. Ask other questions that begin with W like, “What happened, Who was involved, When could we have known about this earlier, What else could we have done?”
“Why” is great for asking about situations, for example, “Why did the building burn, Why did the maintenance not get done? Why is there a hole in the ground? These are all great for problem-solving. But if you say to somebody; “Why did you do that? Why are you late? Why are you not delivering on time?” It’s very likely to create a defensive response and you will close down the opportunity for getting information and data that could be helpful in moving forward constructively together.  

So, three tips; address your mindset, move your chair, and don’t ask why!

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