Those closest to us

Our friends, allies, the people who care, they are the ones who are most likely to say the little things that we need to hear. Especially the things we don’t always want to hear.

Yes, we all crave more pats on the back, but as long as people are speaking up and telling us what’s not working for them, it means they still care and they’re still paying attention.

The dangerous thing is when we speak and we hear nothing back. Crickets.

What we need to avoid isn’t criticism, it’s the deafening silence of apathy.

Strengths, and Weaknesses

I got back on my yoga mat this morning for the first time in a long, long time.   I used to have a regular practice, but my days keep getting fuller, my kids are going to bed later, and time is squeezed.

Yoga is a healing practice, and lately, without yoga, I’ve been walking around only noticing the things in my body that hurt a bit: my left knee, thanks to a torn ACL 20 years ago; one of the joints in my left foot; my right Achilles tendon that I tweaked a bit playing squash; the rotator cuff on my right shoulder that is still only back to 90% three years after an over-zealous week of vacation-tennis. As I walk down the street, I cycle through a broken record of “knee, toe, heel, shoulder….” as I notice the discomforts.

On the yoga mat, things feel a little different. I had a yoga teacher years ago, a guy named Rolf Gates, who, only joking a little bit, would demonstrate a flowing series of yoga poses and say, in his booming voice, “Now, say to yourself while doing these poses, ‘I am the most beautiful yogi in the world!’” It was silly, but it also made us all move with a little more poise, a little more grace. Being on the mat is a chance to feel more – to feel the parts that ache a bit, sure, but also to feel yourself being strong, graceful, and balanced.

It is so easy to walk around feeling only what hurts, to feel only the parts that aren’t working. We hear feedback about something we did wrong, and that becomes our whole story for a day, a week, sometimes even months or years. The perceived faults and shortcomings become everything, the throbbing knee or aching tendon that are the only things in our consciousness; while the things that went great, the thing that come easy to us, all of the areas where we shine, fade away.

Let us recognize the areas where we are still falling short, our niggling injuries that hold us back. But let us never let them eclipse all of the things that make us special, the things that are in clear view to everyone except – sometimes – us.

You, Me, We

Some of the best advice I’ve heard on how to give feedback involves the simple switch from “you” phrases to “I” phrases, meaning switching from, “You weren’t as clear as you could have been today in making that point” to “I was confused by the points that you made today, and I didn’t feel like your message got across.”  It’s a small shift in language that helps create connection and a sense of shared ownership, instead of a feeling of judgment and separation.

Lately, I’ve found myself pining for a parallel shift of language in big meetings.

In meetings, among polite company, I challenge you to find a lot of “you” statements or a lot of “I” statements.  Safe meetings are the world of “we,” as in “we need to think about such-and-such” and “it’s important that we take action to correct this problem.”

Unfortunately “we” as a standalone doesn’t get us very far.  “We” abdicates responsibility and ownership and follow-though unless it is followed by “I,” as in, “We haven’t prioritized this important project, and what I’m prepared to do to help is….”

In feedback sessions gone awry, the conversation is all about the other person and how he needs to change.  In meetings gone awry, the group and the organization transform to a collective “we” separate from the people having the meeting.  We use safe language to create the illusion that “we” is anything other than a collection of “I”s who either will or won’t take steps – starting now, starting today – to make something else happen, something new happen, something hard and important happen.

There’s no “we” but you and me.

What’s sacred about you?

Here’s the one thing I can’t stop thinking about after writing yesterday’s post: what’s sacred about me?

Meaning, Jonathan Haidt’s research tells us that to understand people and how they make decisions, you have to understand what they hold sacred.  Around these sacred beliefs, there’s a halo of willful ignorance, one that few facts can penetrate and, if they do, these facts fail to dislodge the core belief.

It must be the case that this applies to self-image, that there are things I fundamentally believe about myself (that you believe about yourself) that blind me (you) to the facts.

The capacity for change comes from the willingness to observe the things that are most dear in my self-image and expose them.  Most obviously, Jonathan challenges me to look at the notion that I’m an open-minded person by asking me how much I understand the perspective of people whose core beliefs differ fundamentally from my own.  More broadly, we all walk around with notions of who we are, namely…

I am:

[   ] good

[   ] bad

at public speaking; writing; analysis; closing a sale; inspiring others; leading a team; coming up with new ideas; getting things over the finish line; fundraising; meeting new people; taking risks.

For example if you’d asked me when I was 23 what job I would never, ever want to or be able to do successfully I would have said “any kind of sales job.”  Whoops.

There are only two ways to break this cycle.  The best way is to decide not to listen to the stories you tell yourself and to start doing things that contradict your most sacred beliefs about who you are and what you’re best and worst at.  Then supercharge your efforts by creating a culture of honest and open feedback (a la Open 360) – a work environment in which people who know you and who deeply care about your success and that of your organization actually sit down and tell you what we’re best at.

I promise, you’re your worst critic.   In the act of trying, buttressed by feedback from invested and caring colleagues, you’ll show this critic who’s boss.

The right time

There is a right time to have that direct, elephant-in-the-room conversation with a respected colleague.  The one where you say out loud what both you and she have been thinking.

That time is now.  Right now.  Today.

Conversations swirl around in every which way, between everyone but the two people who need to sit down and talk.  As if that truth is somehow not really out there if we don’t look it in the eye.  As if we can get anything – anything – of substance done if we don’t get this out of the way first.

I promise, it will be a huge relief to everyone to talk about this – that thing that matters most, that thing that’s keeping you from getting from here to there.

These conversations need to be rife with respect and dripping with caring.  You can’t fake wanting the other person to succeed.

And you can’t wait another day.

The open 360

I recently participated in a powerful, surprising, and very positive experience of open communication and feedback.  The idea was simple and a bit terrifying: bring a team together and have, one-by-one, an in-person, open 360-degree feedback conversation about each member of the team.

Meaning: sitting in a room with 5 of my colleagues, they went one-by-one describing how we work together, what it’s like to work for me, examples of my strengths and their wishes for how I could grow as a professional.  We then went on to the next person.

Going in, it felt scary.  Most people are nervous both giving and receiving feedback; doing so publicly feels (at first blush) either like a way to turn the intensity up to a breaking point OR to run the risk of having the whole experience be so watered-down as to not be of much value to anyone.

It had neither of these pitfalls.  A little skeptical going in, I found it motivating, supportive, constructive, and reinforcing of the team.  As one person in our group said, describing the experience, “We all wear who we are on our foreheads, but we never create a space to really talk about this with each other.”  Indeed, in nearly all cases the feedback about each person was honest, clear, and very consistent.

Having done this once, my guess is that this needs to be done in the right way to work.  Here are guidelines we used, which I found very effective:

  • The goal is to give clear supportive and constructive feedback to each member of the team
  • We picked one person at a time to whom to give feedback
  • Each of the five people giving feedback had four minutes in which to give feedback (we used a timer and allowed ourselves to go over a little but not a lot)
  • Feedback consisted of:
  • Context of one’s working relationship with the person
  • General assessment of the person’s working style and performance, with at least two positive statements and specific examples.
  • At least one piece of developmental advice, phrased as, “My wish for you is….”
  • Once the full group has given feedback, the person receiving feedback is invited to ask questions, comment, etc. and have a short (10 minutes or less) discussion

With our group of six, it took about a half hour to give feedback to each person, plus time for discussion.  So this is definitely a serious time commitment, and we broke it up into three sessions (with the most senior person in the team going first) so we’d have the emotional energy to get through the whole process.

The most surprising thing, to me, was the expression of a shared commitment to each others’ success.  Person after person describing your strengths and where you shine is incredibly affirming – and it’s something we do too rarely.  The “my wish for you” framing of developmental advice steered everyone clear of comments like “it’s bad when you do this because….” and created a sense of support and collective ownership of the wishes, while at the same time providing clarity about ways each of us could take steps to realize our full potential.  I also suspect that going through this process as a group cracked the door open to more open conversations that will happen much more naturally and will flow much more easily now that we’ve gotten this experience under our belts.

This process may not be for everyone and may not work in all groups.  You’d need a starting foundation of support and constructive conversation, and you’ll need, I suspect, at least one member of the group who is good at making these sorts of conversations successful and productive and who can model the kind of conversation you’re looking to have.

But if you’re even a little bit curious I’d encourage you to take the leap.  As I said, going in I had a lot of doubts and I found the experience to break through a lot of the junk that keeps us from real and open dialogue; and it was about 100 times more real than the much more formal, constrained process I’m used to seeing as part of typical year-end performance reviews.

Give it a go, and let us know how it went.

Enough with the bad news

You can subscribe to this blog using an RSS Feed (like Google Reader), or by signing up by email. I hope you do one or the other.

(NOTE: for those who find the phrase “RSS Feed” terrifying, it’s actually very simple. Google Reader, for example, is just a web page that puts all of your blog feeds into one place. It’s great.)

The email subscription for my blog is run by Feedburner. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Feedburner site. As long as it is easy for people to sign up for email updates I’m happy.

But Feedburner has one setting that has, slowly and persistently, been wearing me down. Feedburner’s default notification is that I receive an email every time someone unsubscribes from my blog, but I don’t get an email when someone subscribes.

Put another way: the default setting is to send me bad and discouraging news.

So, for the past few years, I’ve been occasionally getting emails like this:

Subject: so-and-so unsubscribed from Sasha Dichter’s Blog.

I almost wish the content were a little humorous. You know: “Sorry, we know you’ve been doing your best, but Sara decided to stop reading. It didn’t work out. Better luck next time.”

I let this continue for so long for two reasons. The first was inertia (finding the darn box to uncheck on the Feedburner site was difficult). But I also told myself that getting this feedback was important, because I could make some sort of connection between the unsubscribe rate and posts that I’ve written, and in so doing I’d improve as a blogger.

What I’ve figure out, though, is two things:

  1. The data are largely irrelevant. I have no idea if someone is unsubscribing because they have a new email address, because they started using an RSS reader, because they’d stopped reading months ago and finally got around to “blog housecleaning,” or because they actually didn’t like something I wrote. (plus it’s not even clear that creating strong reactions is itself a bad thing).
  2. My interest in getting the emails was a perverse form of rubbernecking. There’s a certain fascination with (and motivation) that comes from feedback that tells you you’re not doing a good enough job.

Enough already.  Yesterday I unchecked the box.

I finally figured out that this kind of negative feedback wasn’t helping me at all. It was feeding in to doubt, self-criticism and fear, and was making me more averse to taking risks. All bad stuff.

Are there places/people/things in your life that are set up ONLY to give you negative feedback? Have you been quietly telling yourself that it is useful or, worse, that you deserve it?

Any boxes in your life that you’ve been meaning to uncheck?