silence

Finding Ourselves in Loss

What do we say when there is a tragedy, a death, something really bad happens to people we care about? 

Most of us are acutely aware of our own struggles and we are preoccupied with our own problems. We sympathize with ourselves because we see our own difficulties so clearly. But Ian MacLaren noted wisely, “Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”

When I was younger I would try to draw on my capacity for empathy, but I had a fairly dry aquifer of emotional intelligence. Life, death, disease, and unexpected mishaps were frankly just part of the hand you were dealt. Our feline life expectancy dropped a year or two each chapter of our experience until we accept we have one life to live and it is very short.

As we mature and age we are exposed to more suffering, more tragedy, more death. It is a jolting reminder of our mortality and the mortality of the ones around us. We feel more compelled to express our sympathies and condolences. To offer support to the survivors. We struggle with doing the right thing at the right time. We write notes, emails, sign cards, and say things to comfort family and friends. Sometimes we rely on Hallmark for the words, say or write the same thing we always say, or we do nothing. At least for me,  it is an awkward process.

What can I say? What should I say? What can I do? What should I do?

I have learned so much being the recipient of these communications. Nothing like learning about yourself by how you are treated.

The golden rule always applies. Say/do unto others as you would have them say/do unto you. What would comfort me?

A rude awakening for me is how selfish I have been and others can be in trying to comfort each other. It is not about me. It never really is. But we can lead with "Me too", or "I know how you feel". 

The oddity of our clumsy and sometimes hurtful attempts to help is this: we have clear ideas from what has helped us in our suffering, but we do not adopt it when seeking to love others. We do not always speak to others in the way we would like to be spoken to.  Edward T. Welch

I remember a comedy routine, where a distant friend goes up to the grieving mother of a murdered child at the vigil to pay his respects. He gets nervous, then tongued tied, and blurts out, "I apologize."  Not the same as "I am sorry." :)

What I learned and others have taught me--Less is more. Stop before you start into your robotic motor mouth routine. Put your well-intentioned pie hole on silent. Silence is better than words. A hug says more than any profound phrases. Everyone deals with grief and suffering in their own ways. But there is a universal understanding that your very presence is more powerful than anything you say.  Bearhug

"I'm sorry." Is enough. 

Again, stop and look both ways before you stick your foot in your "me too" mouth. 

I really try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I hope people have done the same for me! A dear friend, expressed her condolences and tried to comfort me. Then she took the safety off of her verbal trigger and away she went. "Yeah, not a day goes by where I don't cry about my husband." I knew what she was trying to do, but it was our first conversation and the second thing she said.

"How are you doing, today?" The today part is sensitive to what is happening. "How are you?" is auto-pilot and invokes the silent "How do you think I am?!!"

Do not say: “If you need anything, please call me, anytime.” Another well intended thought but.........

– If ‘comforters’ knew anything about real hardship, they would know that sufferers usually don’t know what they want or need.

– If comforters knew anything about the sufferer, they would know what the sufferer wants or needs. 

– If comforters really knew the sufferer, they would know that he or she would never make the call. Never.  Tara Barthel

In his book, "The Reality Slap," Russ Harris presents two lists — the first, a few responses that genuinely make you feel supported and understood; and the second, a number of responses that, although meant to be helpful, aren't really all that compassionate. Let's start with the less compassionate responses (many of which I myself am guilty of, and if we're being honest, most of us have said at times):

  • Telling you to "think positively"
  • Giving advice: "What you should do is this, "Have you thought about doing such and such?"
  • Discounting your feelings: "No use crying over spilled milk," "It's not that bad," "Cheer up!"
  • Trumping your pain: "Oh yes, I've been through this many times myself. Here's what worked for me."
  • Telling you to get over it: "Move on," "Let it go," "Isn't it time you got over this?"

Here are some compassionate responses highlighted in Harris' book:

  • Asking how you feel
  • Giving you a hug, embrace, placing an arm around you or holding your hand
  • Validating your pain: "This must be so hard for you" or "I can't begin to imagine what you're going through."
  • Sharing their own reactions: "I'm so sorry, "I'm so angry," "I feel so helpless; I wish there was something I could do," or even "I don't know what to say."
  • Creating space for your pain: "Do you want to talk about it?" It's OK to cry," or, "We don't have to talk; I'm happy to just sit here with you."
  • Offering support: "Is there anything I can do to help?"

I took a thanatology class in college---Death and Dying. I learned about the 5 stages of dying that was asserted by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Most of us have heard this. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. It made so much sense to me. It clearly applied to romantic break-ups :) But death? And the grieving? 

Pauline Boss' research disputes the application of these 5 stages to grief. That Kubler-Ross never intended to have them applied to grieving. We all want steps and stages. We want a linear routine to replace the organic reality. Boss' basic thought is closure for grief is a myth. While time heals, you will never be finished with your grief--and closure is only good in real estate. You don't want to forget or get over it. I know there are nuances here but really important ones. 

This myth of closure has helped me be more sensitive, more compassionate. Time heals but never erases. I know this to be true.

A colleague who did not know my Dad, said "Sorry to hear about your Dad. Tell me about him." I smiled, because I got to tell a Dad story and share my love and gratitude. For me, that was one of the nicest and most comforting things anyone said to me.

Part of building and maintaining a vibrant, authentic and altruistic network is our ability to connect to support one another. No time is more crucial than in times of loss and suffering. 

Remind yourself what would comfort you. Stop, pause, and be present. Say less. Suppress your needs and surrender to the needs of the other. Good advice for all of us almost all of the time. Be kind: For we are all fighting great battles and carrying great burdens that are not known to one another. (my interpretation of Philo)

Thanks for reading. John


Standing for the silent

If we don't stand for something we will fall for anything. anonymous

It's interesting to consider for whom and for what we stand! I meet people who can't answer this question. But we ALL stand for others whether we like or know it. Our ancestors, our families, our heritage, our organizations. Our brands, our trajectories, our futures and our destinies are grounded in the histories and values of the past. All of us have silent partners, silent beneficiaries, silent supporters, and silent investors. But do we remember and represent them?

I was reminded of new and different silent groups who we benignly ignore or forget. People who we know about but don't understand. In our defense, there are just too many "less fortunate" and "victims", and "people in need." It overloads our capacity for emotions and empathy. And frankly, exceeds our guilt bandwidth.

I met the silent this week. People who literally can not speak and or advocate for themselves. People who need help or their memory triggers our human desire to help.

I visited an extraordinary special education school called College View Elementary. It is a comprehensive treatment program for 4 to 22 year olds who cope with and live through serious physical and mental challenges. When we think of special education, we might think about a student with learning disabilities, possibly autism, or a physical impairment who are being mainstreamed. The vast majority of these students can not communicate verbally and most will never be mainstreamed. They were and are silent, and very much alive. Young people trapped in a bodies and minds that restricts their ability to express themselves. The parents of these students, the staff of the school, and their community of friends have to stand for the silent everyday.

Then I met a couple of orphans from the Japanese tsunami. 2000 children and young people lost at least one parent on 3.11.11. One of the young people described his new commitment to become a search and rescue team member to help find people in the sea that took his dad. He will be standing for the silent.

Lastly, I went to an inner city elementary school and saw a presentation made by Kyle Smalley. It was one of the most powerful presentations I have ever seen. It began with 7 students standing behind enlarged photos of 7 smiling youth. Each student read a brief story of bullying where the young person in the photo was driven to suicide. Kyle then mesmerized and engaged the several hundred 8-12 year-olds in the audience with his authenticity and his folksy style. He told the heart breaking story about his 11 year old son Ty, who was bullied for two years. Ty could not take it anymore and retaliated and was suspended from school. His mother Laura took Ty home that day and Ty tragically took his life that afternoon.

With the help of friends they formed Stand for the Silent. Kyle and Laura have devoted their lives to Stand for the Silent in memory of their son Ty and to make sure that "no other babies suffer Ty's fate." Stand for the Silent aims to help us respect one another, to love one another, and to stand up and make a difference for those that have been silenced.

A new documentary film which comes out later this month, Bully, features the Smalleys and their work. SFTS PledgeSee it! It will move you to act and to act differently.

All of us stand for the silent, either wittingly or unwittingly. The "silent" are the vulnerable  without voices to advocate for themselves. The silent are those we have lost who inspire our work and our dreams. The silent are those we represent on a daily basis in the values we embrace and the good we attempt to do. If we don't stand for them, who does?

All that is needed for the forces of evil to succeed is for enough good people to remain silent. (inspired by Edmund Burke)

Standing for the silent also means we can not remain silent. We tolerate too much bigotry, prejudice, hazing, hatred, bullying and mean-spiritedness. Not talking about political correctness. Nobody means to hurt another, except the socio-pathic. But we each see, hear and witness things that need to be stopped--where a teaching moment can possibly save a life. We can not remain silent if we are going to live our values. Easy to say, but necessary to assert.

What silence will we break to advocate for another?

Which silent will we stand for?

Let's all take the pledge to help one another. To keep the silent populations who need us in our hearts, our minds and in our daily work. To stand and speak for the silent.

Thanks for reading. John


Your path to the future is paved with questions

One of the most powerful resources in your career and networking toolbox is curiosity. Yeah, the insatiable desire to try to understand how things work or don't work, what is success or failure and how is it measured?; what are the best practices?; who is considered the best or the leader?; what are the trends and therefore the scenarios of the future?

Questions shape our understanding and define our thoughts, opinions, and our preferences. Good questions lead to better conversations. And great conversations generate important relationships. Questions matter. Questions

Question authority. Did he pop the question?

Yet, there seems to be a dearth of well formed questions. You would think that learning would motivate our questions, wouldn't you?

We all evaluate dozens of organizations and individuals every week. Vendors, partners, colleagues, friends, restaurants, product providers, etc. We accept and tolerate many issues and challenges in our daily experiences. Often they trigger questions about how to improve something, somebody. Questions about the goals or expectations of a service, a project, or an organization.

There are the profound questions we have to ask ourselves everyday, every month, every year:

  • Who am I?
  • Where am I going?
  • Am I on track?
  • What is meaningful to me?
  • What do I want?

Questions are the lifeblood of the conversations that make mentoring and networking relationships work and thrive. What you want to know, what perplexes and stymies you, where you think there are gaps or weaknesses--this is the fuel that powers the engines of personal and professional change. But they can not be questions just about you and what you want.

We seem to be more interested in using our questions to purchase a car or a new computer than to choose our next job or career? We invest more time and energy into the quality of our material possessions than the due diligence of the work we do and how it will help us grow and advance.

Not having answers should motivate us instead of depress us.

I meet a lot of people. People who want to find jobs, people who want something, people who are searching, people who are lost, and people who want to partner. And overall, the quality or in some cases the absence of questions is surprising.

I look at resumes the same way I review business plans, or grant application. Where have you been, where are you going, why did you make changes, where have you succeeded, where have you failed, what makes you unique, why should I affiliate with you?

I could not make up the stuff I hear and see in interviews. Sometimes it is a reality show of outtakes from American Idol or America's Got Talent. Once in awhile it is invigorating and inspiring but that is the exception.

Here are my top five favorite meaningless questions that I have been asked by job candidates in the first interview?

  1. How many days off will I get?
  2. How much do you love working here?
  3. Are the dental benefits any good?
  4. How soon would I be promoted?
  5. Do you have a strategic plan?

It's like, "Did you just say that out loud?" There is zero interest in how the employer is doing or what is going on? Are you so self absorbed and ill-prepared that you have no genuine interest in the business, the challenges, and the results?

The most irritating sound outside of the vuvezelas at the World Cup is the worst radio station in the world, WII-FM. What's In It For Me. When this radio station plays so loudly that it drowns out even the semblance of what others want, then failure and rejection will be your listening mates. WII-FM makes one's questions seem self-absorbed and selfish.

We all know that asking questions has to be accompanied by thoughts on the answers. You can't just verbalize queries without ideas. Otherwise you are just another whiny solution-less member of the chorus of complainers. And there is little room in our crowded lives for this irritating irrelevant noise.

All of us have an exaggerated level of confidence in our ability to ad-lib, address impromptu situations, think on our feet. In general, when we rely on this non-existent skill, we look stupid. The only way to avoid this embarrassment is to prepare questions. Writing down questions. Thinking about what questions you would ask yourself if you were hiring you.

Our quest is looking for special people, special opportunities, special moments, and ulimately a greater sense of fulfillment--the diamonds in the rough, the needles in the haystack. We find these things by following our hearts, our intuition and our questions. We discover these things by being insatiably curious.

What are your questions?

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. Albert Einstein

Thanks for reading. John


Truth and Candor: Key Ingredients in the Recipe of Mentoring and Networking

Remember in Liar Liar when Jim Carrey's character was only allowed to to tell the truth. "Do you like my new dress?"-- he was asked. "Whatever takes the focus off your head," he replies.

No need to put our truth tasers on the kill setting! Taser

The truth is, we are less than candid everyday. How we answer the question, "How are you?", for example.

Sometimes being vague, evasive and telling a little fib is the only thing to do to avoid a fight or an unnecessary confrontation. We all have friends where we have to avoid certain political, religious, and parenting conversations, because we just have to agree to disagree.

There is always a time and a place to be the diplomat, the nice person. You know, the person who couches things in lovely and euphemistic ways. Where between the lines is a vast and cavernous space where the truth lives comfortably and invisibly.

George Bernard Shaw once said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place."

I am talking about candor, frankness, and directness in conversations.

Candor: Unreserved, honest, or sincere expression 

I am more focused on the sincere side of this ledger. Less on the brutal portion.

We have all experienced the broad gamut of styles from the flame thrower who uses the truth to burn everyone and everything. Then there are the “happy” people who smile and even giggle during a challenging moment and will do anything to not ruffle feathers or make anyone uncomfortable. Like all things we need to use the middle lanes of these communication freeways.

But if the truth was a more common currency in our everyday exchanges and transaction, we would be better off. Candor of the sincere type, would speed up so many things in our lives. Getting people to contribute their ideas and real thoughts frequently would facilitate change, improvement, and greater outcomes in our personal and professional worlds. Having people get to what's bothering them and complimenting the good would be so efficient not to mention pleasant.

Truth begets truth.

As a friendly reminder to myself and you good readers, the truth also includes the good and the praiseworthy. Sometimes, we hear "tell the truth" and we think give the bad news or make a confession.

Scales So many candid truthful good things go unsaid. How much we love, care about, appreciate the people and things around us too often remain unexpressed thoughts.

For those of you following along, mentoring and networking require a few extra scoops of candor if the recipe is to work. Both mentee and mentor need to get to a place of truth telling as fast as they can. Otherwise great time and effort can be wasted and misunderstood if it remains a polite game of mutual admiration.

Party manners are in order at the beginning of any relationship. We all know that this period is not real, later we will share ourselves with greater transparency.

Office politics is the most brutal and most challenging of all worlds. More than 2 people in an office and controversy, petty thoughts and behaviors can ensue. Getting beyond the rumor mill, the conspiracy theories, and the repetitive whining is a challenge in every office I have occupied. Part human nature, part management, and part culture.

Not speaking up. Not saying what you think. Not being an active contributor to your organizations’ development and evolution is a cardinal sin if you want to grow into a more effective manager/leader. The higher up the food chain you go, the more truth based on evidence and judgment is demanded. Less time for nuance, interpretation, and just plain waiting.

Sure it would be nicer and better if your boss, the work culture, your friends, your family all modeled this behavior more. And if they did it you would do it. What?!! There you go again, sounds like a whiny person who is not in control of their life and actions. Why not be first to model the behavior you want to see. Request more candid feedback and answers in your conversations. Seek and tell the truth.

Remember in Alice in Wonderland when the March Hare says to Alice, "Then you should say what you mean." And mean what you say.  200px-MarchHare

Thanks for reading. John


The Power of Following

As humans we follow. The concept of leadership is only valuable if there are followers. It is just another version of followership. CEOs, US Presidents, Ministers, Generals, all follow somebody, all take their orders from someone, all succeed another leader. We follow--We all move in accord with a model. Another way of saying mentoring, isn't it? We are all mentored and we follow that example. So great leadership is great followership? Great leaders are great mentees too. You follow? :)

I think we can easily get caught up in our own press releases and start to think that we, alone, invented our leadership abilities. That we were born with innate skills to lead. We know that batch of kool-aid is spiked with self-deceit and blind egotism.

And even if that was true, you need followers to make any form of leadership relevant and effective. Again, without followership you got no leadership.Fish followers

Most of us do not want to be at the bleeding edge of trends or ideas--too much risk and controversy. By the same token there is nothing worse than being at the end of a trend or a cause, that makes you out of step, out of touch and un-hip. So we follow our instincts and check our risk dashboards before following.

You know the questions we ask ourselves---Will I raise my hand and ask the "stupid question"? Will I speak out when something offensive has been said? When will I evangelize about my ideas and beliefs? At what time do I express a contrarian view? These are the day to day forms of followership/leadership that emerge. Sometimes we act and sometimes we regret acting or not acting.

It is rare and I would assert non-existent, to start something entirely new, that was not inspired or motivated by something/someone else.

I love this video


Let me reiterate the lessons here:

  1. Leadership is defined by the followers
  2. The leader needs to nurture the initial followers
  3. The first follower transforms a lone "nut" into a leader

Don't get caught up in just becoming a leader. Start leading by following. Look for ideas, mentors, role models, profiles, case studies, stories, that resonate with you and where you are going and who you are becoming. Talk to your network about these ideas, follow their leads. Invariably, what you want and seek is being done or being pursued. Who is doing it well? Who is considered the best? Who do you know that has these answers?

It all starts with what you want and what you value. Following is not a sign of weakness. It is a necessity. Follow something and/or someone to bring the best out of you.

By the way, maybe more than any other person you have been following, is your mom. :) Hope you acknowledged how much you appreciate being her follower this weekend and everyday.

Thanks for following along and reading. John


Networking through the silence of neutrality

When things are utterly quiet. When you truly hear the silence, it can be one of the most peaceful and tranquil moments. Quieting the relentless noise in our minds, averting the cacophony of messages that attack us everyday, and letting our minds go blank are the most illuminating moments for me. Some call this meditation. Others name it reflection and introspection. Whatever the label it is a source of energy to me. 

Some of you know I hosted a live weekly radio program for 10 years at KPCC here in LA. J0440402 One of the things you learn in radio is dead air is deadly. Silence is a taboo. Makes perfect sense for the broadcasting medium. Listeners are there to be engaged, and silence, while a potentially powerful, is fatal in radio. Some people translate this idea into the way they talk and communicate. They don't listen and their mouth motors away. There is this nervous need or assertive assumption that they have to fill the space. Even, if they do not know what they are talking about the words keep coming as if their mouths will catch up with their ideas--always a dangerous move. The resulting monologue may be more fatal than silence, because your audience's attention span shrinks, especially when the onslaught is a rambling wreck. 

Been interviewing people for lots of jobs. And the Gong Show of having the vaudeville acts come in to audition is always fascinating. 250px-Gongshowtitle You remember the show where Chuck Barris would strike the gong to mercifully dismiss the untalented contestant (sometimes I wish I had a gong!). In this job-interview radio show like environment, I serve as the host and ask a few questions and then see what happens. Some candidates just blather on wandering around the planet to see if some of the random words and thoughts they express will return to the continent where the question resides. I know nerves play into it. But if you are semi-prepared AND you are listening then this fire hose approach to watering the daisies could be avoided. The most entertaining part is that they are not even listening to themselves and not knowing they have digressed, they never ask me, "Did that answer your question?" I rarely follow-up with questions if I have to pick through the pile of arbitrariness. Not worth the time. So I ask my next question to see if the brain and the mouth of the candidate sync up. If not, I ask if they have questions. About 50% of the time this is a perplexing question. Hard to believe that candidates have no questions. And that's when one of the last finishing nails goes into their shiny coffins.

Back on silence. When you make a habit of choosing silence in networking or meeting settings, you can be labeled shy but even arrogant or ignorant. Shyness evaporates as an excuse after people get to know you. Then silence can be interpreted in pretty damaging ways to your rep and brand. When you do not speak, your silence can communicate volumes.J0430507

Here's what Harvard Professor Leslie Perlow says:

"Silence is associated with many virtues: modesty, respect for others, prudence, decorum. Thanks to deeply ingrained rules of etiquette, people silence themselves to avoid embarrassment, confrontation, and other perceived dangers. There's an old saying that sums up the virtues of silence: "Better to be quiet and thought a fool than to talk and be known as one." The social virtues of silence are reinforced by our survival instincts. Many organizations send the message—verbally or non verbally—that falling into line is the safest way to hold on to our jobs and further our careers. The need for quiet submission is exaggerated by today's difficult economy, where millions of people have lost their jobs and many more worry that they might. A Dilbert cartoon poignantly expresses how pointless—and perilous—many people feel it is to speak out. Dilbert, the everyman underling, recognizes that a senior executive is making a poor decision. "Shouldn't we tell her?" he asks his boss, who laughs cynically. "Yes," the boss replies. "Let's end our careers by challenging a decision that won't change. That's a great idea." 

Couple of days ago a former of colleague made a confession to me, "I regret to this day that I did not speak up. (3 years ago) If I did our employer could have averted that disaster." 

Yes silence is safe. Not rocking the boat can assure smoother sailing but somebody better say something about the icebergs. In times like these, adding value to your jobs, doing more than we would usually do, is better job insurance than sheer neutrality. J0437293

Dante once said that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality” 

 John F. Kennedy

In my opinion, choosing what I call the stealth syndrome as a career strategy, where you silently keep your head down and stay productive, will relegate you to anonymity. And when push comes to shove, no one remembers you and what you look like. 

Enjoy the silences to calm your mind and energize your action orientation towards your goals. But pay attention, listen to what is being said, and contribute your ideas to the conversation. That's the best way to avoid the labels of ignorance, arrogance, or irrelevance.

Thanks for reading. John