I love metaphors. All of the people who know me well will tell you that I have one for nearly every occasion. And if I don’t have one ready to go, I’ll make one up while you wait. Metaphors make things more interesting  and help tell a good story, which I absolutely love to do. So, I’m going to share two of my best encouraging metaphors with you: The Dark Road and The Lily Pond.

The Dark Road

Have you ever been driving alone at night along a dark road? Maybe through the woods or the mountains? You were a little bit nervous, but all of your senses were fully engaged? And you were concentrating so closely on getting where you needed to go?

I like to describe making progress toward a big goal as driving along just such a dark road. You can’t see the full path ahead of you, and you probably don’t know exactly which twists and turns you will have to navigate. But, you know that there IS a road out there, even though you can’t see all of it. You have faith that if you watch the white line and keep your foot on the accelerator, you’ll get where you’re going. Working toward a goal is the same thing. Of course you can’t see how it all will work out when you get started, but if you don’t keep moving, you’ll never get there.

This visualization has worked for me for many years and we have accomplished a lot together, my dark road and I. Many times thinking about a challenge through this lens has helped me unstick myself and get moving, even when I didn’t have 100% of a plan worked out. On to the next encouraging metaphor!

The Lily Pond

Picture it, you’re a jolly green frog standing at the edge of a beautiful, but enormous, lily pond. Across the other side, you see something you want or something that you need. Or maybe you just see the continuation of your current path. And so you decide that you need to get to the other side of this pond to continue your journey. What do you do about this obstacle?

I’m guessing (and I know all frogs are different, so maybe I’m wrong), but I’m guessing that you wouldn’t pull out your protractor, calculator, and drafting tools and spend a month developing a 27-step “fool-proof” path across these lily pads. I know I certainly wouldn’t. Who knows what opportunities I would miss sitting on the banks of this pond making no forward progress!

Instead, I would figure out the best first jump. And then I would make it. The step that got me moving but left me with the widest range of options for my next jump. The fancy project management term for this is progressive elaboration. The thing is, once you get going, you begin to see things more clearly as you collect useful information. And once your have more information, you can see your destination more clearly. You are able to see paths, options, and lily pads that you didn’t even know were there when you were standing on the banks trying to decide what to do. In some cases, you might even realize that the destination you thought you wanted to reach doesn’t look as good as you thought it did from far away. Every step you take not only gets you closer to where you want to go, it makes you smarter and more prepared to succeed. Picture yourself as the brave frog jumping across the lily pads, always getting closer to where it needs to go.

The Lesson

Whichever encouraging metaphor works for you, the lesson is the same. You aren’t always going to be able to lay out the exact path to get where you want to go. There will always be uncertainty and risk that complicates the journey. But the path IS there, even if you can’t see all of it from where you’re standing. You just need faith in yourself to start moving forward.

 

The past matters, because of the impact it’s had on us and the light it can shine on the present and the future –Sophie Hannah

How to Hold a Grudge offers a new perspective on grudges and how they can be a healthy part of our lives. Rather than focus on what we usually think about grudges, Ms. Hannah makes the argument that acknowledging, processing, and documenting the bad things that have happened to us can help us move on more easily. Despite the provocative title, this is a positive book about accepting that people will always upset us and finding a way to manage those emotions rather than suppressing them.

Let’s be honest with each other, I bought this book 100% because of the title. And in the interest of full disclosure, I freely confess that I am a talented holder of grudges. In fact, I have actually used the phrase “forgive and forget is for chumps” in a conversation with other human beings. I have always resisted the advice to let things go because I felt that it somehow let people off the hook. Or that it taught them that they can mistreat me. So, I thought this book might speak to my inherent grudge-holding tendencies while offering some useful suggestions about a more enlightened path. And it did!

Time for the top three lessons from How to Hold a Grudge:

Suppressing your negative emotions won’t make them disappear.

Life is difficult and complicated and amazing and wonderful. And because it is all of those things, we experience an army of different emotions every day. Most of these emotions are positive, we hope, but some of them aren’t and there’s no getting around it. Just as you wouldn’t minimize your feelings of happiness when you see an old friend, you shouldn’t minimize your feelings about getting poked in the metaphorical eye by your coworker. Life is about feeling all of the emotions. Pretending that you don’t have negative experiences isn’t an authentic way to live, and it won’t make you happy. Of course, all of this isn’t to say that each time someone wrongs us we need to make a scene and rend our garments. There’s a happy medium where we acknowledge what’s happened, feel what we feel, and are able to move on contentedly.

Once we begin to care about how we are treated, we will begin to extend that care to others.

When reading this book, I had a lightbulb moment: there are probably certainly people out there holding grudges against me! For things that I did to them that I didn’t realize had hurt them. For things I knew I shouldn’t do but did anyway. For misunderstandings and miscommunications and so on. Here is the important part: I don’t want them to hold a grudge against me. And if I don’t want that for myself, then I really need to consider that others probably don’t want that either. (Eureka! I’ve found yet another application of my mother’s advice: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) A second aspect of this newfound self-awareness is that when you really start thinking about the grudge-worthy behavior you see in others, you’ll reflect on your own actions and limit that behavior in yourself.

Directly address your negative experiences by identifying the “Right Thing to Do”

When we have been wronged, many of us dwell on the “what happened” instead of the “what can I do about it.” Maybe you wish you had stood up for yourself and didn’t. Or maybe you regret not filing a formal complaint when you should have. But here’s the thing, sometimes those options are still available. Sure, you were so shocked by what your coworker did that you didn’t stick up for yourself right away. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t walk over to his office and do it now. Ask yourself what you can do in this moment to soothe your sense of justice. When I think about my most treasured grudges, I recognize now that there are still actions that I can take to put things right in my mind. And if the right thing to do is to not trust that person again, well then that’s the right thing to do.

Path Toward Enlightenment

Like many of us, I have a lot of room for self-improvement on the topic of grudge-holding. I recently had an experience that is as worthy of a grudge as any I have ever had. I’ve given it the clever title The Mystery of the Missing Job Posting. In short, a job that I would have liked to apply for and felt qualified to do was filled without the job being posted. I felt, and still feel, a very strong sense of injustice. But it happened and people did what they did and so here we are. My next steps for myself are to follow the process:

  1. Write down the detailed facts of what happened and the backstory.
  2. Read the story the next morning and add any funny bits you can think of.
  3. Re-write the story, adding the things that you would do differently and what the results would be.
  4. Compare the two stories and decide if you’re upset about what happened or upset at yourself for not doing something differently.
  5. Identify the current “right thing to do” and do it.
  6. List all of the lessons that you have learned and the benefits that you have accrued through the experience.

I’m still on Step 1, and my feelings are still pretty fresh. But I can imagine a future when this grudge becomes just another funny story that I tell people at happy hour.

Not everyone is a natural grudge-holder. Some people are blessed with the ability to easily move on from negative experiences. But for those of you who aren’t, this book might help you reframe your grudges and scoot you along the path to contentment. All that being said, I still love this quote:

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. People know themselves much better than you do. That’s why it’s important to stop expecting them to be something other than who they are. –Maya Angelou

Read some of my other book reviews here.

 

 

 

Let’s talk about one of those annoying aspects of both our personal and professional lives: saying something that you wish you hadn’t. Have you ever misspoken and then replayed it over and over in your mind and convinced yourself that you’ll never be able to live down the shame of it?  Do you stare at the ceiling all night thinking about the clever things that you should have said and then act out a play in your mind of how it could have gone? Have you heard people whispering and imagined that they were snickering about you? Well, I have. Sounds self-absorbed, and it is. But it’s also true. I think most of us have done this to ourselves at some point in our lives.

The good news is, I have great advice for these situations! Like a lot of my advice, I find it easy to give and hard to take myself. But here’s what I tell my kids: Those people aren’t replaying what YOU did; they’re replaying what THEY did. They’re making up their own imaginary conversations about they should have said. Everyone is the star of his or her own life and will be thinking about themselves much more than they are thinking about you. Ask yourself, do I remember every foolish or embarrassing thing that my friends and colleagues have done? I know that I don’t. I’m too busy thinking about myself!

There is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. —David Foster Wallace

My advice: When you have misspoken, no one is thinking about you as much as you are thinking about you. And even if they are, who cares? You don’t need anyone to tell you who you are.

PS: If you reflect on what you said and decide that an apology is in order, remember there are three required steps to a valid apology. Remind yourself what they are here.

For charisma, your body language matters far more than your words do.

–Olivia Fox Cabane

The Charisma Myth explains the science behind charisma and how we can become more charismatic leaders by increasing our presence, warmth, and power. Ms. Cabane provides practical suggestions and exercises that can be implemented immediately to help you enhance not only your career but also your personal relationships.

This book caught my attention because I have been in the path of very charismatic people over the years, and I just assumed that it was a natural talent. That people got their charm and energy by the luck of the draw. It truly never occurred to me that charisma might be a learned skill. And so, if charisma is just a personality trait, then I clearly can’t do anything to improve myself. But I really don’t like feeling like there’s nothing that I can do to improve myself. So when this book claimed that charismatic behaviors can be learned and perfected by anyone, I was interested.

These are the top three lessons that I am taking away from reading The Charisma Myth:

Charisma requires presence.

Presence means maintaining an active and engaged awareness of what is happening in any situation. To cultivate charisma in ourselves, we must be present when interacting with other people. This means not letting your mind wander, answering e-mail when on the phone, or thinking about what to say next when someone is talking. So many of us need to improve in this area and abandon our delusions about effective multi-tasking. Presence is very difficult to achieve and maintain, especially with the distractions bombarding us every day. I once had a boss who expected immediate responses to his text messages. He would literally send someone off to find you if you didn’t answer quickly enough! Hard to be present with competing demands like that on our attention.

The Charisma Myth offers this simple suggestion when you notice your mind starting to wander. Focus on your breathing and wiggle your toes to bring yourself back into the moment and re-engage with the person you’re interacting with. Sounds easy. I tried it, and it actually was. Of course, the trick is to catch yourself before your mind leaves a conversation that your body is still in the middle of.

People with poise exhibit stillness that avoids unnecessary gestures, fidgeting, and verbal reassurances.

A lot of us have unconscious tics that we use when interacting with other people. I notice them very easily in others and am oblivious to them in myself (no surprise since their unconscious). The most common that I notice are people nodding or repeating “uh-huh” or “ok” over and over again. We typically develop these automatic behaviors for one of two reasons. To express empathy—I’m paying attention! Or to express insecurity—I’m trying to make you happy! By choosing instead to be deliberate with our actions and reassurances, we can increase our level of presence and charisma.

Physical discomfort reduces our ability to be charismatic.

If we are physically uncomfortable, it will distract us, reduce our presence, and may even give others the false impression that our distress is related to them. Imagine that you are at lunch with an important client and he is fidgeting around in his chair, guzzling water, and looking around. You might, quite understandably, assume that he is disappointed with how the meeting is going or your company’s performance. Or that he is looking to grab the check and split. But then imagine if he told you, “Will you excuse me for one moment, it’s quite hot and I’d like to ask the host to open the window?” Well, then you wouldn’t be worried at all. The same can be true if we are meeting with people and are wearing uncomfortable clothes, in a cold room, or have the sun in our eyes.

The lesson here is simply to think about your physical comfort in advance. If there is an unavoidable issue, make it clear to others that your discomfort is not a reflection of what they are saying.

Next Steps Toward a Charismatic Life

The first way that I’m implementing what I have learned is to improve my verbal and non-verbal reassurance techniques. I want people to feel that I’m listening, paying close attention, and finding what they are telling me to be valuable. So I nod like a bobble-head and encourage every sentence that they say. And worse, sometimes when I notice that my mind is wandering, I do it even more in the hopes that people won’t notice my lack of presence. It started to annoy even me! Now I focus on my body language and demonstrate my connection with the other person through real presence and warmth. I keep my head still and my mouth shut while they are talking. When I do offer encouragement, it’s deliberate, not a nervous tic.

If you are looking to improve your presence, warmth, and power in order to better connect with people and become a more charismatic leader, I recommend this book.

Read some of my other book reviews here.

I had an experience at work recently in which someone did something that they shouldn’t have done. Not an uncommon occurrence, I know, but this episode was particularly offensive. Later that day, I was told that this person “felt bad.” At first this sounded like the beginning of an apology, but it wasn’t.

What I realized in that moment is that when someone says that they “feel bad” what they really mean is that they’re uncomfortable because you’re upset. Wanting to ease guilt and discomfort is not the same thing as wanting to apologize. Genuine apologies have three parts.

Apology Step 1: I acknowledge that what I did was wrong.

None of us can be sorry for something that we don’t understand or won’t admit to. An effective apology must start with an admission that what we did, our behavior, was wrong. We must make it clear that we fully understand not only why the other person is upset but also the role we played in upsetting them. How many times have you have heard the “I’m sorry you’re upset” apology? Or the “I’m sorry that you took it that way”? Infuriating and insulting. If you can’t take responsibility, better to say nothing at all.

Apology Step 2: I am taking steps to correct the situation.

A true apology comes with an attempt to correct the situation. Think about a car accident. The only reason that people aren’t fighting in the streets is because they know that there will be an attempt to repair the damage that was done. The same thing applies in our personal relationships. If you think your words will be enough, they very likely won’t be. People want to see that we are taking the situation seriously, and that means taking action.

Apology Step 3: I commit to avoiding this behavior in the future.

This last step is the one that is usually missing. If someone apologizes, but doesn’t change their behavior, then they weren’t truly sorry.

Here’s a simple example: Anne, I apologize that I didn’t include you on that e-mail about the new marketing campaign. I understand that you need that information to get your work done and not having it made things difficult for you. I’m going to send out a revised message to the group and add you to my distribution list so that you don’t miss anything going forward. 

If there aren’t three parts in the apology, ask yourself if the person is truly contrite about what they have done. Perhaps they actually “feel bad” because they personally are uncomfortable and embarrassed. If someone is just trying to assuage their own guilt, don’t feel obligated to let them off the hook. You can professionally acknowledge what’s been said and move on without letting them believe that what they have done is acceptable to you. After all, people usually treat us how we let them treat us.

 

One of the ways that I help manage myself through difficult situations is by relying on prepared phrases that I have developed. Rather than getting into an awkward predicament and then having to think of something elegant and appropriate on the spot, I can rely on my pre-planned phrases to handle things calmly and professionally. This is one of my favorite tried and trues:

You’ve given me a lot to think about.

I use this phrase when someone has overloaded me with information or, more often than not, complaints.  I recognize that the person clearly wants me to do something with what they have said, but I’m not ready to take action yet. In many cases, I need time to process what I have heard and to consider my options. Sometimes I’ll even follow this phrase up with a commitment to talk again in the future to make it clear that I’m not trying to brush the other person off but don’t want to engage further in that moment. When I say, “You’ve given me a lot to think about,” I do three things:

  •  Acknowledge that they have given me something that I value (their feedback and perspective)
  •  Commit to considering what they have told me (because I’ve agreed to think about it)
  • Eliminate the pressure on myself in the moment (by making it clear that I intend to think before I proceed)

Like an actor, sometimes it’s best to run your practiced lines rather than ad-lib through a difficult situation.

Confidence, ultimately, is the characteristic that distinguishes those who imagine from those who do.

The Confidence Code, by well-known journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, investigates the neuroscience of confidence and how it affects our lives. The scientific discussions and examples in the book are written in an easily accessible and engaging style. In the last chapters of the book, the authors provide actionable suggestions for improving confidence, and make the compelling case that a more confident life is within our reach.

I noticed this book quite by accident as I was wandering through my local Barnes & Noble. It was actually the subtitle that caught my attention: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Every Woman Should Know. Any book that claims both science and art automatically gets a second-look from me. Confidence is a topic that interests me because I have often found it an elusive feeling in many aspects of my life. Despite knowing that I have worked hard and have undoubtedly enjoyed a lot of success, I still experience those whispery thoughts of inadequacy. The dreaded imposter syndrome snags another victim!

There are some book reviews that rate and rank the content. I’m a believer that I can always learn something from any situation and that when people have taken the time to share their knowledge, perspectives, and advice with me, it’s something to appreciate. So, in my reviews, I will be providing the three best lessons that I have learned rather than a qualitative metric. For The Confidence Code, my top three lessons are:

Are you a list maker? I am.

When I’m feeling overwhelmed and pulled in many directions, my first instinct is often to uncap a fancy pen and create a to-do list. These lists help me set my chaos in order and make a plan for how to proceed. Writing things down gives myself permission to focus on one thing, instead of keeping everything active in my mind because I’m worried that I’ll forget something important. Another benefit? I think we can all agree that there are very few things more life-affirming and satisfying than crossing an item off of a to-do list. If you are a list maker too, I have a new twist for you to consider.

For my daily work management, I have implemented what I call a “to-talk” list that complements my to-do list. The idea is very simple, I create a heading for each person that I work with regularly. When an issue that affects them arises or I think of something that I need to discuss with them, I simply add it to their bullet list. You could, of course, just add “talk to Sarah about the meeting” to your to-do list, but I find that it works better for me to group ALL the things that I need to talk to Sarah about so that when I see her, I don’t overlook any of my discussion topics. I use this technique when I seek someone out, but I also use it when they come to see me. After we have discussed their issue, I check my to-talk list before they leave my office and bring up any other important subjects with them. In this way, I make efficient use of our time together and prevent things slipping first my mind and then right through the cracks. Maybe this idea can help your work management too?

Have you ever made a mistake and then convinced yourself that it would make others question your competence? Did you believe that this one mistake could begin to undo all your hard work? I have. I have absolutely given too much significance to slips of the tongue, awkward bumbling over computer wires, and minor episodes of forgetfulness. If you have too, I have some good news for you.

There is a psychological phenomenon investigated by Elliot Aronson in 1966 called “The Pratfall Effect.” It predicts that, for people who are already perceived as competent (as you no doubt are), mistakes can actually make you more likeable, relatable, and attractive. My favorite example of this is Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars. She tripped walking up the stairs to the stage and people loved her for it. Maybe that’s not quite exactly the same as me spilling tea on myself in a meeting, but the comparison still holds.

People often feel threatened by seemingly “perfect” people. Luckily for the rest of us, however, the Pratfall Effect is a proven psychological phenomenon. Confront your slip-ups with confidence and the world will love you for it.

Managing e-mail is an important skill in today’s workplace, and not having a good strategy for it can be a source of frustration not only for you but also for the people you work with.

One of the strategies that I have developed for a stress-free inbox uses Outlook conditional formatting to automatically color-code my e-mail. (Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to do this in Gmail). With color-coding, I am very easily able to prioritize which e-mails need my attention first. This is my color code, but any version that makes sense for managing your e-mail will work:

  • Magenta—Messages from my boss. She will be expecting a quick response to whatever she has sent me, so I answer these first.
  • Bright Blue—Messages that are sent only to me. If an e-mail has been sent to me and me alone, it often contains important information or requests that are best dealt with quickly. I don’t want these messages to get overlooked, so I handle these as soon as requests from my boss are complete.
  • Black—Messages that are sent to me and other recipients. I read these, but only after I have dealt with messages in the first two categories.
  • Grey—Messages that I am only copied on. Many of us get copied on hundreds of emails that are good to have for our archive, but aren’t necessarily important to read. I leave these for the end of the day, and if they aren’t read by the time I go home, I ruthlessly archive them.

Conditional formatting can be a useful tool however you strategize and prioritize your e-mail management. See if color-coding can help you establish a low-stress method for managing your e-mail too. It won’t only help you. It will also help the people who are trying to communicate with you.

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