When Life Gets Weird

Have you ever felt like the last sane person on earth? Fortunately, it’s possible to turn the world right side up again when professional or personal relationships turn crazy.

Change On Purpose - Tim McDonnell - When Life Gets Weird

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When I say that I’ve experienced this feeling, it isn’t (just) paranoia. I know, because I’ve been in the room when it was happening to others who didn’t see it coming. It’s devastating when things suddenly turn cold or change direction in a relationship that seemed okay before, especially when you don’t know why.

These are the times when a stiff shot of perspective can help. When clients, bosses, family members or significant others suddenly turn crazy for no apparent reason, you’ll be tempted to stop trusting a single thought in your head. When this happens, the first thing to do is find a private place to have your initial meltdown. Next, give yourself time to let these ideas wash through your mind before you make any judgments about what happened or say or do anything you can’t take back:

  1. This is not weakness… it’s grief over the death of your assumptions and it’s normal
  2. You are part of a highly interdependent system, professionally and personally
  3. You can’t control the thoughts or actions of others
  4. The person across from you is influenced by history and feelings you can’t see
  5. It’s likely that their assumptions and choices have little or nothing to do with you
  6. Somewhere there’s a vantage point from which their actions make sense
  7. Fear is often the hidden root of the rotten things that other people do to you… responding in kind only makes it worse

See the whole.

When I first got into quality management, I was captivated by a book called The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. He was the first of many system thinkers who opened my eyes to the idea that local events can’t always be blamed on local conditions. Many times they’re caused by things that are several steps removed from the visible symptoms.

Recognize that it’s not personal.

Yes, I know. It really IS personal. One of my favorite movie lines is Meg Ryan’s comeback in “You’ve Got Mail.” Tom Hanks says it wasn’t personal when Fox Books drove The Shop Around The Corner out of business and she replies, “whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.” I agree, but that center point is someplace else for every other person in the system.

Events are influenced by things we can’t always see.

During the last big power shift in the automotive industry, Toyota latched onto system thinking to turn their quality problems around. To uncover the deeper root causes behind them, they began asking “why” five times when they encountered a product failure. Dorothea Brande, author of the timeless Becoming a Writer, said it another way – “A problem clearly stated is half solved.”

If the relationship is chilly, but you’re still talking, there are some practical ways to thaw it out. Peel back as many layers as you can. Look beyond your opposing positions to see what deeper interests you might have in common. This is your area of potential agreement. If you and I are committed to working together, the details won’t keep us apart. If you and I are NOT committed to working together, fixing the details won’t help.

Some disconnects can be fixed… some can’t.

Sometimes people get weird when they think you’re trying to change the rules. This relates to another Peter Senge idea – the harder you push on the system, the harder it pushes back. To phrase it more personally, the saner you get, the crazier the group will get so they can feel “normal” again.

They’ll keep doing this until they see that you’re serious about changing the rules. Then, they’ll either give up and adapt (least likely) or vote you off the island (most likely). This is when the client (or the significant other) stops returning your calls, or your boss stops you on your way in from lunch to say you can have a severance check if you’ll leave today (oh, and sign this short legal waiver).

This is a painful experience, but I assure you that it IS survivable. The party who won’t talk has just opened up valuable space in your life for an opportunity that’s much more deserving of the time and energy you’d have spent trying to fix up the old one.

Your input matters – please join the conversation: Have you ever been stonewalled? If the relationship recovered, what got you connected again?

Old School Telepathy

Not to be a downer, but have you ever stopped to think how alone you are? Even if there are people around you right now, there’s no way for you to know one another’s thoughts for certain. One fragile thread is the only thing keeping us all from complete isolation.

Tim McDonnell - Change On Purpose - Old School Telepathy

Photo by Ian L, courtesy of FreeRangeStock.com

For just a moment, try to imagine what life would be like without the power of language. It feels comforting and miraculous to me that an image or idea can move from my mind to yours simply through sounds in my throat or squiggles on a page or dots on a screen. We do it all the time, so it doesn’t really astonish us that we can pass understanding back and forth from places neither of us can see.

The connecting thread that makes the miracle possible is language.

Without it, we’d be virtually alone. Consider this – our minds are essentially closed systems. We’re free to take in as much of the world as we want through our senses, but without language the process would end there. You can share an experience with someone, like a concert or a sunset, just by using your senses and sitting together. What you can’t do is share your observations and feelings about it without some way to transmit the thoughts that are locked inside your minds.

If you haven’t read Stephen King’s On Writing, it’s one of the most generous and encouraging books out there for aspiring writers. In one of my favorite chapters he takes his readers through an entertaining thought experiment. Using just a handful of descriptive terms (something he’s especially good at, by the way) he explains step by step how creating an image on the page can pass it whole and complete from his mind to ours.

He showcases writing as an old school form of mental telepathy.

The more I look into it, the more miraculous it seems that billions of people and countless generations around the world can agree on enough words and symbols for us to share understanding about things that matter. We can transmit holographic ideas of “bright yellow sunflower” or “love” or “sorry” through the written or spoken word and feel confident that the meaning will be close enough for us to be able to hold it in common.

Language is something I’ve come to feel extremely thankful for.

I used to take it for granted. In fact, there was a time when I considered it a burden to have to write letters or research papers or business presentations that I didn’t find especially entertaining. Now I see what a privilege it all was. It makes me want to dig more deeply into ancient stories and myths that gave birth to spoken and written language.

I’m not suggesting that other kinds of sensory input aren’t important – even vital. I’m just saying that the emotional and intellectual coding that comes with language must be a part of how we feel known and understood – how we know we belong. And then there’s the inverse miracle – how we can collapse all that meaning back into a hug… and just know.

Questions: What do you love about language? Have you had an experience where language  either wasn’t available or didn’t serve you adequately? How did you make yourself understood or how did it feel to be misunderstood?

Why Connections Matter

You may doubt that it’s possible, but sometimes the first word of a message can tell you a lot about the sender, and the first sentence in general can be pretty revealing. How great would it be to really connect with people during those first few syllables?

Change On Purpose - Why Connections Matter

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There it is, right in the opening line. Whose name do you see there – the sender’s or yours? Instant turn-off, right? Back when I wrote four inch thick marketing proposals for a living, it was one of my biggest pet peeves. A client who also happened to be a friend woke me up to this idea. “If we’re the ones who are going to be writing the multi-million dollar checks, shouldn’t OUR name go first?” Invariably, my bosses would cross it out and put me in writer’s time out for failing to open with, “Here at Dunder Mifflin, yak yak yak…”

But enough about YOU. Let’s talk about ME.

That seemed to be the only message that got through no matter how many fun facts we stuffed into that binder. It was kind of a game show mentality, really. We got so lost in spewing as many answers as possible before the buzzer that we completely missed the opportunity to connect with anyone. Imagine how that approach would work on a date.

I’m not anti-marketing. People on both sides of the connection need enough information to make responsible decisions about the relationship. The tricky part for me has been knowing how much information is enough and what parts are useful. Honestly? I haven’t found a balance that satisfies me yet, but I’m a lot more mindful of it than I used to be.

Little symbolic things like putting the client’s name first reminded me to let go of clever technique for a minute and just be available to form genuine bonds with the people on the other end. Leading off with their identity forced me to ask myself what I really knew about them. It got my mind off my “story” and onto saying something important.

The author Matthew Kelly made a big impact on my thoughts in this area with his book, The Seven Levels of Intimacy. He offers a fresh model that sheds a lot of light on human connection. The title suggests a focus on romantic relationships, but he also shows how the seven levels have a powerful influence on business and family connections.

There’s more to the book, but I’ll share three quick applications with you:

Have a common purpose. The connection has a better chance to thrive if it has a reason to exist outside of one immediate transaction. Why are we doing this? Don’t assume that everyone knows. Too many meetings skip to assigning action items before anybody has a clue what they’re for – a fact they’re often scared to admit.

Dig beyond the obvious. The vast majority of day to day communication in the business world rarely gets past the level of clichés and facts. The good stuff is almost never on the surface. It’s the experiences, assumptions and even fears beneath the outer layers that enable the most resonance and fuel the best creativity.

See the whole person. The things people say they want (and the reasons they give for wanting them) may not always be the real ones. You may not know what they are yet, but the business at hand is rarely separate from the emotional, spiritual and intellectual parts of the person across the table from you. The client who asks you for the most data is often the one making the most emotional buying decision.

One of the original “mad men” from the 1960s was Stan Freberg, whose advertising motto was “slightly more honesty than the client had in mind.” His work was unusual at the time because he often took his client’s most embarrassing disadvantage and made it the centerpiece of the ad campaign. Besides being funny, the honesty established intimacy and trust. Yes, there IS such a thing as too much information, but almost any business relationship can be improved when we have the courage to be vulnerable and connect.

Questions: What experience can you recall where forming a deeper connection brought you better results than expected? Did the vulnerability feel risky at first?

The Hidden Risk of Tuning Out

Hey! Are you listening? You might be tuning out without even realizing it. When we’re not fully present for certain conversations, we can pay an extremely high price.

The Hidden Risk of Tuning Out

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As Michael Hyatt points out in his book Platform, we live in an increasingly noisy world. As if your to do list weren’t already overwhelming enough, scientists claim that out of the billions of bits of incoming information coming at us each second, our brains can only register about 2,000 of them.

Everything else goes over the spillway.

One unfortunate result of this is a scarcity mentality about listening. If attention is a limited commodity, then it does make sense to spend it wisely. Without our built-in noise filters, our lives would be like a nonstop rerun of Lucille Ball’s classic candy factory scene. The problem is that our filtering habits can also cut us off from things that matter.

Here’s a sample of the hidden price we pay for not listening:

  • We run the risk of increasingly superficial and unsatisfying relationships
  • We miss bigger, deeper veins of opportunity by rushing off with the nuggets
  • We burn needless energy and resources on assumptions that could be faulty

Every message involves a sender and a receiver.

Obvious, but this is where the wheels begin to fall off. Speech and hearing are processed in different ways and in different areas of the brain. Most people interpret what they hear in a direct and literal way, but tend to speak more indirectly and metaphorically. Individual values, beliefs and memories also impact how people navigate this terrain in conversation. Allow for these differences so you don’t judge or label what you’re hearing too quickly.

The one who listens the most has more influence in the conversation.

There’s a reason why doctors (hopefully) diagnose before they prescribe. While everyone else is competing to be the loudest one in the room, you can be the one who actually understands what’s going on. I’m not talking about manipulative ways to trick the other person into THINKING that you’re listening. I’m talking about skills you can acquire to really do it in a way that benefits both of you.

Here are seven ways to become a more powerful listener:

  1. Set a simple intention that you’re going to connect with each person without obsessing over how you’ll do it. The more you focus on what they’re saying, the sooner an authentic connection opportunity will become clear.
  2. Acknowledge that this person has risked revealing themselves to you for a reason. See if you can honor the moment – and them – just for now without rushing forward to some other outcome.
  3. Make up a private symbolic ritual to alert yourself that for this moment, you’re turning off your impulse to multitask. Maybe it’s flipping over your smart phone or making a subtle shift in your posture.
  4. Most sales and negotiation courses teach “empathy” and “rapport” as techniques to get what you want from the other person. Try asking yourself what they’re here to teach you instead.
  5. Ask open ended questions to free up layers of meaning, but use them gently. Questions like “why?” or “how do you know that?” may sound like a challenge and cause the other person to shut down.
  6. If you feel a temptation to judge or label what you’re hearing too quickly, silently ask yourself “what else could this mean?” and gently bring your mind back to the conversation. This takes practice.
  7. Take yourself on an auditory field trip once in a while that’s got no conversational pressure attached to it and practice simple awareness of sound. Julian Treasure’s TED talk on listening is a great starting point.

These are just the seeds of another way of thinking, not an attempt to be glib about the complex science of human communication. At a minimum, being a more purposeful listener helps to limit the amount of unproductive noise in your life. It makes your relationships more meaningful and resilient. It adds clarity to your life and increases your influence. We may not be able to do much about our CAPACITY to listen, but there are things we can do to improve the QUALITY of the experience.

Question: How have important people in your life helped you to feel heard and understood?