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Personal Communication

I wish I had stuck with my idea of giving up chocolate for Lent; it would be a lot less challenging than my decision to give up giving advice.   While I’m not Catholic, I have always given up something for the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Usually I pick simple bad habits like swearing, or unhealthy addictions like chocolate.  However, this year I focused on a personality trait that had gotten me into a bit of trouble lately.

Unsolicited advice

A few days before Ash Wednesday, my partner Tonya and I were discussing a potential opportunity for her to expand her business.  She expressed a concern about finding additional employees and I started to give her suggestions on how she could attract the right people.  She was not appreciative.  Thing was, Tonya just wanted to vent.  She hadn’t asked me for advice on what to do; she had some ideas for that already.  All she wanted was a forum to express her fears and her concerns.  She explained that, rather than being helpful, my suggestions made her feel like I didn’t trust her judgment.  I heard her frustration.  But I wasn’t suggesting these things because I didn’t believe in her.  I was doing it because I cared and wanted to help.  So, I didn’t stop and she got up and walked away.  Things then got even more heated when I continued to impart my wisdom when she returned.  It was clear we did not see my advice giving the same way.

This was not the first time Tonya had pointed out that I do this.  Over the years, she has mentioned it more times than should have been necessary.  Giving it up for six weeks seemed like a good opportunity for me to take a step back and look at my behavior a bit more objectively and possibly bring some peace to the household.  I didn’t realize how hard and humbling that commitment would be.  I knew I gave Tonya unsolicited advice, but until I tried to stop, I didn’t realize how much I actually gave it to a lot of other people.  And how negative it really can be.

Last weekend I broke my pledge and almost broke a friend’s spirit.  Sarah was at the house talking about how she was frustrated with the growth of her career.  It was hard for her to build a new clientele since she had moved but she was optimistic and had some ideas.  Forgetting to just encourage her and ask about her plans, I jumped in and gave her a laundry list of things she could do; mailings, promotions, advertising.  I pontificated, pronounced and proffered my opinion for an hour.  She thanked me but left appearing discouraged and down trodden.  When I asked her about it later, Sarah told me that my recommendations didn’t leave her any room to voice and develop her own thoughts or plans – ones she had been excited about and felt fit her personality better.

Then I watched someone else do it.  A few days ago Tonya and I were out to dinner with my Mom and stepfather.  Tonya’s business opportunity came up.  Being aware of the need to tailor my compulsion, I was extremely sensitive when my parents began to give Tonya their own unsolicited advice.  Rather than just listening and asking questions, they jumped in with their opinions on the right and wrong way for her to move forward.  It was a real wakeup call.  My parents were doing exactly what I do.  I knew it was coming from a place of love and concern, but the unasked for advice wasn’t helping; it did feel like they doubted her abilities.  It unintentionally put Tonya on the defensive.  I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see it.  Their advice had the opposite effect of what they meant it to do.

So I have decided to try to give up giving unsolicited advice permanently.  It’s definitely not going to be easy, I am having withdrawals already.  However, I take comfort in knowing that I can still give advice to those that ask for it.  Anyone??

 

I was lazily lying by the pool in Puerto Vallarta over the New Year when Shawn inquired if I had ever asked any of my friends their perception of me.   The question wasn’t totally out of the blue.   In the cab the night before we discussed whether we should take other people’s perceptions into account when looking at our lives.  But still, I paused.

It felt like a loaded question.  Was there something Shawn thought I should know?  After thinking for a bit, I answered that I had that conversation a fair amount when I was younger but hadn’t recently.  One of us cracked a joke and we moved on to other topics.  But the question has stayed with me.  How much and for how long should we really take other people’s perceptions into account when developing a sense of self?  Do I really know what my friends think of me?

In the beginning of my career I had a new boss tell me that his perception was my reality.  I strongly disagreed.  Mainly because he was telling me that it didn’t matter what I thought about the company or my job, what mattered is what he thought and the sooner I figured that out the better off I would be.  He positioned it as an absolute; it was a way for him to make his employees powerless.  Eventually he was fired for his lack of management skills.  However, there is some truth to his saying.  It is important to understand your boss’ opinion of your work.  He or she has the power to promote you or fire you.  Companies conduct annual performance reviews so employees can clearly understand how their work is perceived. Image

Should we have an annual review with our friends as well?  Being a friend is a personal choice.  An assumption can be made that your friends wouldn’t be your friends if they didn’t like you.  Maybe it depends on the types of friends you have.  For the most part I have friends that are very open people, they share their feelings and thoughts and that includes telling me if I am being difficult or insensitive or helpful.  I can presume that they enjoy my company because they want to do things together and their laughter still rings in my ears days later.  I figure they think I’m supportive since they call me for advice and comfort.  These interactions give me a sense of the person that I am and the value I offer my friends without having a specific conversation on the subject.

But what of the friends you inherit; the ones that are close to your significant other or your friends?  These people can be in your circle for a long time.  But it is harder to make assumptions about their feelings.  If we believe that you need to take other people’s perceptions into account when looking at your life, then it would presumably be helpful to know what these peripheral people think.

I’ve been debating that since Shawn’s question.  You see she is one of the friends I inherited, originally a friend of my partner’s. I could have asked Shawn at the pool what her perception of me was but I didn’t.  There was a time I worried extensively about what people thought of me; will they think I’m intelligent, was I funny, did they like me, am I pretty?  Through my teens and twenties I was obsessed with these insecurities.  But as I’ve gotten older, I discovered that wanting to please everyone is a futile and destructive goal.  It’s just not possible and it can beat up any sense of self-worth you have developed.  I’m not saying that I don’t care what other people think; I do.  But now I prioritize the opinions of others.  First and foremost is my opinion.  If I can look at myself in the mirror and see someone I like, then I feel good.  Next is my partner, do I make her happy, does she confirm I am the person I want to be.  Close friends and family follow.  And at that point the list is long enough – between five and ten people.  How these key people perceive me is paramount.  The rest, well I have to admit, I just don’t have the courage to ask.

Unless of course you have really great things to say, then I’m all ears.

“What people in the world think of you is really none of your business.”
― Martha Graham

I had always been disappointed in my birthday.  It always seemed to come up short, the presents weren’t thoughtful enough, the party not big enough, the day just not special in the way I imagined it to be.

It was the same with my jobs and relationships.  In my version of a perfect relationship what’s important to me would be the same for my partner.  I like to cuddle before getting out of bed; I enjoy spending lazy weekend days out and about together.  These shared moments were paramount to a healthy relationship.  In my dream job, I would be a high-powered executive running a marketing department and travelling all over the country.  I would be happy because I was central to the success of the company.

Without really being conscious of it I had created a very clear set of expectations for holidays, my relationships and my career.   These ideals came about over years, through communications with friends, family and business associates.  They were further cemented through societal norms, messages received from articles about successful business people, the perfect couple on the television show, the Hallmark version of a holiday.  But the reality never seemed to live up to my expectations and when they didn’t, I moved on.

I know I am not the only one that does this, just peruse people’s profiles on the dating sites and you see in detail their expectations for the perfect mate, date, relationship; no one under age 25 or over age 35, has to be a professional, live within a 25 mile radius, be in shape, good-looking and like to go for walks on the beach and travelling.

Rarely can anyone live up to that description.

The problem though, isn’t the holiday or the job or the person, the problem is the expectations.   We become so set in the way we think things should be that we leave no room to discover that something different might actually be better.   I had refused to change my expectations because I thought that meant I had to lower them; that I should settle and learn to be happy with “good enough.”  And no way was I going to do that.

But I have discovered that finding real happiness in life isn’t about lowering expectations, it’s about eliminating them.

In the past few years I have had two truly amazing birthdays.  They didn’t include cake or presents or a party, they were incredibly simple – one spent at home with a friend and a movie, one spent in a business hotel in Bucharest making new friends – unorthodox but uniquely special.

It’s been the same with my job, I had the high-powered career, I traveled the country – even the world.  I was a major player, but it was hollow.  Now I am not the center of anything but I am free to work on the projects and for the companies that have meaning to me, I write and teach.  It is not at all what I envisioned my career to be, it is actually much more.

And in my relationship, well I definitely do not get my way; my partner doesn’t cuddle and works on weekends.  It is unlike any relationship I ever expected and it constantly surprises me, enlightens me and brings me deep joy.

Your life changes immeasurably when you drop (not lower) your expectations about your perfect partner, holiday and/or job.  Give it a try, you just might find yourself unexpectedly happy.

To the bum asking me if I could spare any change: Really, really? Why should I give you my money? How do I know you don’t make $60k a year begging? You get to set your own hours, you don’t sit behind a desk everyday staring at a computer screen, you don’t agonize over your taxes every April. How do I know you are not just going to drink it? Hell give me back my money, I’m going to drink it!

On my next resume cover letter: I am the best goddamn thing that is ever going to happen to you. If you hire me and get out of my way I can make you incredibly successful. So give me the job, let me set my own hours, pay me good money, tell me how great I am now and then and I will kick ass!!

To the woman at the grocery store: Being pretty does not actually take a lot of effort or money, you just have to care. And a smile makes every face beautiful.

On Facebook: Seriously, you just posted 6 things in one day; do you have an actual life? And re-posting someone else’s poem, saying, photo only proves to me that you have even less of a life because you borrowed it from someone else.

To the cashier at the lunch place: I think that what I want to order should be more important to you right now than telling your co-worker what you did last night. My buying something from you is why you have a job. You are here to make this experience meaningful and fun for me so that I want to come back again and again so then you will get a raise and save some money. Then you will be able to afford to do something other than watch TV while eating macaroni and cheese and tweeting comments about how lame the show was with all your friends for “like six hours.”

To the person reading their emails while they walk down the street: Did you know it was a beautiful day out, do you see how beautifully the sun reflects off the leaves of that tree? Wow, you have pretty eyes.

To my loved ones no longer here: I love you, see you tomorrow.

A few years back I walked away from the corporate world to get my Master’s in Persuasion and Social Change.  I loved it!  Getting that degree was one of the most challenging and satisfying things I have ever done.  I did it for a number of reasons, one of which was to change the way I think and therefore change the direction of my career.  But after I graduated I chickened out and took another VP Marketing job.  I told myself that since it was in a different industry than I had worked before, it was a different direction.  But ultimately  I wasn’t able to persuade myself that the job was the right thing for me no matter all the financial, practical and professional arguments I threw my way and I ended up leaving after 6 months.

I have spent decades persuading people and I am even more enamored with the process since I got my Master’s.  I love marketing because it is all about finding a way to resonate with and compel people to do something that you, and ultimately they, want to do.  So it was extremely frustrating to me when I recently faced my inability to persuade and convince myself to change careers.

I realize that I am not alone in this conundrum.  People face this a lot when making big decisions, like getting a new job or moving away, and small, like working out.  I have friends who are constantly telling me that they should be exercising, they want the benefits of it, they feel great while they are doing it, but they are just not able to convince themselves to get out there and start sweating.  Same thing when it comes to diets, the desire is there but they can’t close the deal.

More often than not, we blame these situations on outside forces; I’m too busy at work, I don’t have time to cook healthy, there isn’t anyone to work out with, or it’s too risky to quit my job.  But realistically what it comes down to is that we have not given ourselves a good enough reason to do it.  We can’t persuade ourselves to break our own routine, step out of our own comfort zone and make the change.

This inability is why best sellers lists are filled with self-help books; we are all looking for someone else to convince us of something we cannot convince ourselves of.  When deciding to go into business for myself, I investigated 7 highly effective habits, talked to my lizard brain, stared uncertainty in the face, searched for the tipping point and thought about growing rich.  Yet I didn’t finally decide to make the entrepreneurial jump until I stopped looking outside myself to find the push I needed.  Once I realized that the person I had to persuade was me, I was able to analyze and counter the arguments I had made for why I shouldn’t quit the corporate world and started to focus on why I should start my own thing.  This helped me to see that what was in my way was the financial risk of a start-up as well as feeling overwhelmed by the big picture.  Understanding that, I created a financial plan that left me with a necessary safety net and I broke the process down into its smaller and much less intimidating parts.  It was then that I heard the voice arguing that this would be quite an adventure and I have never been able to turn down a chance to go exploring.

It is so easy to come up with a lot of reasons why we can’t do something and a lot of people use that as the basis for their arguments.  But focusing on the negative is not effective when it comes to persuasion.  True persuasion happens when we finally understand why we want to or should do something, when we focus on the good and the benefits of the argument.   It rarely happens when we focus on the why nots.

There are some lessons we learn the hard way – like not touching a hot stove when you are a child.  There are some we accept without having to have it proven – such as not stepping out into traffic.  But then there are those lessons that we seem to never quite internalize.  One of the lessons I seem to continually need to learn over and over is when to keep my mouth shut.

I am a strong advocate for communications and the power of words.  I believe that in most jobs you are hired to have an opinion and speaking your mind, writing words, making presentations and being passionate about what you know is integral to your success.

I also believe that relationships and friendships are stronger when you share thoughts and feelings.  And, history has shown that conflicts and wars are not ended through silence but through negotiations and increased understanding.

So I operate from a place of always wanting to talk everything out.

And while for the most part this is a very effective philosophy, there are times when the best thing you can do is know when to stop talking.

I am pretty good at this when it comes to business. When trying to convince clients to take a direction different from the one they are personally connected to, I put forward an alternative and then retreat from the conversation. I have learned that it is important to give people time to mull over a different idea so they can find a way for it to mesh with their mindset. This results in their being more open to further discussion rather than being shut down immediately from pushing too soon.

However, I struggle much more with using silence and distance as a positive tool in personal relationships. Somehow, when it comes to my partner, family and friends, I often forget this concept and, instead of backing off, I say everything that is in my head right away – often making a situation worse than it would have been if I had just counted to 10 – or better yet – 7,200.

When my nine-year old nephew starts to throw a tantrum because the adults are all ignoring him, not taking the bait would be far more productive than my teasing him and getting kicked (literally) as a result.  Rather than staying out of it and letting him calm down on his own, I only goad him on into a  full-blown frenzy and quickly become the bad Aunt.

When having disagreements with my partner, I push to ‘clear the air’ when really it would be far more prudent to retreat to separate rooms. Rather than giving each other space to let the flames of anger and frustration die down, my push to keep talking only provides further fuel for the fire.

Sometimes putting a conversation on-hold is a far more effective tool for ensuring that what you want to say gets heard.  Letting people process information for themselves and giving them time to think can soften and remove some of the emotional quotient that stops people from being open to differing ideas or difficult conversations.  And, as I have once again been reminded, in the case of nine-year olds, silence is far less painful.

As the guru Shirdi Sai Baba said “Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true,” and most importantly, “does it improve the silence?”

My step daughter was killed in an automobile accident when she was 21; I was in China on business when it happened.  I was supposed to have gone out to dinner with her the night before I left but I cancelled because I felt too pressured to get things done before the trip.  I wish I had said yes, I wish I had made her the priority and seen her that one last time.

A young woman I know was enlisting in the Navy.  One day her recruiter was driving her to an appointment and he started asking her really personal questions about her sex life.  When she didn’t respond, he proceeded to tell her in detail about the women he had slept with.  When he asked her if this was making her uncomfortable and if she was a prude, she didn’t really answer, just shrugged and made some awkward comment.  She wishes she had spoken up and told him that he was totally out of line.  It still bothers her years later that she didn’t.  She wonders how many other female recruits he treated like that.

A friend of mine had a boss that was really abusive; he was always putting down his employees and yelling at them in front of everyone.   He made it an incredibly difficult work environment and she was miserable.  Eventually she went out on medical leave and never returned to the job.  She wishes she had told her boss what she thought of him before she left.   By staying silent she didn’t get any closure and the thought of visiting friends at that office still gives her anxiety, not to mention the impact that unresolved relationship has had on subsequent bosses.

We all have things we wish we had said to someone –a proclamation of love that went unsaid or standing up for oneself in an awkward situation; times where, in hindsight, we would have said things differently.  In some cases, like my stepdaughter’s accident, there is no way to know that you are going to regret the lost opportunity and there is no chance to change that.  But, more often than not, we have another chance to speak up and say what we want.

It takes guts to confront someone but it can be done effectively by moving beyond the emotionality of the situation.  When someone says something that upsets us we have an immediate mind-body reaction.  Our blood gets pumping, our anger or embarrassment rises, we can feel it in our stomach and we want to lash out.  And in that case, it’s a good thing we don’t immediately say something as reacting from a place of emotion doesn’t usually have a positive outcome.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever speak up.

Avoiding conflict may be the right thing to do in the moment; however, as with my friend with the abusive boss, not ever addressing it can cost you dearly.  Don’t view waiting as a missed opportunity, and don’t let it be your excuse for never addressing it.  Taking the time necessary to calm down will allow you to formulate a rational response and alleviate a lot of future angst.  Sometimes it can just take a count to 10, a brief pause to calm your nerves and let your mind sort through your reaction so you can respond.  Other times, you may have to take a day or two to until you find a statement that feels right.  Addressing an issue later, when it is less volatile, can be far more productive for all parties.  Living your life saying “I wish I said that,” not so productive.