Category: Relationships

Q&A with Jennifer Lehr, Author of ParentSpeak: Part II

Last week I introduced Jennifer Lehr, whose new book, ParentSpeak: What’s Wrong with How We Talk to Our Children —  And What to Say Instead, is both readable – you can pick it up and easily jump in anywhere – and its insights about how we speak to our children are both obvious and profound. I tend to be drawn to ideas that have an everydayness to them, and Jennifer delivers. If you missed Part I, you can find that here.
 
Paul: Why do we yell at our kids, and why is it so difficult to stop?
Jennifer: Certainly, no one wants to scream at their kids. And yet, we all do it. Well, according to a 2003 study reported in The New York Times, at least 98 percent of us do. (I can’t imagine things have changed much since then.) I know many parents (like me!) are eager to quit yelling but find it nearly impossible. Unfortunately for all of us, if we yell, then if often leads to even more yelling, because we’ve been training our kids to know they don’t really have to listen until we start screaming. Soon we’re on the path of turning ourselves—our children’s source of support, comfort, and guidance—into people to be feared.
Usually parents who scream were screamed at themselves. And it’s a hard habit and cycle to break. As I mentioned earlier, it can be very helpful to identify the things that trigger you and to unpack them. I also love how one mom put yellow hearts around the house to remind herself to take a deep breath and not yell. If we can catch ourselves right before we unleash (which can feel so good because it drains the stress from our bodies) and take a breath, or have a drink of water, or go to another room, we can center ourselves and respond to our kids instead of react to them. Dr. Laura Markham and others have online courses designed to help one quit the habit of yelling. It’s a worthwhile endeavor!
 
Paul: As I read through the six categories of ParentSpeak (phrases that manipulate, objectify, micro-manage, distress, invalidate, and threaten), I found myself thinking that parents who face the everyday challenges of getting kids to behave might get the most immediate results from working on the last two. And I thought that many grandparents, who are less involved in the daily interactions with kids, might be more likely to use phrases that manipulate or objectify. What are your thoughts about grandparents and parentspeak?
Jennifer: I have to say I was delighted when several grandparents came to a talk I recently gave at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena. Like you said, these grandparents were very involved in their grandchildren’s lives and as such were aware of the considerable challenges that arise when grandparents and parents have different parenting philosophies. Surprisingly, in these two cases, the grandparents were more progressive than their kids.
One of the reasons I wrote ParentSpeak was to give parents something to read and discuss—with each other, with parents, in-laws, nannies, babysitters, and other childcare providers. I tried to lay out my arguments in a very clear way so that they could agree or disagree and be very specific about why. I think it’s wonderful to be able to say, “I’m so happy you are in our child’s life. I want to share with you where I’m coming from on some issues and would love to discuss them with you. Can you read this book so we both have a common reference first?” Takes guts but is well worth it!
 
Paul: Another approach that you open up is to begin to notice what distracts us from being the parents we want to be; for example, you talk about the act of blaming. Would you say more about this?
Jennifer: It was definitely an aha moment for me when I realized, thanks to the work of Brené Braun, that blaming is really just a way to off load stress. So often we adults blame children for “making” us yell at them or for driving us to threaten them as though we had a gun to our heads and we literally had no other way to manage the situation. But it’s not true. There are other ways to manage our stress. Blaming children is easy. Taking responsibility for our actions and finding other ways to manage stressful situations is harder, but ultimately more rewarding.
 
Paul: You also challenge the conventional wisdom about time-outs: “A time-out can break a child’s trust in his parents,” and “Time-outs teach that withdrawing love solves problems.” This chapter is worth buying your book all by itself. Can you explain your reasoning and give us some alternatives?
Jennifer: This is a big topic, Paul—a really important one and hard to answer quickly. But I’ll try. According to a Time magazine article, time-outs are the number one form of discipline in America. As such, they deserve real scrutiny.
I think time-outs became so popular because they seemed like a kinder, gentler alternative to hitting kids. And I agree, isolating someone is better than striking them, but not that much better. Time-outs hurt kids emotionally, while hitting them other harms them both emotionally and physically. I do want to acknowledge that if you are a parent who has used time-outs, hearing what I have to say won’t be easy. In fact, I can understand why it may cause someone to resist and dismiss what I have to say. I think it’s important to know that if you have used time-outs and do set out to educate yourself on how they may have harmed your child, it’s not too late to talk about it with your child, ask him how it felt, and truly listen and apologize for any lasting pain you may have inadvertently caused. It is never too late to try to repair.
When we send our children away from us, from their friends, and from the fun because we don’t like their behavior, it does absolutely nothing to help them understand what feelings and needs drove them to act in a way that isn’t acceptable. Nor does it help them learn how they can better meet the need(s) driving the behavior. It just leaves them angry at us, humiliated in front of others, and filled with thoughts of revenge. In other words, it takes someone who is having a hard time and just gives them more hurt.
Simultaneously, time-outs convey to our children that they are only worthy of our love and attention if they act in ways we deem proper. Family therapist Susan Stiffelman explains:
“Time-outs convey to the child that we cannot handle them unless they’re good. Children need confident captains of the ship to help them through life’s difficult lessons. When we send a misbehaving child to his room because we can’t handle his misbehavior or moodiness, we’re effectively ‘jumping ship,’ creating anxiety in a child who needs to know that we can handle whatever challenge he may face.”
Furthermore, as Dr. Laura Markham explains in her article, “What’s Wrong with Time-Outs,” time-outs can break a “child’s trust in you by triggering his fear of abandonment.” In other words, time-outs can threaten the vital connection that makes children feel safe, and that’s genuinely scary. If a child gets the message over and over again throughout his early development that he is unlovable when struggling, that message will get wired into his brain. Meaning he will believe it as truth. So it is essential that we then ask the question, how might that belief affect his future relationships?
According to psychotherapist Dr. Susan Lacombe, people who suffer from a fear of abandonment often have compulsive behaviors and thought patterns that sabotage their relationships, ultimately driving people to abandon them. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, affirming their belief that they aren’t truly lovable as they are. Which makes sense because that’s what we’ve told them.
Punishing behavior with a time-out or another form of discipline may, in the moment, scare a child into “behaving himself,” but it won’t help address the underlying feelings and needs driving the behavior. And so the need won’t be met, which means the child will only continue to try to meet it in some other way. Punishing a child only creates more problems without truly solving the original one.
So what’s the alternative? Well, in short, when a child does something we don’t like, we need to understand what the behavior is telling us so we can find a different, more acceptable way to meet that need. I discuss this in depth in the chapters “Behave yourself!” and “Do You want a Time Out?”
 
Paul: Lastly, where do you think parents should start? I’m a big fan of putting one or two ideas into practice and then notice what changes in the relationship. What would you suggest parents do first—say for the next two weeks?
I love this question, Paul. I know it can feel overwhelming to make changes, like an unfair burden to have to be the one to break cycles, learn new skills, and heal old wounds. It can feel like both a blessing and a curse. But it needn’t be so daunting.
One of the reasons I named each chapter a classic parenting catchphrase is so that people could identify a phrase or two that they find themselves defaulting to most often. And they can dive in there. As an experiment, if one chose just a single phrase and really identified what their best intention is, why it’s likely not translating, and experimenting with alternatives that either I recommend or they come up with, then perhaps making change won’t be so overwhelming. Perhaps after they get comfortable with one, then they’ll want to build on their success and try another.
That said, I think the most impactful thing that any of us can do to strengthen our relationship with our kids is to take ten or fifteen minutes every day (or every other day!)  to just hang out with them with no agenda and no judgements. Let them lead the way. A walk. Playing basketball. Reading next to each other. Watching them play video games. Playing video games with them. Watching a video even if we have no interest in it. A manicure. This no-agenda time will inevitably bring you closer and build good will. And often that’s when they’ll open up about something that’s bothering them or they’ll simply tell you more about their lives.
 

Q&A with Jennifer Lehr, Author of ParentSpeak: Part I

I love Jennifer Lehr’s new book, ParentSpeak: What’s Wrong with How We Talk to Our Children —  And What to Say Instead, for many reasons, but the two that stand out are: it’s readable – you can pick it up and easily jump in anywhere – and the insights about how we speak to our children are both obvious and profound. I tend to be drawn to ideas that have an everydayness to them, and Jennifer delivers.
Here’s the first half of what she had to say:
 
Paul: Please tell me about a mistake you’ve made with your own children, Jules and Hudson, and what you learned from that mistake about yourself.
Jennifer: Hey, Paul! Before I jump into answering your questions, I wanted to tell you how much I not only appreciate your interest in ParentSpeak but also how gratifying it is to hear that you find it both readable and practical. Those were two really important goals I had. Over the years, I’ve read, or at least have attempted to read, dozens of books on parenting and too often have found myself unable to get through many of them—despite the helpful content. I wanted to share the best of what I’ve learned over the past decade in a way that was easily digested.
Now to answer your question!
As you know, mistakes are one of the hallmarks of being human—which is my way of saying there are simply too many mistakes that I’ve made to choose just one. However, what I want my kids to learn from my mistakes is 1) we all make them, 2) they don’t define us, 3) we can repair them, and 4) often we can learn something valuable from them. I want my children to know I love them—mistakes, bad moods and all. This quote by Rebecca Eanes is so true: “So often children are punished for being human.… None of us are perfect, and we must stop holding our children to a higher standard of perfection than we can attain ourselves.” It really breaks my heart when I think about how many kids get “in trouble” for basically making a mistake, for being human.
 
Paul: I often find myself reflecting on my behavior and tracing it back to how I was raised, so I appreciate that you advise parents to do the same. Can you explain how this might work for parents? And In the same train of thought, tell us about using this question: “When do I lose it the most?”
Jennifer: I recently went to a talk given by Dr. Dan Siegel—the internationally renowned in leader in “interpersonal neurobiology,” which is the study of the way the brain is influenced by relationships—and the biggest take away of the evening was: the best thing you can do to raise healthy kids is to make sense of your own childhood. I believe it! Personally speaking, I have found that when I can identify my triggers (the situations that make me go from zero to a hundred on a dime) and trace them back to childhood experiences, it helps me leave my past where it belongs—in the past.
I start by trying to be a neutral observer of my behavior so that I can step back and see if there are any similarities to the types of situations that cause me to get anxious or angry. Then I ask myself, “Does this remind you of anything?” I have found that an answer is usually forthcoming. Let me give you an example.
Like many families, our mornings can be hectic. But ours were too hectic—so much so that I really dreaded getting up in the morning. Every morning I found myself getting very mad at the kids for dragging their feet. They weren’t getting out of bed, getting dressed, coming down for breakfast, brushing their teeth, etc. In other words, I was upset because they weren’t doing what I asked, and they were going to be late!!!! Sometimes I would get so overwhelmed by anger and anxiety that I’d unleash on the kids. This always backfired as they’d withdraw or start to scream and cry because it feels awful to be yelled at. Then we’d be even later getting off to school because we’d have to recover and repair. So you can see why I wanted to look at how I was contributing to this mess. This certainly wasn’t how I wanted the kids to start their days.
Instead of just blaming them for not doing their part, I asked myself: “What exactly is getting you so upset?”
The answer came quickly: “I’m afraid they’ll be late.”
So I followed up with myself, “And what’s so awful about that?”
Just asking myself that question threw me back into my childhood.
When I was a kid, my Grandpa, who was the patriarch of our family, made it very clear that good people were on time, bad people were late. To him five minutes late was five minutes way too late. I wanted to be seen as good, but I also worried about family members he was going to be mad at because of their lateness. It made sense that just the thought of my kids being late rattled me so deeply. I didn’t want to be a bad mother! Realizing that I was bringing my own baggage to the mornings helped. But it was just a start.
Next, we had a family meeting about our mornings. I shared with John, Jules, and Hudson that while I definitely over-reacted in the mornings, I wanted to let them know why being on time was important to me. Then I asked each of them to share how they felt about being on time. I learned that while it was important to them, it wasn’t as fraught or urgent for them. Five minutes late certainly didn’t mean to them what it did to me. We talked about how their teachers responded to people being late. And I asked if they found other kids being late disruptive. It was a very enlightening conversation.
We also brainstormed about ways everyone could pitch in to make our mornings go smoother. For example, the kids suggested putting their shoes by the front door at night, and John agreed to bring the toothbrushes in the car, which eliminated a whole other step.
Deconstructing the mornings really helped. Reflecting on why I was so triggered instead of just blaming my kids (which I think so many of us naturally do) changed the whole tenor of our home in the morning.
 
Paul: I agree that we raise our children with conversation, and we can start by noticing what we are currently saying. What would you suggest parents strike from their conversations?
Jennifer: Unfortunately, and this is one of the underlying points of the book, I don’t think we have enough actual conversations with our kids. Instead, we too often simply tell them:

what we want them to say (“Say please!” “Say thank you!” “Say sorry!”)
what we want them to do (“Give me a hug!” “Share!” “Behave yourself!”)
when we want them to do it (“I said right now!” “I’m going to count to three.”)
how we’ll feel if they do do it (“Good job!”)
and what will happen to them if they don’t (“Do you want a time out?” “A spanking?”)

Alas, “parentspeak” is a language of control.
I’m all for conversations, for hearing each other’s points of view, feelings, and needs. Then when all that information is on the table, we can solve the problem together.
Being able to work with our children instead of using rewards or punishment to get compliance takes a shift in perception from seeing kids as children who must do as they are told, to respecting them as full-fledged people with their own feelings, thoughts, and needs that deserve consideration. In our culture, this remains a radical idea.
 
Paul: Your book also offers some new perspectives; for example: “Expecting young children to be sorry is unrealistic.” Would you explain the thinking behind this statement?
Jennifer: I certainly don’t mean to imply that children are never sorry. However, many child development experts believe that children don’t genuinely feel remorse until they have the ability to take another person’s perspective and there seems to be some consensus that that happens around seven years old. But getting there is a process.
Children are more able to see another’s perspective when we can see theirs and they can share their own. So when we expect a child to apologize when they aren’t genuinely sorry, but instead are mad at the other kid for grabbing their toy, we’re really just asking them to say something they can’t truly comprehend and don’t mean at a time when they feel an injustice has been done against them. When we tell them to say sorry, we’re essentially ignoring their experience, perhaps to smooth things over with the other parent or child.
If our child has hurt another child, we can apologize. “That hurt! I’m sorry he hit you. Do you need any ice? When you are feeling better, let’s talk about what happened.”
When there is a conflict, my goal isn’t to identify the wrongdoer and get an apology but instead to help both parties communicate with each other about how they felt and how they can work it out, the details of which I get into in the book.
 
Come back next week for Part II of my conversation with Jennifer Lehr.

Q&A with Anese Cavanaugh, author of Contagious Culture

As a fantastic follow-up to Mindy Hall’s Q&A early this month, Anese Cavanaugh is here to continue the conversation of living with intention – both in work and life – and even takes it a step further with “how you show up matters.”
Anese is the award-winning creator of the IEP Method® (Intentional Energetic Presence®) as well as an advisor and thinking partner to leaders and organizations committed to creating significant positive impact, authentic leadership, and healthy cultures. Cavanaugh built the IEP Method to help people unlock even greater leadership potential, collaborate more inspiringly, create more openly, intuit more bravely, and lead more joyfully and effectively.
As a leading voice on intention, energy, and presence in leadership, collaboration, and cultural optimization, she’s devoted to helping people show up and bring their best selves to the table in order to create impact in the world while feeling amazing doing so.
  
PAUL: Let’s start with the first word in the title of your book: Contagious Culture. How can leaders be contagious?
ANESE: First, it’s important to remember that we are having impact in every moment – either positive and contributory, negative and depleting, or beige (nothing, just blah). And that impact is contagious. It ripples. It affects others. People take our lead and will “match” our energetic state. (Even unconsciously.)
The leader sets the tone by the mood and energy he or she brings into the room or into any conversation. Simplest way to look at this is that we’ve (likely) all had the experience of being in a conversation with someone else where we’re in a good “space,” the person we’re talking with isn’t, and all the sudden (or slowly) we start to feel our mood, our space, and energy shift/drop/deplete. We’ve just matched that person’s energy. Their energy is contagious. People do it with us, we do it with them. We’re all contagious. This super power can be used for good or evil.
You’ll also see contagious leadership in terms of the way someone talks about another person or a situation – the strongest energy will often “win,” so often times something that starts out as a somewhat neutral conversation will turn either highly positive or negative based upon the leader’s opinion and energy on the topic/person.
Assumptions, gossip, beliefs, talking smack, talking beautifully, focusing on the negative, focusing on the positive, complaining or leading, taking an “author” stance or a “victim” stance – these are all contagious and can catch on like wildfire.
 
PAUL: Can you describe what intention means to you and how to best practice it?
ANESE: To me an intention is putting my mind to what I want to have happen. It is claiming emotionally/mentally/energetically what I want to happen in this next moment, this next meeting, this next conversation, this project, this relationship, etc. It doesn’t mean it will always, but when I set the intention and show up in a way that supports it, I’m much more likely to create that outcome.
You can set intentions at the beginning of the day or before any meeting or conversation for what you want to have happen, how you want to feel, the impact you want to have –anything. It can be as simple as the thought and internal proclamation, or you can go through the process of writing it down. You can set intentions with your partner (personal or professional), with your team, or with your clients. I even set them with my kids. One of the three components of the IEP Method® (Intentional Energetic Presence®) is the “ability to create intentional impact.” There is a “5-Steps to Creating Intentional Impact” framework that I teach in our courses and also in the book Contagious Culture.
 
PAUL: Please share three of your most powerful teaching ideas.
ANESE: 1. How you Show Up matters. Your presence is your impact. No matter how brilliant you are or high level your position, if your presence is such that it leaves people feeling anything less than safe, connected, and inspired – your brilliance will only take you so far. And it works the other way; you can always optimize impact and results by being even more aware and intentional of how you Show Up and how you impact others. Small shifts go far. Who you want to be and how you Show Up communicates far more than skills. To quote the lovely Maya Angelou, “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” This speaks to the intention, energy, and presence of the leader.

The Leadership Trifecta: Impact + Self-Care + People. In my work I’ve found there are generally three types of leaders:

the one who is great at their craft and creating impact and results; however, they’re burnt out, exhausted, and compromising their own well-being and self-care and personal relationships. (Has “impact” but not “self-care.” Not sustainable.)
the leader who is great with self-care and “balance” but is not great at creating impact and results and not that effective. People like them, but they just don’t get it done. (Has “self-care” but not “impact.” Not sustainable.)
the leader who has the impact AND self-care piece down; however, they leave “dead bodies” wherever they go (worst case scenario), or they’re just not great at influencing others and getting people to follow them. This is the kind of leader who does great things but at the cost of people, morale, and cultural health. This is also the kind of leader that people follow because they HAVE to (job, paycheck, etc.) vs. they WANT to (inspired, on purpose, safe, etc.) (Not sustainable.)

You need all three elements. They don’t have to be perfect. But being in awareness and in process helps a lot.

The IEP Method® itself is another powerful component of what I teach. Too much to go into here (see book or another program), but the idea is that we have huge influence over how we Show Up and our Intentional Energetic Presence, and there are ways to set us up to do this well. Those ways are in the IEP Methodology.

 
PAUL: If you had an audience full of new professionals, just joining an organization, what advice would you give them?
ANESE: How you Show Up matters. Period. For yourself AND for others.
This includes for other people in leadership and collaboration, but even more so for yourself so you can Show Up well and sustainably and cleanly for others.
For you (and ultimately for them): Take care of yourself. Do whatever you need to do to make sure that your body, your mind, your heart, and your spirit are in good shape so that you can lead well, feel good, and be the best instrument of change possible.
For them (and ultimately for you): Be intentional about your impact. Be in service of the other person or the team or the work you’re doing. Get out of your own way in terms of fear or ego and “am I doing it right” and focus on what will serve this human most.
When you have the foundational IEP and are Showing Up well for yourself, it makes it easier to be in service of and clean and clear for others.
 
PAUL: And on the same coin, if your audience were a room full of CEOs, what advice would you give them about interacting with the younger generation joining up?
ANESE: Don’t get caught up in the “Millennial Story.” See them as humans. Show Up with and for them. Ask them to Show Up with you, with each other, for themselves, and for the mission at hand. Connect them to purpose and WHY they matter and WHY their work matters in your organization; co-design roles and how you’ll work together; be flexible about designing what schedules look like so they can bring their whole selves to work – healthy and well and inspired; and do not get sucked into any story that says they are somehow harder to work with or don’t care. The younger generation needs to be seen, heard, called forth to create impact, and know that what they’re doing matters. Very much like any aged human being in your organization. 😉

Q&A with Mindy Hall, PhD, author of Leading with Intention

There is much insight to gain from Mindy Hall and her answers below, but perhaps my favorite is her personal motto: “I want it to matter that we met.” It is obvious to see through her work as CEO of Peak Development Consulting and author of Leading with Intention: Every Moment Is a Choice that she truly believes every interaction is an opportunity, that every action has an impact, and that one person alone can make a difference.
Read on below, and you can also find Mindy at Peak Development Radio, the Growing Your Organization blog, and through her contributions to Entrepreneur.
 
Paul: I love the concept of intention and I often express it in my work as “this shall be.” Would you please explain the power of intention as you see it?
Mindy: Leading with intention is built on a foundation of awareness—of ourselves, our mindsets, our impact on others, and of the context in which we operate. It is about being mindful of how we “show up” in the world, what tone we set, and having both an understanding and ownership of the contribution we make to any dynamic.
 
Paul: You have over 25 years of experience in developing leaders and working with some of the country’s top companies – what are the signs of someone not working with intention?   
Mindy: Most leaders come to their leadership more from an intuitive place than an intentional place. Don’t get me wrong, there are many leaders who do quite well from an intuitive place, but time and time again I have seen the impact of leaders who don’t just rely on intuition and old patterns of how they lead but rather make a conscious choice of how they are going to lead. It can be small things like how present a leader is when someone is talking with them; or as large as shaping the whole culture of an organization. What leaders model is what companies become, and the tone they set has a direct correlation to the business outcomes that are achieved. When someone is not leading with intention, they are leaving tremendous potential on the table for their organization to be more.
 
Paul: What’s the first step to becoming more intentional?  
Mindy: The first step in becoming more intentional is in ratcheting up your self-awareness of how you “land”/how you “show up” in an interaction, how you are experienced. When I coach executive leaders, I focus my efforts around three layers of growth – you can think about it visually as three concentric circles: The innermost circle is Awareness, which is simply the cognitive aspects of understanding one’s behavior…having the awareness to see how you are impacting others. Integration is the next concentric circle, and it represents the behavioral element of turning that cognitive data into action – intentionally choosing how you want to impact others and then doing what you say you want to do. Embodiment is the outer-most circle, and it represents consistency over time. It’s like any new thing we are trying to do; it takes understanding how to do it, then doing it, then repeating it over and over again until it becomes a new way of operating. It’s like deciding you want to get physically fit; you have a cognitive understanding of what that will take (perhaps a couple more days at the gym per week or a few more runs in the park), and then you start to incorporate that behavior into you routine. As you do that consistently over time, it becomes a new way of operating.
 
Paul: Like most people, I worry a lot about technology and multi-tasking – and how they seem to be eroding our ability to be present. How can we get back to treating each moment with the attention it deserves?
Mindy: To me it’s simply about making the choice to do so. I think we have forgotten the simple truth that we are 100 percent responsible for how we behave in this world. Circumstances may dictate curves in the road sometimes, but how we show up in the face of those is entirely within our hands. How we choose to be present or not is entirely within our control.
 
Paul: Your philosophy is that “I want it to matter that we met.” This is a fantastic perspective for anyone, but I think it may be particularly helpful for young people starting off their careers and developing their networks. Can you share a bit more on this?
Mindy: Every interaction is an opportunity; every action has an impact; every moment is a choice.  I am a big believer that one person truly can make a difference in this world and that, although our challenges may seem large and overwhelming, if we focus on affecting the universe of people that we are in contact with on a daily basis, it is much like a pebble in a pond with ripples that emanate, impacting not only those we are in contact with but those they are in contact with as well.
 
Paul: Your blog post – Meet Your Heroes – reminds me of the notion of not settling for less than what might be possible. Please tell us about this concept.
Mindy: When I started my doctoral program, our university president stood up and said, “You are not getting a PhD; you are becoming one.” He encouraged us to put ourselves in the circle of people we admired – the authors, the theorists, the practitioners – to reach out and be in conversation with those individuals. The story I had about these people was that they would not make time for someone who did not have the same status; my story could not have been more wrong. It pushed me to move beyond my self-generated perception and opened up wonderful doors and opportunities for learning that otherwise would not have been possible. It boiled down to simply pushing beyond my comfort zone.
 
Paul: A big part of your expertise is learning. What are some of your best practices when it comes to learning?
Mindy: For my own learning, I am a big reader. Right now, I’m reading Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation: What They Can’t Teach You at Business or Design School by Idris Mootee. He describes design thinking as the “search for a magical balance between business and art; structure and chaos; intuition and logic; concept and execution; playfulness and formality; and control and empowerment.” It’s stretching my thinking in lots of good ways.
 

Q&A with Dr. Liane Davey

Dr. Liane Davey is a psychologist, business strategist, author and speaker. The co-founder of 3COze, she works daily to take healthy teams to the next level of performance and to rehabilitate teams that have become unproductive and toxic.
She does this by combining her expertise in strategy with her deep insight into group dynamics – and because of this, she is sought out by some of North America’s leading financial services, high-tech and healthcare organizations.
If you like what she has to say below about meetings, networking and workplace relationships, please be sure to check out her two books: Leadership Solutions and You First.
 
Paul: As you know, a lot of my work centers around conversations in the workplace and meetings in particular. I love your take on the best way to decline a meeting invitation – can you share it with my readers?
Liane: When you receive a meeting invitation, it’s important to think about whether or not it’s a good use of your time to attend the meeting. Don’t just “accept” as a reflex.

First, consider whether the meeting is set up for success. Is the topic timely? Are the right people invited to ensure you can make the required decisions? If the meeting isn’t set up for success, suggest ways to make it more effective or recommend that it be canceled or postponed.
If the meeting seems like a good one, next you should ask yourself whether you’re the right person to attend. Are you the right person from your team? Does the issue need someone more senior? Is it an opportunity to delegate to someone more junior? Is there unique value you can add above and beyond the others who will be in attendance? If you’re not the right person to attend, it’s appropriate to decline and possibly suggest someone else in your stead.
Finally, even if it’s an important meeting and you can add value to the discussion, it might not be the most important thing for you to be doing at this particular time. Think hard about the opportunity cost of attending the meeting and make a call based on what’s most important for you to pay attention to. If you have something to contribute but can’t afford to attend, ask to contribute in advance or to attend for only parts of the meeting.

If you’ve decided at any one of these three points that you should decline the meeting, be polite and helpful. Regardless of which option is best for you, be deliberate and thoughtful about which meetings you attend and be forthcoming about your rationale for declining an invite.
 
Paul: Also in the workplace, you make a distinction between venting and gossip. In your opinion, what’s the difference between the two and how should both be handled?
Liane: Venting is when someone uses another person as an outlet for a buildup of negative emotions. They bluster away with a litany of issues and you have no room to get a word in edgewise. For the most part, venting is not aimed at anyone in particular and after a few minutes, the person feels better and carries on. Gossip is a more personal attack on an individual who isn’t there to defend himself. Gossip is insidious and quickly destroys trust in a workplace. If you’re on the receiving end of office gossip, there are a few things you can do. If you believe there is some truth to what the person is saying, you can channel the frustration into a forum where it can be addressed. For example, if your coworker is complaining that Sally was rude to him during the meeting and his ideas got short shrift, you can suggest that he ask to have the issue put back on the agenda. If you don’t believe there is merit to your coworker’s complaints, it’s important to say so. Where possible, take the third party out of the conversation and insert yourself instead. “Frank, I thought Sally was very polite, and she only asked to move along once we had spent 30 minutes on the topic. I don’t think you had enough data to support changing our approach. I’m happy to give you my thoughts on what it would take to reverse the decision.” Regardless of whether you think the gossiper has a legitimate point or not, the idea is to make it very uncomfortable for him to whisper about the issues rather than raise them in an appropriate forum. If every time your coworker gossips to you, you force her to have a grown up conversation, you’ll probably hear a lot less gossip!
 
Paul: What’s the most impactful way to help out a coworker who is stressed out?
Liane: First, although stress isn’t contagious in the traditional sense, it is common to pick up on the emotional states of others. Be careful when you’re helping a teammate who is stressed out not to take on their stress yourself. With that said, there are a few things you can do to be helpful. First, help reduce the stress that comes from isolation by listening and being empathetic. If you notice that their verbal or non-verbal behavior is concerning, just point it out. “I’ve heard a few big sighs coming from your direction. What’s up?” As you get the person talking, help them figure out the root cause of the problem and suggest some ways they might make things better. If the workload is too high, help them prioritize or solicit some help. If they aren’t sure how to accomplish a task, help break it down into more manageable steps. Even if you can’t help to reduce the stressors, you can probably help reduce the toll that stress is taking on your coworker. If you notice your coworker skipping lunch, grab her a bite to eat at her desk or encourage other healthy habits, like going for a quick walk or watching a funny video on the web. Don’t just ignore a coworker who’s stressed out. Take a moment to help them become more self-aware and to problem solve about how to get out from under the wave.
 
Paul: In Harvard Business Review, you’ve written about the two sides of networking – instrumental and psychological – with most people not understanding the importance of the latter. Can you expand on why this part of networking seems to be missing for most people?
Liane: Networks (just like mentors) can provide both instrumental (job- or goal-related) and psychosocial (emotional) support. Many people rely on their network for one, but not the other. If you’re the type of person who is great at getting job leads, competitive intelligence, or new business opportunities from your network, great! But are you also finding folks to talk to about the more personal aspects of succeeding at work? Networks can provide great support in helping you manage stress, think about work-life balance, and deal with difficult bosses or coworkers. These are very valuable contributions from a network and shouldn’t be neglected. On the other hand, many people do the opposite with their network: they over-index on the psychosocial support and forget to reach out when then need on-the-job help. Don’t feel sheepish about asking for assistance on a job hunt or in finding new clients. Your support network can be a great career-booster, too!
 
Paul: Can you tell us a bit more about speaking with impact and writing powerfully?
Liane: I’m really passionate about good communication. Unfortunately, it’s very rare these days. Too much communication is unidirectional and just blasted into the world with little thought about its intent or impact. If you’re sending a message, start by thinking about the impact you want to have. Obviously, think about the information you have to transmit, but don’t stop there. Once you’re clear what people need to know after reading your message, clarify what you want them to think, how you want them to feel, and what you want them to do after reading. Then write your message with those outcomes in mind. If you want people to do a certain thing, have you infused your message with the right facts and emotions to spur action? If not, go back and revise the message until it creates the desired effect. Once you’ve got the content right, make sure your writing is clear and doesn’t get in the way of the message you’re trying to convey. Take out the fancy words and simplify your language. Clean up your grammar and make sure verb tenses all match (especially if you’re using bullet points). You’ll know that you’ve written a strong communication if the words don’t get in the way of what you want people to think, feel, and do!
 
Paul: Would you share what you are currently working on or other ideas that you have been exploring?
Liane: I’m spending considerable time and energy devoted to improving the use of conflict in the workplace. I’m really concerned that we’ve become conflict avoidant and we’re paying the price in reduced innovation, poor risk mitigation, and eroding trust. I’m trying to change people’s mindsets to understand the value of conflict and then to build the skills to have productive conflict. It’s such an important topic, but one many people are reluctant to talk about.

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