One Situation, Three Kinds of Business

3 kinds of business: Mine, Yours and God’s

Mindset Mapping: Growth, Fixed or Mixed?

“Squirrel!” – Adventures in Mental Hygiene

Reading Time:  1.5 minutes


Earlier this week I was feeling lower than a snake’s belly.  I was metabolizing some difficult family news that left me with a low-level sense of dread I couldn’t shake.   I wasn’t sure how to move past it, so I was exploring that with a friend over coffee.

We were sitting outside near the Oakland Inner Harbor where we typically see seagulls and pigeons.  So when I saw a squirrel running along the walkway, I was stunned into silence.  All I could manage to was to point and blurt “Squirrel.”  This put us both in mind of the dogs in the movie “Up,” who were forever being distracted by squirrels, which caused us to laugh uncontrollably.  During a pause in the hilarity, I choked out “Now, where was I?” and that set us off again.

Eventually I managed to get back to my topic, but it wasn’t the same:  I was too light for that.  My mind was still running back and forth trying to solve the unsolvable, but it was more from habit than conviction.

When I woke up the next morning, I was again assailed with the awfulness of it all and my mood began to sag.  And then I heard myself say “Squirrel,” and once again felt the wonder of seeing that little furry being run by and I started laughing.  And I saw it more clearly than I ever had before:  One moment I was feeling depressed and the next I was laughing uncontrollably.  All that had changed was where I’d put my attention.

I saw that the choice was mine:  I could continue to let my mind persist in this painful and deepening trench, or I could step in and help it do something else.  I couldn’t solve or even fathom the original conundrum – no amount of thought or dread could do that – but I could redirect my beleaguered mind into happier and more productive territory, the way you would redirect a distraught child. Our mind sometimes needs it’s own minder – someone who will do the kind thing and hep it settle down.  I’m so grateful for the lesson of “Squirrel!”

Icebreaker: What’s Your Rhythm?

Reading Time: 1 minute

Icebreaker Time:  10-15 minutes
Here’s a drum circle technique you can use anywhere, even when you have to be really, really quiet.

1. Have a participant say their name, then tap our the rhythm of their name with their hands, either on the table or on their thighs as they say their name.

2. Have the rest of the group join in, tapping the rhythm and saying the name.

3. Ask the participant how it was to have everybody playing the rhythm of their name.

4. Ask others how it was to join in.

5. Do it again with someone else in the group until you run out of time.

6. (Optional):  Debrief with the entire group


  • Use first and last name (sometimes the first name is too short)
  • Use a word or phrase instead of a name. For example, a team could drum it’s values, one at a time, reflecting on what each felt like when played.
  • Vary the speed, volume or style, either by demonstrating or by asking questions “What would it sound like louder, quieter, slower, rock and roll style?” etc.

This simple exercise is a mindfulness meditation.  It gives participants a different way to simply accept and be touched by another’s offering.  In addition, having your name drummed by others can be a powerful experience. Drumming a word or phrase that has meaning for the team can be similarly powerful – it’s a way to sit with a word or phrase before deciding whether you agree or disagree with it.  Slowing our rush to judgement helps us become present with one another.

The R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Icebreaker

Reading Time: 2 minutes


R.E.S.P.E.C.T.  Since Aretha Franklin’s recent death, I’ve been hearing this song everywhere – blaring from a bar as I walk past, on someone’s phone at the next table over, from the stage at a concert.  And respect always ends on a list of ground rules for meetings I facilitate.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had a definition we all agreed on?  Even better would be the behaviors and practices of respect – what respect looks like in action.

I think of respect as having two parts:  The basic respect that you get simply by being born, and the respect you earn.  Anything you earn you can lose.  What you are born with, stays.

An example of basic respect is being acknowledged.  I can acknowledge another’s presence, their humanity, or words they’ve spoken.  Basic respect doesn’t have to include liking or agreeing, it’s simply acknowledging what is.  Paraphrasing is an excellent way to show respect without agreement.  In one economical motion you acknowledge their presence, humanity and what they have said.

Paraphrasing?  Not again.

Oh, yes, Grasshopper – again and again and again.  All the listening skills you’ve learned and discarded as too cumbersome?  They are skills for respecting others, especially when that other is not like you.  Perhaps they are female to your male, introvert to your extrovert, brown or black to your white, lower or higher on the hierarchy.  Basic respect is where communication starts, and without communication, there is no learning, cohesion or progress.  When your group is diverse, having a common way to show respect becomes your foundation.

It’s especially important to show basic respect before you lean forward to make your point.  I’m not talking about the tortured, robotic paraphrasing of yore:  “What I think I hear you you saying is…” Gah!  I’m talking about conversational paraphrasing, the kind actual humans use:  “Nancy suggests we use kryptonite to slow Superman down (Look at Nancy to further acknowledge her and to see whether you got that right).    Then you are free to add, “I think that’s a good start and I want to go even farther, ” or, “I see it differently.”

The Respect Icebreaker

This is one you can use over and over, as a basic respect drill.  It’s simple:

  1. One person – person A – makes a statement – it can be innocuous or controversial.  I recommend starting with innocuous.
  2. The person next to them – Person B – paraphrases what they heard.
  3. Person A gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up if Person B got it right and shakes their head sadly if they missed all or part of it.
  4. Move on to the next two people in the circle and repeat steps 1-3 if person B was successful.  If Person B wasn’t successful, Person A reads or speaks their statement again.

Ways to keep this fresh:

  • Time it and make it competitive – maximum understanding in minimum time.
  • Shift from content to connection and empathy – maximum connection in minimum time.
  • Have the group rate the paraphrase rather than just the person who reads the statement.
  • Divide into teams and where two persons from opposing teams compete to paraphrase quickest or best (content and connection).  Have judges that give scores.
  • Use more controversial or difficult phrases – especially those that you actually hear from clients, customers or co-workers.
  • Reflect back the emotion as well as the content in the paraphrase (“you sound very convinced you are right.”  “You seem upset”  “I feel frustrated when I listen to you.  Are you frustrated?”

How to change someone else

Reading Time:  45 seconds


There’s a elegant, simple way to do this and there’s the other way. The other way is to employ a variety of passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive techniques to get others to behave differently. Not only is this excruciating for everyone involved, it doesn’t work. It does give us a way to occupy our days, and something to complain about in the break room. Perhaps this explains its timeless appeal.

Or, you could use the approach that drops you right into the slipstream: Change your behavior.

Oh, no, no, you say – I’m right and they are wrong, wrong, wrong. They need to change, not me. I deserve better.

Exactly. I’m not arguing with you. I’m telling you how.

But Liz, they are the ones who need to change. I’m not changing for them – why should I? It’s just not possible – I can’t do it, it’s not who I am. Besides, it’s so hard.

And yet you expect them to change. You aren’t willing or able to change, but you expect them to?

A mother brought her overweight son to Ghandi so he could tell the son to stop eating sweets. Ghandi said “Come back next week.” When they returned, Ghandi told the son to stop eating sweets. When the mother asked about the intervening week, Ghandi said “I had to see if I could do it before I could ask someone else to.”

Leadership is going first.

Be a leader.  Go first.

The “Yes, And…” Icebreaker

Reading Time: 1.5 mins

Icebreaker Time:  6-10 mins

It’s 92 degrees with 90% humidity and there isn’t even a fan in the room. Our teacher is twenty minutes late. A long-time student stands and turns to face us.

“While we’re waiting for Bob, I think he’d like me to tell you about the two rules of improv. The first rule is to say yes to everything.  Unless we say an unconditional yes to everything, there is nothing to create a scene with.  ‘No’ kills the scene, so we say ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘yes, but.’  ‘Yes, but’ is just an indirect way of saying ‘no.'”

Someone raises their hand, and asks “What’s the second rule?”

“The second rule of improv is that there is no second rule of improv.”  We all laugh and get up nervously to practice in pairs.  One-by-one, someone doubles over with laughter.  It’s like a big game of whack-a-mole:  People who were standing talking suddenly are laughing so hard they cannot stand.  Bob shouts over us:  “Let’s workshop this” and most of us sit down to watch the pair he has singled out.  One of them is still bent over laughing.

Bob gives them a word to start with:  Blister.

“Knock, knock”

“I hate knock-knock jokes.”  (Yes, but – I’ll play, just not your way)

“No really – knock, knock.”  (Yes, but – play my way or not at all.)

His partner freezes.  There is a moment of uncomfortable silence before Bob steps in full of attitude and says “Fine.  Who’s there?”


Bob, rolling his eyes and sighing, says “Bliss who?”

“Bliss-ter!  Get it?”

“How did you know I had a blister?  That’s amazing!  Wait – can you read minds?”

And the scene takes off.

Play to Control or Play to Explore?

You’ve probably been in loads of “yes, but” meetings, meetings where one or more people came with an idea they want others to adopt while pretending to “want input,” or “be open to feedback,” or say “let’s figure this out together.”  And you’ve felt the energy die and seen awkwardness creep in just like it did in the above example.  While it is perfectly valid to ask people to see things your way, pretending otherwise can create a callous in a group.  Over time, this pretense becomes the way we meet and can even evolve into:  “While you are pretending to listen to me, I am pretending to agree with you.”  Demanding control is like that:  It stalls creativity and true collaboration.

The “Yes, And” Icebreaker

The “Yes, And” Icebreaker is a playful way to break up old habits and get the spirit of improv and creativity back in your meetings.  It’s simple, easy and quick:

  1. Agree on a time.  3-5 minutes for the icebreaker and 3-5 minutes to debrief works well.
  2. Set a ground rule of responding to everything by saying “Yes, and…”
  3. The first person makes a statement and the person next to them (the second person) responds by saying “yes, and…”
  4. The next person in the circle responds to what the second person says by saying “yes, and..”
  5. Proceed around the circle until the game stops of its own accord or you run out of time.
  6. Debrief by asking people to reflect on what happened.  Ask how the icebreaker differs from a typical meeting.  Ask how “yes, and” can become a part of regular meetings.

Hint:  Look for speed and fluency – do rounds where you speed up the response time; adopt a ground rule of no pausing, etc.  The focus is on letting go of where you think the conversation was going or should have gone.  Think up your own variations.

Here’s an example

First person: “Dogs are the best pets.”

Second person: “Yes, and I love how they bark at everything.”

Third person “Yes, and their soft coats are my favorite part.”

Fourth person: “Yes, and I like that you can take them to the pound if they don’t work out.”

Fifth person: “Yes, and ‘pound’ reminds me that I love pound cake!   Lemon is my favorite.”

Sixth person:  “Yes, and I love pounding things too – like dough when I make bread.”

Don’t forget to let me know in the comments how this works for you – and share your variations with the rest of us too.  We thank you!


One-Word Story, a Team-Building Icebreaker

This is just like the clap-pass icebreaker, but words replace a hand-clap.   It’s just as fast and energizing, with one change:  It can be harder to let go into the flow of the story.


The group can either sit or stand in a circle.  Tell them they are to tell a story as a group using only one word each.  Choose the first person and ask them for a word, then cue the next person and the next and the next.  Limit everyone to 1 word and keep them moving.  Like clap-pass, rhythm helps.


Ask participants what it was like to participate and enjoy their answers.  You’ll hear things like:  “It was hard to let go of the story I wanted to tell!”   “I didn’t want to get stuck with words like ‘the,’ ‘and,’ ‘or, ‘it,’ when I had a really great word in mind.”  “My brain froze because I liked my idea for a story better than the one we were telling.”

This icebreaker is a microcosm of being in a team. We want to contribute, and we want to contribute what we think is best or coolest, regardless of what the team – or the client, if you are a consultant – needs.  If you want to go deeper, ask about how a team might introduce fairness into its work together.  What may come out is how 1 or 2 people with the loudest voices or strongest egos always have more influence on the team’s conversations and work.  We have a deep instinct for fairness.  We all have control needs too.  How are you balancing those needs?  This icebreaker can help you raise that question.  Answering it might be a simple as agreeing to take turns or occasionally impose arbitrary and artificial limits on speaking times.




CG #66 – “Smooth Seas Do Not Make Skillful Sailors.”

Do you ever feel like the universe is sending you a postcard?  When I came home last night, the title of this post was scrawled in chalk on the ramp to my dock.

Reading Time:  Under 2 minutes


After the crisis-ridden day I’d had, I was happy to see those words.  As I stood there and let those words sink in deep, I thought about the difference between someone who learns to sail on the San Francisco Bay – a notoriously wild and windy place – and someone who learns on the Long Island Sound with its placid, protected waters. I know which Captain I want in charge of my boat.

Which got me thinking about resilience and the recent, compelling research about stress.  It’s not stress that harms you, it’s the belief that stress is harmful that harms you.  Believing stress is harmful is the 15th leading cause of death.

The physiology is straightforward:  Stress makes your heart pound.  Believing stress is harmful constricts your blood vessels, which increases your risk of death.  But when you see the stress as helpful, your blood vessels open. Increased blood flow in open veins is physically identical to states of exhilaration, courage and joy.  See stress as helpful and your body throws itself a little party right in the middle of the onslaught, rendering stress harmless.

But the news is even better than that:  Stress causes you to connect with others – it practically drives you into their arms.  You need help, advice, support, coaching,  These social connections bathe your body in oxytocin, which protects you from the effects of stress.   For caregivers, the healing effect of oxytocin seems to negate the wear and tear of caring for others.

Yes, you read that correctly:  Caring for others promotes a healing response in the caregiver that protects against the effects of stress.

This research means that rampant excuse for bad behavior, “I’m just really stressed out,” is about to leave the building, and good riddance to it.

Accept – Connect – Help is the formula, and the choice is yours to make.  The more I sit with this research, the more I see that what I’ve been calling stressful is simply strenuous, a signal to get moving.

Stress has one more gift for us:  Meaning.  Stress and adversity increase the chance of a meaningful life.  Seeking comfort has the opposite effect.

Which brings me to my 90-year-old Aunt Perina, a woman I’ve long admired, but not always understood.  Born between the World Wars, her generation came of age in a time of great deprivation.  Those early, difficult times hold her richest, most cherished memories, the ones that have sustained her through the death of all her siblings and most of her friends.  I did not understand the psychic alchemy that left her kinder and richer with each blow, until I saw this research.  I’m glad to get a glimmer of this this now, when I can still tell her she’s my role model for her courage, grit and unfailing sense of humor.

If you want to learn more, the book is called “The Upside of Stress,” by Kelly McGonigalHer TED talk gives a good overview of this topic.  If you don’t have 20 minutes right now, click here for my 1-page summary of that TED talk.

See you on the upside.

CG #65 – To Lead or Include, that is the Question

Getting a task done well and on time no matter who I trample, or losing my way in the messiness of including others:  Is it just me, or is this the primary dilemma of leaders everywhere?


Reading Time:  2.5 minutes



Armani taking a fence.

 CG #65 –  To Lead or Include, That’s the Question

My coaches in this matter are beings who have resolved this dilemma:  Horses.  Horses are herd animals who never lose sight of what they want.  They don’t trample their relationship to each other or their place in the herd to get it either.  It’s extraordinary to work with them.

I have a human coach too, and my task today is to “get a horse to put his head down without touching him.”

We were in a big barn for this, and I’m terrified of getting in little stalls with big horses.  The horses are trapped, and I’m trapped with them.  I do it, but I always   have to push my fear aside.  This time, I take the fear with me into Armani’s stall.

I approach Armani radiating a clear intention “Will you put your head down for me?”  I know I can use coercive horsemanship to wrestle his head down a little or bribe it down with food, but that’s not what I’m after.  I want Armani to put his head down because he chooses to do as I ask.

I’m pretty sure this is what leaders want, too.

When I walk in, Armani is standing against one of the stall walls.  I walk over to stroke his neck and immediately feel uncomfortable.  He is tense and watchful – it is subtle, but I can see it in his body and feel it in the pit of my stomach.  I realize I have him pinned against the wall, not the best position for eliciting voluntary behavior.

I think leaders have this problem too:  Our employees are pinned against the wall of the power we have over their lives.  Whether or not we want to admit it, every time we talk to an employee, only one of us has the power to fire the other.

I want to feel my discomfort rather than push it aside where it might cause me to coerce Armani, and I still have to get the task done, so I stand there feeling uncomfortable.  I just started and I’m already stuck.

My human coach says:  “Back off and give him some room.  Ask him to come to you.” I feel relieved, and say “Thank you – I was uncomfortable, but wasn’t sure what to do.”  I take three steps back and Armani follows me like we are glued together.  He relaxes visibly.  I relax.  I say, “I want you to put your head down, but I will not force you,” and Armani exhales and sways toward me. 

My coach and another colleague get so excited about this that Armani walks past me and sticks his head out to see what all the fuss was about. My coach says, “Now you’ve got a new task.  How do you get his head back inside the stall?”

(You’ve probably never had this happen to you, that someone you’re leading gets distracted by something more lively, interesting or urgent.)

I say “I know how to get him to back up – to make him – but I don’t want to do that.  Armani, I want you to come back in.” Armani steps back into his stall and lowers his head, holding it there.

I’m a little blown away with how beautiful that moment is, so I stand there taking it in.  The task was a red herring – maybe it always is.  Maybe the task is just the vehicle for the relationship to bloom and take your breath away.   Because that’s what happened:  My refusal to harm Armani and his generous response broke my heart open.

I reach out to stroke Armani’s neck and he keeps his head down.  As gratitude wells up in me, Armani swings his head up and looks me in the eye.  His eyes had gone clear and the boundaries between us dissolved.  I think he was grateful to not be bossed, grateful to have the chance to show me his generous heart.  I know I was grateful to see it.

After I left Armani’s stall I realized I hadn’t been afraid since I said: “Thank you.  I was uncomfortable and wasn’t sure what to do.”

If you’d like to try this with a human, here are the steps:

1. I did not let the task, the time pressure or my audience make me a bully.

2. I refused to choose,  Instead, I held on to the task and the invitation equally.

3. I accepted help.

4. I noticed and responded accordingly.