So Many Ways to Say Shut Up, So Little Time.

Reading Time: 1.5 minutes


“I understand.”

“I’ve got it.”

“I think what John is trying to say…”

“Thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

“uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.’ (impatiently nodding head and waiting to speak)


I’ve been noticing this in myself lately, the way I’ve adopted a conversational rhythm meant to hurry people along.  In my role as facilitator, I sometimes have a legitimate need to interrupt people, and I do, most often to ask them what the gist is.  “I’m having a hard time knowing what to pay attention to in all you’ve said.  Could you summarize it in a sentence?”

I find it hard to listen to an endless barrage of words and know what the speaker wants me to glean from it.  In the US, we give preference to people who talk a lot and often, believing it’s a sign of confidence and leadership.  It’s not, of course – it’s just extroversion.  Some leaders seem to have been taught that speaking is the same as leadership, so they start talking at the beginning of the meeting and don’t stop until it’s over.  These meetings rarely end on time.

Sometimes when everyone’s eyes are on me, I just start babbling, and I wish someone would interrupt me and ask that magic question:  What is it you are trying to say?  In those moments I need to be asked, because I’m running scared, talking because people are listening.

I want to interrupt these kinds of speech as an act of kindness and deeper listening.  I want to not say or be heard as saying “shut up,” but to be seen as asking to hear what the speaker really wants to say, even if they think it’s unacceptable.  Especially then.

In my quest I’ve noticed that “shut up” comes in so many forms, some of which are listed above.  I bet there are hundreds of them.  Do you struggle with this too?  Do you have strategies that work? Have you heard other ways we say “shut up” without appearing to?  Your comments are welcome.

One Situation, Three Kinds of Business

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

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?”

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!


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 #61 – Culture is what you do right here, right now

That’s just the culture here. We can’t get anything done quickly.”  Organizational culture has gotten a reputation for being difficult to unravel and nearly impossible to change. Is your organization’s culture really a trap you can’t escape?  That’s up to you.

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Reading Time: 2.2 minutes

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Culture is a verb, not a prison sentence. Here’s how one dictionary defines it:

Culture: v. To maintain (tissue, bacteria, etc.) in conditions suitable for growth.

“But that’s the problem!” you moan. “My organization won’t let me take risks or grow at all. I have to wait for someone to die to get promoted.”

Which brings us to the definition of culture as a noun: Culture n. “The attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.”

Culture is what you do, not who you are. 

Attitudes. Behavior. Conditions. Groups. That’s what culture is. If the behavior that is characteristic of your organization is getting you down, make a tiny change in one of the above 4 elements.   Here are three examples.

Change a Condition

A workgroup was moved into a new building with a dispiriting floor plan. Instead of the natural gathering places and interesting configuration of their previous space, this office was one uniform row after another of depressing gray cubicles. “It’s awful.” a coaching client of mine said, “People are fighting more, and no one smiles or jokes anymore. I want to quit.”

She didn’t quit. Instead, she placed a small table in a central location with a message board above it. Soon food started appearing there – lemons from the tree in someone’s backyard, tomatoes and zucchini from someone’s garden, a box of doughnuts. Then notes started appearing on the message board. As people lingered to eat, they talked and joked with one another. The fighting subsided.

Change the Group Behavior

The meeting was the same every month: There was no project goal, no meeting outcome, no agenda. There was only a plate of cookies and a request by the CIO to figure out “how to create partnerships between IT and our client groups.” This group of senior managers ate cookies and went through the motions for 9 months. They’d meet for the rest of their lives because the culture did not allow pointing out the mistakes of leaders, and it did not believe in structuring meetings.

A newcomer suggested a meeting evaluation, and it took 3 flipchart pages to capture their discontent, and only 2 more highly structured meetings to agree to stop meeting, a first in this compliant, meeting-bound culture. “We can’t solve on partnership problems in isolation.” is what they told the CIO. “Makes sense,” he said.

Change Your Behavior

“…so we need a new design for the group by Friday. I need your very best thinking..” It was Wednesday afternoon and this was the first I’d heard of this from my C—level client.   It was a typical moment in this hard-driving, last-minute culture. I was booked solid for the rest of the week.

I tore out a piece of paper from my pad and started drawing the design. “I can do it right now,” I said.

“What? “ Now my client was flustered. “Don’t you need time to talk to people and think about it?”

“There’s no time for that.  We have 20 minutes left. Let’s take our best shot and your admin can type up our first draft while we agree on next steps.”

She frowned as I drew and labeled boxes. “Why are you putting that there?” she asked. Then she grabbed her pen and pulled the paper toward her. We had an engaging design session for the next 15 minutes.

Keep it tiny and matter-of-fact

When culture is in your way, it’s tempting to think you have to make a dramatic attempt to change it. What if, instead of trying to change the culture, you focused on not letting the culture change you in one, tiny way?

Just because the office layout is unfriendly doesn’t mean you have to be. Just because the meeting culture is dysfunctional doesn’t mean you have to throw away your skills. If the deadline demands are routinely impossible, why not make a first draft part of the way you work? Just because the culture is rigid, doesn’t mean you have to be.

Remember:  Right here, right now, the culture is up to you.


Behavioral Interview Questions for “Soft” Skills

I love writing interview questions for my clients, so I thought I’d start compiling the ones I’ve written here with this short list.  The “soft” skills questions seem hardest for people to write.  It would be great fun for me to write more, so feel free to give me an assignment in the comments below.  And, feel free to share your favorite questions there too.  If you wanted to include stories or comments about using them, I’d love to read them.

Hi Liz –

We’re looking for questions that can help us select candidates who:

1. like people

2. are happy/positive

3. are comfortable with change

4. are self-motivated


The first thing I do when I want to write a behavioral interview question is to picture the behavior I want in a co-worker, and the situation I think might evoke or challenge that behavior.  Then I use the Behavioral question format to phrase a question about the situation and ask them what happened.

To the extent you and I agree on what these things look like, these questions will work for you.  Whether or not they fit, I encourage you to use them as a jumping off place for your own.  In each category I included a question designed to elicit “contrary evidence,” that is a question about failing to like people, be positive, etc.

1.  Like people

  • Tell me about a time when you joined a new company needed to become part of a team quickly.  What did you do?  What happened as a result?
  • Tell me about a time when your attempt to connect with someone was rebuffed.   What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time you joined a team that was tense and not communicating with each other very well.  What did you do to become a part of the team?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work with someone you didn’t like.  How did you handle it?

2.  Are happy/positive

  • Tell me about a time when your work was difficult – a real slog.  What did you do to keep going?
  • Tell me about a time when your boss made an unpopular decision and your co-workers were complaining and negative.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you lost your enthusiasm for your work.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when the barriers to doing your work were severe.  How did you handle it?
  • Tell me about a time when you weren’t able to talk yourself into being upbeat and positive.  How did you handle it?

3. Are comfortable with change

  • Tell me about a time when your work changed due to a new regulation or leadership decision.  What did you do to adjust?
  • Tell me about a time when you noticed a problem with the way you were expected to work.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when someone came to you with an idea for improving your workflow.  How did it go?  What did you end up doing?
  • Tell me about a time when the changes coming at you were just too many to deal with.  What did you do?

 4. Are self-motivated

  • Tell me about a time when you saw a way to improve your team’s workflow.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to learn something new that was really difficult for you.  How did you go about it?
  • Tell me about a time when you wanted to move forward in your career, but couldn’t see an opportunity to.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you were overwhelmed with work.  How did you handle it?
  • Tell me about a time when you couldn’t not seem to get motivated to do something.  What did you do?

CG #60 – How to Hold Someone Accountable

It’s tempting to think accountability depends on the other person and their skills.  Nope.  It depends on you.

Reading Time:  3 minutes

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Let’s say you’ve got someone who is missing deadlines or turning in work that isn’t up to snuff.  Let’s say you’ve given them feedback about what’s right and carefully explained what needs to change about their work.  You’ve offered more training and sat with them to show them what to do.

And, although there may be slight improvement, it isn’t enough.  You dread spending more time for such a feeble result.

Trust that feeling. 

The cardinal rule of accountability is to stop working harder than they are.

Who is putting in more time, energy and worry?  If it isn’t the person who is responsible for the work, accountability is in the wrong place.  Believing if you just show them one more time, if you just do this one more thing for them is a big part of the problem.

Either someone can do that job or they can’t.  If they can do it, but aren’t doing it, then doing it for them won’t close the gap between them and successful job performance.  Like a baby bird, they’ve got to peck their way out of the shell to get strong enough for the challenges of life.  Doing it for them weakens them. 

Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine about how to teach a baby to sleep through the night.  Holding someone accountable is a lot like that.  Assuming they aren’t hungry and don’t need to be changed, you’ve got three choices when your newborn starts screaming in their crib:

  • Ignore them and hope they stop crying on their own (the equivalent of leaving your employee without any guidance and hoping they get it)
  • Rush in and pick them up (the equivalent of doing someone’s work for them or working harder than they are)
  • Rub their back and speak softly to them, then leave. (the equivalent of letting your employees know you care, that there are standards, and that you are confident they can fulfill them)

Letting the baby know you are nearby and rubbing their back eases his terror.  Not picking him up holds him accountable for soothing himself back to sleep, a necessary life skill.

Your employee needs to know you are nearby, and that you care, both about them and the work.  They also need to know that you have confidence they can figure out how to meet the job standards, which remain high.  Holding people accountable is holding a clear expectation of performance without abandoning them or doing it for them when they miss.

So if holding people accountable isn’t doing the work for them, or ignoring them when they don’t perform, or giving feedback or a pep talk or explaining it one more time or sending them to another training, what is it?

Holding people accountable is staying in your own business and out of theirs.

Instead of being an expert in the other person – why they might be failing, what they might need – you need to be an expert on yourself.  Your needs.  The requirements of the job.  Your ability to do your job which is diminishing with each hour you spend doing their job.  What you need from an employee in order to keep them in the job.

It’s the chick’s business to summon the strength to peck its way through that hard shell.  It’s the baby’s business to regulate its own emotions.  It’s your employee’s business to stare at the gap between what’s expected and what they’ve produced until they figure out how they can close that gap.  It’s your business is to keep your employee’s attention focused on the performance gap long enough to devise a plan for closing it. 

 Staying out of their business doesn’t mean the baby’s cry won’t make you squirm, or that you won’t long to reach out and crack the chick’s shell open.  It doesn’t mean you won’t feel uncomfortable watching your employee struggle to get their work done properly.  It doesn’t mean closing your heart or distancing yourself from them.  It means you know better than to get in the way of someone else’s progress.

CG #59 – Does Your Productive Group Fall Apart at Times?

Groups excel at tasks, and flounder with projects.  Learning to recognize the difference will revolutionize your meetings.

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Reading time: 2 minutes

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A task is something that can be accomplished in one step.  A project is anything that is more than one step.  Tasks are speedy and give you an immediate feeling of accomplishment.  Projects are speedbumps on the road of life.

Very few of the things on a typical to do list – or a typical meeting agenda – are tasks.  Most of us have items on our to do list – or our meeting agendas – that we move to the next list or the next agenda.  These are often projects rather than tasks.

Look at your list right now:  Is the item you move from list to list a project rather than a task?  If it is a project, you’re smart to avoid it.  It’s going to gobble up a lot of time and demand your complete attention.  And it’s going to send your group into one of those long, unproductive discussions.

 If you want to get things done, you put only tasks on your to do list. If you want your group to get things done, you put only tasks on your agenda.

Analyze Your Task List/Meeting Agenda

Here’s a typical to do list:

  • Wash the car
  • Mow the lawn
  • Do the laundry

There is a project lurking behind every one of these items.  I can’t wash the car without first parking the car away from my neighbor’s cars, finding a hose, getting a bucket, soap and a sponge, and putting on clothes I don’t mind getting wet.  It’s a project to wash a car, not a task.

If I put “wash the car” on a meeting agenda, then ask the group to help me wash my car, pandemonium will erupt.  The group will split according to the task they each think comes first.  One person will ask for the keys to the car.  Another will tell me – at length – how much they love using Dawn dishwashing detergent and do I have any while someone else warns me of the damage dishwashing detergent will do to my car’s paint job.  While they are arguing, 3 people will already be in the parking lot squirting each other with the hose and getting my neighbor’s cars wet.

My project just turned into a nightmare.  Unproductive meetings are just like this.  Which brings me to 3 principles of working with groups:

  • Groups are fabulous at tasks
  • Groups fall apart over projects
  • Groups tend to turn everything into a project

If you want to see the full flowering of the dynamics lurking in your group, throw a project at them.  If you want their help working on a project of enormous complexity, give it to them one small task at a time.  That’s what meeting planning is for:  to break down the big, undigestible project into tiny, group-sized pieces.

Task or Project?

In order to make improving your meetings a quick, easy task instead of an enormous, time-chewing project, take this tiny step today:

Look at your task list or list of agenda items and ask yourself:  Which of these is a project rather than a task?  It’s probably the one you’ve been avoiding, and now you know why.

CG #57 – Real Feedback Doesn’t Shame

 Giving feedback is not an excuse to belittle someone, yet it’s so easy to cause harm.  A simple formula will keep you from crossing the line.

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Word Count:  1100

Reading Time:  4 minutes

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Shaming Feedback

“The officer was shouting at me, his face red, spitting mad. He would not stop until I admitted I was a reckless driver.  Not just that I was speeding, but that I was a reckless driver.  After he left, my 13-year-old daughter said ‘Dad, he really shamed you.’”

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Yes, he did.  Speeding is a behavior; something you did that was wrong.  Being a reckless driver is something you are that is wrong.  Real feedback is about the behavior, not the person. 

feedback shame

Real Feedback

Jacqueline and I are talking about the equine-guided leadership program at the Stanford Red Barn. A horse named Chey is standing with us, looking me in the eye as Jacqueline talks.  When I begin speaking, Chey takes 2 steps backwards, still locking eyes with me.  I say “No?  Not the right direction?  OK.  Forget that.”  Chey immediately takes two steps toward me and wiggles his ears, then blows snot all over me.   We have to take a tiny hilarity break before we can go on with the meeting.

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We can learn a lot about giving feedback from horses like Chey.  Here’s why he was so effective:

  • He stayed connected to me, both when he was stepping away from me and when he was stepping back toward me.
  • He gave feedback instantly, without agonizing or creating a story about why I was being such a chowderhead.
  • He didn’t call me a chowderhead.

Feedback that works is feedback without shame.  Horses excel at this. 

Humans don’t. 

Horses simply respond in the moment without judging either their response or the person or horse they are responding to.  Horses are OK with having likes and dislikes, and letting each other know about them.

Horses accept feedback as a way of life.

Humans don’t.

Humans like to “improve” the feedback they’re about to give by first disowning it, then telling themselves a story about it.  Rather than admitting to our own anxiety or irritation, we create stories that make it easy to blame our feelings on others.  Then we blame them for forcing us to give feedback!  “if you want to succeed in this company, you’ll watch your tone.”  That’s a world apart from “You sounded cranky to me yesterday.  It rubbed me the wrong way.”  The second example lacks shame; the first is drenched in it.

There are 3 problems with “improving” feedback by attaching a story:

  • The story gets in the way of the simplicity and directness that makes feedback effective.
  • The story obliterates the connection that makes feedback safe.
  • The story shames the receiver, which forever blights the relationship between them.

Feedback + a story = shame.

The Opposite of Shaming is Vulnerability

The feedback you give tells others what you care about and something of who you are.  Building a case for the righteousness of the feedback you’re about to give is like the Wizard of Oz terrifying Dorothy before she spots the man behind the curtain.  But it’s the man behind the curtain we want to hear from, person-to-person, because getting feedback makes us vulnerable too.

Come out from behind the curtain 

Who are you without your beliefs, certainties and authority?  You’re a human being with endearing quirks, annoying habits, staggering talents and persistent blind spots, just like me.  Nothing real separates the person giving feedback from the person getting it.  Nothing.   

Who are you without a 360-degree review process that institutionalizes gossip, or a performance review process that forces you to find “weaknesses” in perfectly wonderful people, even though every bit of research supports focusing on strengths instead?   You are a human being caught in an organization that sometimes causes you to act like you’ve lost your way.  But you haven’t, have you?

The Threefold Test: True + Kind + Helpful

There’s an ancient formula that helps us human act more like horses.  Its earliest appearance is in the Upanisads, the mystical texts of Hinduism.  It’s most often associated with Socrates now, and is a threefold test for speech that is beneficial for the speaker and the receiver.  You need all three of these to pass the test for effective feedback..

1. It’s true. True is what is real about this situation – everything that’s real.  Let’s say you have an employee who casually mentions that they’ll be working from home for the week between Christmas and New Years.  Let’s say “home” is in Colorado, where they’ll be visiting family over the holidays. What’s real is that working at home has to meet two criteria:  There has to be a valid business reason for doing it, and it has to be approved.  What’s also real is that you are supportive of telecommuting in general.  The most real thing you can say about this is that you are stuck on the horns of a dilemma.  If you start there, I bet you can work out something that satisfies the employee, the organization and you.

If you making a case about how insubordinate or entitled they are because you are stunned by this obvious attempt to pass off vacation time as work, you are adding a story to the truth and you will shame your employee.  The truth is what actually happened in the real world. The story didn’t actually happen.  You made it up.

Effective feedback is the truth without the story. 

2.  It’s kind.   Kind is from an Old English word that means kin or family.  It carries the sense of “deliberately doing good to others.” In order to deliberately do good to someone, you have to open your heart to them.  Where doing good to them seems to conflict with doing good for the company you represent, you’ll need to open your heart to yourself.  It’s OK to feel uncomfortable with the discrepancy between what you want to do and what you must do.  Everybody deserves kindness.  Make the circle big enough to include all three of you.

3. It’s useful.  Useful for the person receiving the feedback.  You’ll know because they will get very interested in what you are saying and show all the signs of someone who is learning:  bright eyes, talking faster, and a vocal tone full of color rather than a dead monotone.

True, kind and helpful:  It’s your insurance policy against shaming others as well as being shamed into being less human than you are.