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Advice for Life

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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.

 

 

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.

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.

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