Stop the Hamster Wheel


, , ,

hamster wheel cropped 1K px

Often, we run an event or conversation over and over in our minds. We think of what we should have said or things that we want to say now. We replay our actions and imagine what we could have done differently. Sometimes we even imagine scenarios that we want to happen. I’ve imagined conversations with people who have done me harm many times. The other person never comes out of that fantasy unscathed!

We obsess over conversations, events, and relationships because we don’t feel that they are complete. This is called the Zeigarnik effect. Understanding it can help us save a lot of emotional pennies.

Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, a Russian psychiatrist and psychologist, defined this phenomenon back in 1927. She noticed that waiters could remember minute details about what people ordered until the orders were complete. Then, they remembered hardly anything about who ordered what.

She decided to do some research. She asked participants to do a series of tasks. Half were interrupted, and half allowed to complete the tasks. The group that was interrupted recalled details of the tasks 90% better than those that were allowed to complete them.

Now, the results have not been replicated by other researchers regularly, but it does give us something to think about. The Zeigarnik effect intuitively makes sense to me. I do hang on to events and relationships longer if I do not feel they are complete.

Think about an ongoing dispute or a slight you have suffered that you did not say anything about. Do you revisit those in your mind? Think about a dispute that was resolved to your satisfaction. Do you go over and over disputes that you feel are over and done? It can be difficult to come up with one because we tend to forget things that we feel are complete.

Wouldn’t it be great to forget the things that we dwell on? I know that I would like to spend fewer emotional pennies and clear up some space in my head. We can do it by finding ways to create a feeling of completion.

I fantasize about yelling at people, but that is not something that I’m going to do in real life. It’s important to me that I remain civil at all times. So what are my options? What would make me feel complete?

Psychologists suggest writing a letter to the person or people involved. We can send the letter, but we don’t have to. Sometimes just putting our thoughts and feelings on paper can release us from them. We can burn the letter or rip it into a million pieces.

We can also have a civil conversation with the person or people involved. It takes a great deal of skill to have a difficult conversation in a positive way. I’ve written about many of the perspectives and tools that can help, such as creating a conversation container and using the conversation outline.

We can use most any method as long as it makes us feel complete. I’ve punched a bunch of pillows when I’ve been extremely angry, but that hasn’t released me from the hamster wheel of repetitive thoughts about the thing that made me angry. Punching pillows might release some stress, but it doesn’t create a sense of completion for me.

Of course, time can help, but it doesn’t heal all wounds. I have a vivid memory of a group of girls standing between me and the locker room at the gym back in middle school. I did the right thing and did not engage, but it hurt my ego. I wanted to take them all on in one big brawl or throw insults back at them. I still want to.

It was middle school, and I bet that they don’t remember their youthful feistiness, but I do. It’s been more than 45 years since that event happened, and I remember it. I can actually feel a little adrenaline pumping when I relive it. However, now that I know about the Zeigarnik effect, I can figure out a way to release it.

John Gottman, the relationship researcher and expert, talks about the Zeigarnik effect. When couples begin a downward spiral of negativity that includes unresolved conflict and hurt feelings, they begin to dwell on every perceived transgression. Unless they bring the hurt out into the open, empathize with one another, and discuss their feelings until they feel heard and understood, the relationship is doomed.

Which brings us to the basic goal of feeling complete: our personal needs are to be listened to, understood, and respected. If we feel those things, we are generally able to release the event or relationship and move on – without the hamster wheel of repetitive thoughts.

Getting and giving what we need from others requires – ta-da! – psychological safety. We must create an environment where we and others feel free to share our thoughts and feelings. In order to do that, we must be trusting and trustworthy.

There’s a lot to be gained at both work and home by maintaining an atmosphere of openness and trust so that we avoid creating memories that require closure.

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at

The Four Communication Toxins


, , ,

four horsemen 1K px

John Gottman is one of my favorite relationship researchers. In the ‘70s, when therapists were having couples whack each other with foam bats to alleviate aggression, he actually researched the effects of bopping each other. They weren’t good. As it turns out, once you start hitting someone, you feel more angry and aggressive. Makes sense to me. He probably saved a lot of people from some serious marital problems.

I’ve taken a series of seminars from Dr. Gottman and his wife. They’ve been researching couples for decades. He said that they couldn’t define a healthy relationship because they are so varied. There are, however, markers for relationships that are in trouble.

One set of markers has to do with how couples communicate with one another. He calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because they are so damaging to relationships.

I use a lot of Gottman’s research in my leadership workshops because the ultimate goal of an exceptional leader is to create positive relationships. Gottman’s findings apply to all types of relationships, not just romantic ones.

In leadership workshops, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse become Communications Toxins. It’s a less intimidating and more descriptive name for the four ways that people communicate that cause damage to relationships. Let’s look at them one at a time.

The first Communication Toxin is criticism. We all have grievances to air with others, but how we relay the information makes all the difference. Gottman differentiates between a complaint and criticism. A complaint specifically states an action with which we have a problem. We amp that complaint up to criticism when we add on negative words about the person to whom we are complaining.

Here are a few examples from Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:

Complaint: There’s no gas in the car. Why didn’t you fill it up like you said you would?

Criticism: Why can’t you ever remember anything? I told you a thousand times to fill up the tank, and you didn’t.

Complaint: You were supposed to check with me before inviting anyone over for dinner. I wanted to spend time alone with you tonight.

Criticism: Why do you keep putting your friends ahead of me? I always come last on your list. We were supposed to have dinner alone tonight.

Criticism includes blame and casts aspersions on the other person’s character.

The second Communication Toxin is contempt. Sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor are all forms of contempt. Contempt is the most damaging of the toxins because using it conveys a feeling of disgust for the other person.

When using contempt, a person’s goal is not resolution of the problem. Their goal is to make the other person feel incompetent and blameworthy. In essence, it’s a campaign to demean the other person.

Here is an example of contempt from The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:

“We’re paying through the nose for your car, and you can’t be bothered to wash it. I think that’s outrageous. I think that’s probably the most spoiled thing that you do.”

This spouse is not just complaining about how his or her partner spends money. They are accusing the partner of the moral deficiency of being spoiled.

I assure you that using contempt is never a part of exemplary leadership. The goal of an extraordinary leader is to build positive relationships, not make people feel small and worthless. I often talk about the damaging effects of sarcasm in the workplace. We cannot use sarcasm without demeaning a person or organization.

The third Communication Toxin is defensiveness. Not getting defensive is a tough test for the ego, but Gottman contends that any attempt to defend yourself or your position only raises the level of tension. Defensiveness does not help to resolve the conflict.

Gottman says that the antidote for defensiveness is to accept responsibility for some of the problem. Here is an example from his latest book (and my favorite), What Makes Love Last?:

Contempt: “You’re such a slob – you should’ve cleaned this up!”

Defensiveness: “I couldn’t find the sponge. Where did you stash it this time?”

He doesn’t give any positive options in either book, but here is a possibility: “I apologize for not cleaning that up right away. I got sidetracked when I couldn’t find the sponge. Do you know where it is?”

We defuse criticism and contempt when we accept some responsibility for the challenge at hand, which can be very difficult. When under attack, our immediate and understandable response is to defend ourselves at the very least. It takes a great deal of self-control and emotional intelligence not to show righteous indignation, act like a put-upon victim, or launch a counterattack.

The fourth and final Communication Toxin is stonewalling. Normally in a conversation, we give signals that we are listening. We nod our heads, mutter an assent, or maintain eye contact. When we are stonewalling, we give no nonverbal signals that we are listening. We check out of the conversation and refuse to engage. It is an avoidance technique.

Often, we stonewall because we’ve become overwhelmed by the disagreement. Gottman calls it “flooding.” When we are flooded, we’ve gone into fight-or-flight mode. Our bodies are actually flooded with a mixture of hormones that makes it difficult for us to be creative, listen with empathy, problem-solve, or even think clearly. We become impassive like stone walls to protect ourselves.

If someone is stonewalling because they are flooded, it’s best to walk away and let them calm down. No empathetic statements or attempts to soothe will get through.

The four Communication Toxins will be present in all relationships, whether personal or professional. They do not appear in a certain order. Gottman says that they perform more like a relay race, handing the baton off to one another as an argument races forward.

Our job as leaders is to minimize our use of the Communication Toxins, which takes quite a bit of self-awareness and self-discipline. We can also recognize when others use them and minimize their effects.

The best antidote to all of the Communication Toxins is curiosity. When we get curious and ask thoughtful questions about both the fact and feeling part of an issue, we are meeting people’s personal needs to be listened to, understood, and respected. Once that happens, they usually calm down and communicate more effectively.

Of course, there are people who are dead-set on winning or creating discord. In the workplace, we coach them on their behavior because it can seriously disrupt the effectiveness of a group or team. If our team doesn’t feel free to express an opinion for fear of being on the receiving end of criticism or contempt, psychological safety is not present. Remember, psychological safety is the key to high performance.

Here is a final quote from What Makes Love Last?:

“Earlier in my career, I thought that if couples learned to avoid the Four Horsemen, they would automatically communicate in positive ways that would allow love to flourish. This is not the case. Defeating the Four Horsemen will not be enough to resolve all of a couple’s problems. That can be achieved only by healing and reestablishing mutual trust.”

Yep, trust is still the foundation of positive relationships, psychological safety, and effective teams. How we communicate matters, but not as much as being trustworthy.

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at


Leadership and Self-Care



self care 1K px

I once worked with a small group of business executives who were burning themselves out. They wanted me to give them tools to get more out of others, but they were too edgy and tense to effectively deal with other people. I wanted to talk about some self-care and creating a peaceful, positive foundation for their lives and leadership. They felt like that was a waste of time.

Self-care is absolutely not a waste of time. If we are overwrought and overwhelmed, we cannot make good decisions, see the big picture of what is going on, or create positive relationships with others. As leaders, it’s imperative that we influence the world from a strong base of calm confidence and health. It’s almost impossible to interact with the world in a positive and intentional way without good health and a positive frame of mind.

So how do we take care of ourselves? What does good self-care look like? It’s helpful to look at our lives by category: relationships, financial health, personal well-being, and our physical environment. Here are a few questions to get you started for each category.


  • Do you have a support network that gives you emotional and physical support (e.g., listen, tell you hard truths, bring you chicken soup, ferry you to the doctor)?
  • Do you have any unresolved conflicts?
  • If you have a romantic relationship, is it satisfying?
  • Do you have any draining relationships?
  • Do you generally get along well with others?
  • Are you someone on whom others can depend?

Financial Health

  • Do you pay your bills on time?
  • Do you save regularly?
  • Are you debt-free or have a plan to achieve that?
  • Are your assets insured?
  • Do you have six months of living expenses in a savings account?
  • Are you able to live within your means?
  • Do you have a plan for your financial future?


Personal Well-Being 

  • Do you feel healthy and vibrant?
  • Do you regularly see a doctor, dentist, and optometrist/ophthalmologist?
  • Do you fuel your body with healthy food?
  • Do you exercise regularly?
  • Do you get enough sleep?
  • Do you have a regular religious or spiritual practice?
  • Is there any nagging physical ailment that needs to be addressed?
  • Are weekends and evenings times of rejuvenation?
  • Do you spend your free time intentionally or mindlessly?
  • Do you have activities that you enjoy?
  • Do you foster an attitude of gratitude?

Physical Environment

  • Do you feel peaceful when you walk into your home?
  • Is your car well-maintained?
  • Are your clothes clean and in good repair?
  • Is your bedroom conducive to sleep?
  • Is your home clean, organized, and well-maintained?
  • Are your personal papers organized?
  • Do you have beauty in your home?

Don’t worry if you aren’t squared away in every category! Few of us are. These are just questions to get you thinking about how you could eliminate some stress and create some joy in your life. We want to figure out what self-care items would give us the biggest bang for our buck. Start with one thing, master that one, and then move on to the next most useful action.

For example, if a cluttered house is a constant emotional drain, that may be the first thing to tackle. Years ago I took on clutter and organization. I used FlyLady’s method back then, but there are other cleaning gurus to follow now. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel or figure everything out on our own. There is always help out there.

If financial health is your challenge, someone like Dave Ramsey could be a big help. Having a plan and direction from an expert saves a lot of time and energy. A financial advisor who works with you individually is another option.

My emphasis right now is health. I’ve lost the health routines that make me feel better. I know that daily stretching and some sort of movement make me feel much more vibrant and energetic.

In addition, I am getting some outside support. I am setting up a regular schedule for Rolfing, chiropractic care, acupuncture, and massage. It’s also time to have my eyes checked! My own health has not been my priority over the past couple of years, and I am ready to change that.

Self-care helps us create peace in our lives. When we have a peaceful foundation, it’s easier to act intentionally. We don’t get triggered as easily, and daily challenges seem less overwhelming.

Go get a massage! Watch a movie with a friend! Go on a retreat! Meditate! Have a spa day! Here is a good one: Hire a life coach! 😉 Activities that we often feel are self-indulgent are really just good self-care that makes us better leaders in all aspects of our lives.

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at

New Year’s Eve


, , , , ,

2020 kids rockets 1K px

Today is New Year’s Eve. It’s a day when we have one foot in the past and one foot in the future. Although I advocate living in the moment as much as possible, we can gain some insights and direction by spending some time looking at our feet.

Let’s start with the past. There are several questions that we can ask ourselves.

1. What did you enjoy doing this year? If we know the specific activities that we liked doing, we can intentionally plan experiences in 2020 that bring us joy.

For example, I enjoyed the various craft activities that I did. I made a glass egg, threw a pot, and made one of those super chunky blankets. They were all classes that I did with a friend. I will schedule a few of those types of classes in 2020.

I very much enjoy spending time with my children and their families. I adore each and every one of them. I want to be sure and schedule trips to see them all in 2020.

Lastly, I am one of the most fortunate people on the planet because I love what I do! I love standing up in front of groups and talking about leadership concepts with them. I always enjoy honing my skills and will schedule some professional development classes during the year. Maybe I will join Toastmasters!

2. What is your biggest regret in 2019? I’m not into wallowing or wishing things had turned out differently. However, knowing what we did or didn’t do that caused us to feel bad can help us avoid repeating that particular regret. It’s important to focus only on actions that we have control over. I might regret not getting a gig, but I didn’t have control over that. Now, if I regret not preparing for my interview for the job properly, that’s something that I can analyze and figure out how to do better next time.

3. What did you really hate about your days in 2019? This one is tricky. Sometimes we have to do things that we don’t really enjoy. For me, that’s fixing food. I don’t like cooking, and I haven’t figured out a way to get rid of that task because I also like eating fresh, clean food. For now, I power through fixing healthy, healing meals.

I also dislike cleaning the bathroom, and I’ve already handed that task off. I redid my budget so that I could afford a cleaning team every other week.

It’s trickier if you hate things about your work, but useful to chronicle them. If I know what I dislike about my workday, I can try to do less of that – but now always. However, if I look for a new job in the new year, I know what things I do not want in my daily work life.

4. What are you grateful for? What people and events did you encounter for which you feel profound gratitude? Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is the foundation of a positive attitude. It’s important that we acknowledge all of the gifts that we’ve been given.

I have much to be grateful for! My youngest son got married in 2019 to a wonderful young woman who is now pregnant with my third grandchild. I have a contract with an organization whose people I love. I seriously enjoy working with them and am so grateful for that opportunity. I love my family. I enjoy talking with them and being with them. I am grateful for my condo that I call Xanadu. It’s a home to call my own that is cozy and filled with things I like. I am grateful for my freedom. I sleep and eat when I want. No one questions my actions or purchases or sleep patterns. I am grateful for my community of friends. I have people who care about me, and I them. I love my car! Her name is Amber, and we travel all the time together.

My list continues, and my heart warms just thinking about it. Gratitude is a powerful tool – and it feels good!

We’ve just taken the first step in Boyatzis’ Intentional Change Theory – take stock of where you are. The second step is to visualize where and who you want to be, doing what. All of the answers are in the answers to the questions that we asked ourselves.

Sometimes it helps to think about the segments of our lives, such as work, home, friends, and hobbies. We can visualize each segment in great detail and decide what would be ideal for each.

For example, for work I see myself up in front of a room of dedicated individuals who want to become the best versions of themselves. That one is really close to my current reality, so there isn’t much to change there. I did say that I wanted to do some professional development, so I need to keep that in mind.

For community, I see myself taking craft classes, going to movies, eating out, and playing games with my friends. The only thing that doesn’t happen now is playing games. Perhaps there is a game night in my future?

Now, we decide what we want to include and what we want to get rid of. We know where we are (the answers to the questions) and what we want (the visualizations). What’s left is to decide what we need to do to get from one to the other.

Take some time with this list. It’s your strategy for 2020. Start with a long list of things that you want to add. Make another list of the things you want to toss. What things do you want to change or do differently? Make sure that everything that you list is in alignment with your visualizations.

Now prioritize your list. What are the most important things for you to do or not do? The important things can usually be separated into short- and long-term goals.

A few of the things on my shortlist include finishing the book that I’ve started, creating structured time to spend with family, incorporating some type of daily exercise, and starting a game night. I use my 2020 calendar for planning.

For example, I have lots of commitments for the first part of the year. I won’t be starting my book until July, so I put it in my list of goals for July in my calendar.

I don’t like to do the same type of exercise every day, and my stamina is a bit unpredictable. The best I can do is schedule a time each day and commit to doing something physical during that time.

I will need to decide how often I want to have game night and coordinate with my friends. I also want to plan a big family vacation in 2021. I will work out a savings plan and coordinate the time in 2020.

You get the idea. Some actions are daily, and some are long-term. To move our lives forward, we need both. We create the life that we want in bits by deciding what’s important to us and taking intentional actions.

One last note: Stuff happens. Things we don’t plan for get in the way. Sometimes we have to let go of one plan and create a new one. That sounds easier than it is, but it is necessary. Continuing to hold onto a vision that cannot happen is not productive. Let it go, and move on.

The last step of Intentional Change Theory is to get support. We are more likely to achieve our goals if we tell others about them. We increase our chances again when we enlist their aid.

Remember the power in the Magic Wand of Destiny. With determination and a clear direction, we can get just about anywhere and achieve lots of cool stuff. Good stuff.

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at

Anticipation of Eves


, ,

anticipation of eves 1K px

Today is Christmas Eve. The day before a major event is always filled with all kinds of emotions. There can be joyful anticipation and a sense of impending doom. It all depends on our expectations for the next day. It can feel like the eve of battle.

Expectations can be a tricky thing. First, they are totally made up in our own heads. The day itself just is. Aunt Joan may or may not say every little inappropriate thing that passes through her consciousness. Small children will be filled with excitement that will present itself in adorable and annoying ways. Those things are just facts. We add the emotional charge to them. However, we don’t have to.

If you are feeling a little holiday overwhelm, take a break from the crowd and review a few tools and perspectives that will help. First, remember that the chair is the chair and that you are not going to change it.

Second, you don’t have to charge a situation with emotion. Know that what other people say and do has little to do with you and your value, and everything to do with their own perspectives and ego.

Third, you don’t have to convince anyone of anything. You can give them the gift of just sitting and listening. Our personal needs are to be listened to, understood, and respected.

Fourth, when we are fully in this moment and only paying attention to what is happening now, we don’t feel anxiety or dread. We aren’t revisiting the past or creating some weird future in our heads. We are just being present now.

Finally, we can save ourselves a lot of trouble if we just presume good intent. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, so go ahead and presume that there are no hidden digs or agendas. Your life and sanity will be much calmer.

At the end of the holiday season, you will still be you! And you are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. As long as you are living in alignment with your own values, accepting others as they are, and being kind, you are being your authentic, best self. There is no better gift for you or the world. Rock on!

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at



, , ,

silver-lining 600 px

People in my immediate world, including me, have been quite sick for the past few weeks, so I’m practicing some holiday self-care and reposting a blog that will be useful in our holiday interactions.

In many of my holiday memories, there was a lot of silver-lining going on. We do it for several reasons. One is that we care about people and want to cheer them up. Another is that we aren’t comfortable talking about uncomfortable emotions. We also just don’t want to focus on “negative” stuff.

Take a breath, and dive into your holiday conversations using the examples and tools below. One of the best gifts that we can give someone is to make them feel seen and heard. It really can make all the difference in a person’s life.

May your holidays be filled with joy, peace, and understanding!

Warmly, Kathy

Brené Brown turned silver-lining into a verb in a video on sympathy vs. empathy. You can watch it [here] [] if you are interested. I love her discussion on silver-lining things.

When someone is upset about a situation, we want to make them feel better. It’s a natural reaction, but not always a helpful one. Sometimes we feel compelled to show them the bright side of a situation – also not really helpful. When we do that, we are silver-lining. A tip-off that we are silver-lining someone are the words “At least.”

For example, let’s say that I am expressing frustration about not getting a gig after spending a lot of time on writing a proposal. The people listening want to cheer me up and make me feel better. They might say, “Well, at least you still have your health” or “At least you still have that other job that you are working on.” Both true perhaps, but the statements are not going to improve the situation or make me feel better.

After I watched Brown’s video, I started noticing a lot of silver-lining going on. A friend and fellow coach with a soft and nurturing heart who doesn’t like to see people suffering was the first person I noticed. She called me when I was seven hours into an eight-and-a-half hour drive. She asked me how much further I had to go, and I told her. Her answer was, “At least you only have an hour and a half to go.”

I felt like smacking her upside the head. I wouldn’t ever, but I felt like it. Her statement made me angry. The point was that I had an entire hour and a half of torture left! I was tired, and my back hurt. I was bored and felt like I couldn’t take another moment in the car. Her silver-lining had totally dismissed my feelings and situation. Her statement had the exact opposite effect of what she intended.

My friend was the first person who I thought of and noticed, but I should have seen myself first because I am also guilty of silver-lining! I am a champion at silver-lining, especially with my children. They complain or share a frustration, and I want to show them that things are not that bad. I will say something like, “At least you have friends you enjoy at work” or “At least you have a car that runs.” Ack! I’m working to never silver-lining them again.

I noticed silver-lining again in a leadership workshop. We were talking about communication toxins. Small groups were creating skits to show each toxin and an antidote for each. Communication toxins are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling, in case you are curious. They come from John Gottman’s research on couples.

I heard a lot of “At least” when they were creating their skits. We stopped and talked about better ways to deal with the toxins and, in general, situations when people were feeling some negative emotions.

The first step is to identify and acknowledge the feeling that the person is experiencing. Susan David, author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, advocates facing all of our feelings, even the uncomfortable ones. Before we can face them, though, we have to name them.

In coaching, after naming an emotion, we normalize it. It’s important for all of us to be reminded that it’s normal and acceptable to feel some of what are termed “negative” emotions. In truth, emotions are just emotions. They are not inherently good or bad, positive or negative. Our emotions are natural reactions to events.

Now, we can control our emotional reactions to some degree, but that’s a different conversation. Now we are just naming and normalizing. Remember that silver-lining does not help someone reframe a situation or feel better; it’s not the solution.

Let’s go back to my road trip example. I sigh and say I have an hour and a half to go of an eight-hour drive. One good response could be, “That is a really long drive. I bet you are tired.” I might respond with something like, “I am tired! My back is sore, and I am so bored that I can’t stand it.”

At this point, most of us want to send a solution like “Why don’t you listen to an audiobook?” or silver-lining the situation with “At least most of the drive is behind you.” Resist!

It’s time to normalize and help them name and accept the emotions that they are feeling. We might say, “Of course you are tired! You’ve been sitting and focusing on driving for hours!” Hearing that kind of response makes us relax because we feel seen and heard.

Naming and normalizing emotions can also open the door to furthering the conversation. Once I feel that someone is listening and empathizing, I might say, “Long drives are terrible – and my children live so far away.” I’ve shared something else that is troubling my mind as I drive hour after hour.

Once again we are presented with the temptation to do some silver-lining because we want to make people feel better. We don’t want to say, “At least you get to see them every few months.” Instead, we want to name and normalize again by saying something like “It is frustrating that they aren’t closer to you.” No solutions or silver-lining – only listening and empathizing.

When we silver-lining people, we create resistance and an adversarial conversation. They feel compelled to defend the emotions that they are feeling. They don’t feel listened to or understood. Remember my gut reaction when my friend said, “At least you only have an hour and a half left.” I was immediately angry.

When we acknowledge the feelings and listen, we let people know that their feelings are valid and normal. We also let them know that we value them enough to really listen to them in order to understand what they are feeling. Our personal needs are to be listened to, understood, and respected. When we meet those needs, we help others relax into their situations, gain some perspective, and maybe find a solution.

Or maybe they just feel better because they aren’t alone with their feelings. Empathy, rather than silver-lining, goes a long way towards creating positive relationships, which are the hallmark of great leadership and a happy life.

(And a joyous holiday season!)

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at

Holiday Conversation Outline


, ,

holiday conversation outline

Holiday Conversation Outline

It’s time to revisit the Holiday Conversation Outline! I’ve talked about an effective outline for conversations in the past. Discussions at work usually require some sort of agreement. Many personal conversations do, as well. However, holiday discussions over a family meal rarely require agreement and an action plan to move forward. Keeping this in mind can help us create a peaceful and enjoyable holiday.

Let’s go through a holiday version of the Conversation Outline.

Opening. The opening happens when one person brings up a topic. When acting in a leadership position, we want to make sure the topic is focused and clear. Holiday openings made by anyone at the table can be a messier affair.

We can help to start the conversation in a positive way by avoiding assumptions and getting curious. If Aunt Joan says, “People with tattoos shouldn’t be allowed to get food stamps,” she is opening a conversation. Instead of disagreeing immediately and assuming what she means by that comment, we could better serve the group by getting curious.

We could ask, “Aunt Joan, what connection is there between tattoos and receiving food stamps?” Now, our nonverbals our key here. If we ask with the slightest hint of sarcasm or disapproval, all is lost! Curiosity is our guiding light. Why does she think there is a link between tattoos and food stamps? Don’t make assumptions. Ask!

Once we have a clearer picture of her objection, we have our topic of conversation.

Discover and Share. This is the most important step in a conversation. We often skip this step and move straight to positional arguing about the best thing to do.

In Discover and Share, we take time to listen fully by being completely present and listening for understanding. We pay attention to the words being said, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. We are curious about everything and ask a lot of questions.

It’s very important to be curious about both the fact and feeling parts of another person’s stance. We usually focus solely on the facts. We can get a lot further along in knowing another person if we ask about their feelings, as well. We could say to Aunt Joan, “This topic seems to make you angry. What about this makes you mad?” Many of our most closely held beliefs aren’t logical and can’t be swayed by logical arguments. Understanding a person’s feelings is the key to understanding the person.

During holiday gatherings, we can keep the sharing part to a minimum. It’s imperative that we keep in mind that we are not trying to change anyone’s mind about anything. We are listening to understand and creating positive relationships. If we manage to offer a perspective the other person hasn’t thought about, it’s a bonus – but not the goal.

The chances of changing Aunt Joan’s mind are minimal at this point. We are giving her the gift of our attention. The greatest gift that we can give is our time and attention. We like to be seen and heard but don’t often feel like we are in the spotlight of someone’s attention.

Develop Solutions. In business, we begin brainstorming once we have all the facts and feelings on the table. First, we do some divergent thinking and come up with as many solutions as possible. Then we begin to narrow our choices by deciding which ones are practical, useful, and truly help the group as a whole.

With family and friends, we can participate in this step if everyone else thinks it will be fun. Coming up with outlandish possibilities to challenges discussed can be enjoyable. It can also be a nightmare. If we start handing possible solutions to Aunt Joan, who is an argumentative person, she is likely to get defensive.

During this phase when acting as a leader, it’s important to continually ask what is best for the people involved in the decision – whether that is a couple, a team, a family, or an organization. Developing Solutions at a holiday gathering is COMPLETELY OPTIONAL.

Agree. Ignore this step entirely! Most holiday discussions at the dinner table do not require agreement. Accept that families can offer us some of the best opportunities for personal growth. We get to practice letting others be themselves without any effort on our part to change them. Remember, the chair is a chair.  One conversation with us isn’t going to transform Aunt Joan into an open-minded, empathetic person. We get to practice listening to her fully and allowing her to be who she chooses to be.

Close. If we did need to agree on how to move forward, we would now check to make sure that everyone was on board, and we would explicitly state the agreement. Since we didn’t require agreement, we don’t have anything to clarify.

However, we can close by summarizing what we learned about the other person’s feelings and perspective.

The Discover and Share step of the conversation is the most important step. Holiday gatherings give us the chance to practice being curious without the pressure of coming to an agreement. Bonus: We create a more positive relationship with friends and family. Our holiday gift to the world can be to make each person we talk with feel listened to, understood, and respected.

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at

Collaborating in “The Void”


, , , ,

Janeway 1K px

During my leadership series, I sometimes talk about a specific episode of Star Trek: Voyager called “The Void”. I am a fan of both Voyager’s Captain Janeway and Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. They are wonderful leadership paradigms to emulate. However, I am particularly fond of “The Void” because Captain Janeway stands her ground in perilous circumstances and in opposition to her First and Second Officers.

In this episode, the ship is pulled into a large bubble in space that has absolutely nothing in it. There is a collection of ships inside the void that have been unable to escape. When a new ship is pulled in, everyone attacks it and steals food and any other useful items such as fuel. Talk about limited resources! The only necessities of life available are aboard hapless ships that are pulled into the void and that are completely unready for the attacks and thievery that they immediately encounter.

Every ship in the void is out to save itself. It makes sense. They will starve or freeze if they don’t get essentials from others. It’s an attitude that I often see in organizations and people. They feel that the only way to get ahead is at the expense of others. “Win-win” is not in their vocabulary. “I only do better if you do worse” is the underlying belief. However, there are other, better ways to get ahead.

Voyager’s food stores, fuel, and some other necessities are immediately stolen. Once they take stock of their situation, they realize that they have only a week’s worth of food to feed the crew. Janeway’s First and Second officers feel that Voyager must begin attacking smaller, weaker ships if they are to survive in the void.

However, Captain Janeway holds fast to the principles of The Federation to which they have pledged. She refuses to attack or steal. Her First Officer asks, “Should the crew be willing to die for those principles?”

Here is Captain Janeway’s response:

“If the alternative means becoming thieves and killers ourselves, then yes. But I’m betting that our principles are going to keep up alive. The Federation is based on mutual cooperation, the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Voyager can’t survive here alone, but if we form temporary alliances with other ships, maybe we can pool our resources and escape.”

It was a hard lesson for me to learn, but each of us also cannot make it on our own. We need other people’s help in times of trouble, and we need their support for a healthy emotional state. I’ve tried forging ahead on my own and also moving ahead with a community. It’s way easier with a posse.

Janeway’s officers point out that there are few reasons for anyone to join them in an alliance. She answers that they will share their food and medical supplies and will defend ships that are attacked by raiders. She is planning to give away food and medical supplies that are in very short supply. Her officers object, and I love her answer:

“Then maybe we’ll only survive two days instead of seven. On the other hand, if we share what we have instead of hoarding it, we might find other people willing to do the same. We may lose a little weight, gentlemen, but we won’t lose who we are.”

There are two interesting concepts in Janeway’s answer. The first is sticking to our principles on principle. There are often difficult circumstances that tempt us to act in a way that is not in alignment with our values. We rationalize less-than-stellar behavior to ourselves by saying that we “had” to do it because of [fill in the blank].

I often hear people say that the bad behavior of others is reason enough to lower their own behavioral standards. They ask why they should play fair and be helpful if other people aren’t doing the same.

Let me say emphatically that there is no valid reason for us to lower our standards and ignore our values. Period. To go back to a phrase we all heard in childhood, do not jump off the cliff just because all your friends are doing it.

As leaders, it’s imperative that we maintain our standards, no matter what chaos swirls around us. Hoo doggy! That can be difficult! People lie to us, try to cheat us, and advance themselves at our expense. Maintaining our standards and living our values can feel next to impossible. However, it’s imperative that we use some self-discipline and live above the fray.

We are the lighthouse of integrity for others. We hold the standards and light the way. We create trust with our predictable and reliable behavior. Exceptional leaders do not have the luxury of indulging in bad or vengeful behavior. Our goal is to be the leadership role model for others to live up to.

The second concept is generosity. Janeway says, “Maybe the best way to get help is to give it.” I couldn’t agree more. We create goodwill and a positive work environment by giving our time and ourselves to others without any hope of recompense. It can feel counterintuitive to give time or resources to someone who has negative feelings towards us, but is there any other way to change the dynamic of the relationship? Giving less isn’t going to do it.

As leaders, our job is to help others create success. We do that by helping – removing obstacles and providing resources. We must also show support and a sincere belief in the person and his or her abilities.

Voyager made it out of the void. They gave away supplies. Other ships joined them. They did turn out to be able to do more as a coordinated whole. They found help in unexpected places and had to expel those who refused to live by their rules. By combining their technology, they figured out a way to escape.

I had the TV on while I was writing this blog. I heard Cinderella’s biological mother tell Cinderella the secret to success in life. She said, “Be courageous, and be kind.” That pretty much sums up the lesson in “The Void.”

We want to be courageous and live a life that we are proud of. We want to be kind to others and create positive relationships built on mutual respect. Cinderella’s mom said that kindness created magic. Captain Janeway and I agree.

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at

Don’t talk to yourself like that!


, , ,

Self-talk cropped

We all have a little voice in our head, and how it talks to us can make a huge impact on our confidence and self-esteem. Negative self-talk can be a very destructive force. There are some things that we can do to improve the ways we talk to ourselves.

Begin by asking yourself if you would talk that way to a friend. Would you say, “You are stupid and incompetent!” to someone you care about? Of course not! If you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, don’t say it to yourself.

Studies have shown that talking to yourself using “you” or your name (as if talking to a friend) increases confidence and performance, and decreases anxiety. For example, instead of “I can do this!” I say, “Kathy, you can do this!” It’s an easy shift to make. No one knows exactly why this works, but it does, so let’s run with it.

Talking to ourselves as we would to a friend and using “you” and our name helps to put us in an observer role, which is another way to battle negative self-talk. In one study, psychologists had people stand in the mirror and comment on themselves. If a person said, “I am a fat blob with a jiggly belly,” the researchers would ask them to state factual information as an observer. The participant could say, “I have a round abdomen.” Observing factually leads to action more often than negative self-talk does.

Lastly, we can name our inner voice. In coaching, we call it a Gremlin, and it seems intent on sabotaging our efforts. Many times, our Gremlins are trying to keep us safe. My Gremlin might say, “Don’t put in a proposal for that job. You won’t get it, anyway.” It’s trying to save me the pain and disappointment that I would experience if I didn’t get it. I can tell my Gremlin, “Thanks! I know you are trying to save me some emotional pain and disappointment, but I’ve got this! If I don’t get it, it will be okay.”

It’s time for us to pay attention to what we say to ourselves! First, let’s stop using “I.” We can talk to ourselves as we would to a friend, in grammar and in content. Let’s also be as kind to ourselves as we are to others. Finally, let’s give our Gremlins a name and reassure them that we can handle whatever disappointments may come along.

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at


Practicing a Systems View


, , , , ,

3rd Entity 2 1K px

Two or more people together create a system. In systems coaching lingo, the relationship between two or more people is called the 3rd Entity. When dealing with a challenge or creating a strategy, it’s important to consider what is best for each member of the system, and also to consider what would be most beneficial for the 3rd Entity.

A systems view can be a difficult thing to acquire and maintain. When working with clients, I sometimes use an exercise to help them see a situation from various perspectives, including that of the 3rd Entity.

To begin, my clients pick one person with whom they have a relatively minor disagreement. For the purposes of practice, it’s a good idea to steer clear of people and situations that make us feel very emotional. We want to practice with something that is only mildly irritating.

Let’s use a completely fictional scenario as an example. Let’s say that I have a male friend who insists on paying for things every time we do something together. To do the 3rd Entity exercise, I would begin by imagining or creating a triangle on the floor. The point at the bottom left of the triangle represents me. The bottom right point represents my friend, and the top corner represents our relationship, or 3rd Entity.

I would begin by standing on my own corner and stating my perspective. I might say things like, “It feels condescending and controlling when my friend insists on paying all the time. I feel like he is creating a situation where I owe him, and I don’t like it.”

It’s imperative that we stick with “I” statements when explaining our position and views. We always want to avoid blaming. It’s important to focus on our own feelings and views. Using “I” statements in this exercise is excellent practice for real-life interactions with others.

Once we have fully aired our views and feelings, we move over to the other person’s point on the triangle. I would step over and inhabit my friend’s perspective. It’s a great way to practice empathy. Of course, I don’t really know my friend’s motivations, and to fully resolve the situation, we would have to have a conversation. However, this is just an exercise right now to help us get better at seeing different perspectives.

When standing on my friend’s point of the triangle, I might say things like, “I feel unchivalrous and guilty if I don’t pay. I was brought up to believe that a gentleman always pays for a woman’s meal if she is my guest. I also enjoy paying. It is a gift, and it makes me feel good. I like sharing my abundance with others.”

Now, I might need to step back over onto my own corner to vent a bit after that speech that I gave for my friend. I have equally strong feelings about chivalry. I might say, “Well, insisting on paying because I am a woman makes me feel that you believe I am incapable of taking care of myself – that I am incompetent or an object to be cared for, and not a human being who is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.”

Realizing that I am having a conversation with myself while inhabiting two roles, I could allow my friend a rebuttal. I could step back over onto his point of the triangle and say, “My wanting to pay has to do with my own values and feelings, not my assessment of your competence or worth.”

We don’t have to come to an agreement in our made-up conversation. It’s just a way to practice using “I” statements for our own views and feelings and using empathy to embody another person’s views and feelings. The next part is the main point of the exercise.

Once I feel that I have fully expressed both of our points of view, I step up to the top point of the triangle and look at the situation from the perspective of the relationship. It’s the broad systems view of the 3rd Entity. The questions to answer from here are “What would be the best thing for the relationship?” and “What does the relationship need to thrive?”

Obviously, the friction and resentment created every time my friend and I go out together by his insistence to pay and my negative reaction is not good for the relationship. The relationship wants peace and needs some compromise in order to thrive. The 3rd Entity needs for each of us to put our egos aside and find a compromise that we would both find acceptable.

The first question to ask myself is whether or not I care enough about the relationship to make any compromises. At work, we must maintain relationships with others. One of the hallmarks of great leadership is the ability to create and maintain positive relationships. However, in our personal lives, we can keep or toss people at will.

Let’s say that I do want to continue this relationship. It has value to me, and I want to help it thrive. The next thing to ask myself is “What am I willing to give up in order to support the 3rd Entity?” Could I just allow my friend to pay all the time and not feel any resentment? Probably not. However, I realize the importance of paying to him and could live with him paying some of the time. Perhaps I could offer a compromise in which I pay for one big event that I really want to do every now and then. I get to plan and pay for the entire thing. It comes down to a question of how much the relationship means to me and what I might be willing to do for it.

Now, it is absolutely not healthy if only one person is concerned with the health of the 3rd Entity. If my friend refuses to budge one bit and won’t consider my comfort, value, or feelings, it might be time to end the relationship. Each and every member of a system must be willing to do things to promote its health. We, of course, have our own values to defend, but we must be willing to compromise for the good of the system.

In the workplace, if I am the director of marketing, part of my job is to advocate for the marketing department. However, I must also consider what would be best for the entire organization. It is not responsible for me to insist on creating the ideal situation for the marketing department if those circumstances don’t support the goals and values of the organization as a whole.

In the end, we must have a conversation with the other members of our system. The triangle exercise can be done with a partner. Each person stands on his or her own point and says what they think and feel using “I” statements. Then both people move up to the top point and talk about what would be best for their 3rd Entity. It’s a nice structure that can help a  conversation be more collaborative and less adversarial.

“What does our 3rd Entity need to thrive in this situation?” is always an excellent question to begin a productive conversation.

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at