I was talking with a friend of mine a few weeks ago about happiness. Specifically, she asked me if there was any connection between happiness and your Myers Briggs Type Code. We talked about how some personality types tend to be more prone to anxiety or depression or addiction than others, but that your Type Code is not a predictor of those things.
I suggested she start keeping a gratitude journal. Or if “journal” feels like too big a commitment, just write on a scrap piece of paper. Before you go to bed at night, write down five things you are thankful for that happened that day. Nothing formal. No long paragraphs needed unless you want to write more. A bullet point list is fine. I assured her she would feel happier and even sleep better.
“Oh, is that something you do every day then?” she asked.
“Well… no,” I admitted. “It’s more something I do in phases. The truth is I haven’t done it in quite a while, but I think I’ll start another phase tonight.”
And I did. And I felt happier. And I slept better.
We all know gratitude is a good idea. A recent article in Forbes even lays out 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude that include everything from giving us more relationships and making us mentally stronger to helping us sleep better. And most of us (sometimes begrudgingly) recognize, “Yeah… I could be more grateful.”
I got that Gratitude Journal/Scrap-Piece-of-Paper idea from my friend Maria. Maria is one of the happiest, most grateful people I know. I’m not sure whether she still keeps that journal, but I know she’s got an essence of gratitude that I’d like to see more of in myself. So I’ll keep doing what worked for her.
I’ve learned practices of gratitude from other people too.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time in church, so I perked up one Wednesday night before Thanksgiving when the pastor said, “Instead of a sermon tonight, we’re going to write a list of 100 things we’re thankful for.” My first thought was “Instead of a sermon? Phew… that’s a relief.” (This was a guy known for longish sermons.) My second thought was “A hundred things? I can’t possibly come up with 100.” But I did. And while it took some thinking, it was worth the effort. Every once in a while I still sit down and write out a hundred things I’m thankful for in my life.
Another gratitude practice showed up when I was in college. The school’s president mentioned how he spent Thanksgiving morning making phone calls to donors thanking them for their contributions. My college roommate and I thought that was an interesting idea and got in the habit of calling each other every Thanksgiving morning to express gratitude for our friendship. We still did that even after we graduated and lived hundreds of miles apart with our own separate lives. We kept up with birthdays and other holidays and all that, but the Thanksgiving phone call took on its own separate importance.
Some people are faithful in the gratitude practice of sending Thank You notes. I'm not one of them. I'd like to be - it's just that I'm not very good at keeping up with details. It helps when I remind myself the note doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to literary gold. It just has to say thanks. And I developed a little formula that helps.
Thank you for ____(action)_____. I really appreciate ____(character quality) ____.”
Thank you for making that pound cake for the office party. I really appreciate the way you share your family’s tradition with us.
Thank you for covering me in that meeting yesterday. I really appreciate how I can trust you to step in.
Thank you for writing all those thank you notes to our clients. I really appreciate your commitment to building those relationships.
If the mention of Thank You notes strikes you with unrelenting guilt, let that go. Don’t try to catch up on a lifetime of thank you notes. Just start thanking people today.
And if writing a note is too much, then say it in person. Two sentences is all you need. Or make a phone call, leave a voicemail, write an email. How you deliver your message is not as important as developing the habit of expressing your gratitude.
With that in mind, let me close with my own expression of gratitude.
Thank you for reading our Stories to Engage Team. I really appreciate the way you care about the people in your life and are willing to use these stories to better understand yourself and how we all affect each other. I am truly grateful... Celia
Talk About It
I got in an argument with my mom when I was 16. I don’t remember what the argument was about, but I imagine it had something to with how nobody could possibly understand how right I was. My mom, a very patient person who mostly listened and offered gentle nudges through our adolescence, finally had enough of this conversation and snapped at me, “Celia. If it seems like the whole world’s against you, chances are the world’s not the problem.”
That ended the argument. It was so unusual to hear that tone of voice from her, I knew I didn’t have a chance. So I turned to walk (probably stomp a little and huff and puff some) up the stairs. But even in that moment, I couldn’t help but think, “Hmmm…. That’s a pretty good point.” Years later, that phrase still helps me on those days when I oversleep, spill my coffee, get a flat tire, disagree with a colleague, and light up over something I hear on the news.
The world really isn’t against me, and I have the power to respond in whatever way I choose. It was helpful feedback given in love – and maybe a little well-placed exasperation.
On the subject of feedback, I had my first official performance review about a year out of college. I was working at a university and my boss sat down with me in his office and read some notes he’d made about my first year on the job. I expected to hear how I needed to beef up my administrative skills like timeliness on returning phone calls and emails. And that was mentioned, but only in passing.
What Steve really wanted to talk about was my contribution to a team. He asked me outright, “Do you know you’re a good team member?” I was confused, never thought about that before. Then he went on to give examples of the valuable role I made to the team and encouraged me to keep that up. Overtime, that bit of feedback shaped me. Twenty years later, here I am running a company that helps people build strong teams. And I’m also better at returning phone calls and emails in a timely way, usually within the 24 hours Steve suggested. Though, in fairness, that skill still needs some attention.
We see and hear a lot from clients about performance reviews. Here’s a typical scene.
In what is no doubt a well-intentioned attempt to streamline preparation, limit emotional volatility and benchmark expectations across the company, HR offices and department heads tend to generate one uniform performance review. The boss marks an employee on a scale of to 1 to 5 (often with an unwritten rule that no one can have all 5’s). The employee fidgets uncomfortably as they hear vague reasons for their marks. Then the performance review goes into a file until someone needs “evidence” for either termination or promotion.
Most employees tell us they want sincere feedback on how they’re doing their jobs. Most supervisors tell us they want to give that kind of feedback. So why aren’t they all thrilled when annual performance reviews come around? And why do both bosses and employees dread them?
The performance review should be a time to strengthen employees, to empower them to understand their particular contribution to the success of your organization and to support them as they learn new skills and improve.
This is hard work, so here are a few things to help.
Talk About It
When I was growing up, my mom, brother and I would visit Grandaddy Milholen. We usually took doughnut holes and stood around chatting while he snacked on them, offering us some.
On one of these afternoon visits, his sister Stell barreled in and announced, “R.F., I came to see you, but I can’t stay long. Groceries are in the car. I had to stop at Food Lion on the way or I would’ve had to make a left hand turn. And you know how I feel about a left hand turn.”
Even as a kid, I saw it was hilarious for a grown person to plan a driving route around only turning to the right, and I stifled my laugh with a quick cough. I made eye contact with my brother and looked away before we both went into a laughing-coughing-cover-up fit. Even our mom had a twinkle in her eye that said she was holding back.
True to her word, Aunt Stell didn’t stay long. Then we finished our visit and headed to the car. My mom, brother and I laughed about left hand turns all the way home, and it became a punch line we still use today.
I was thinking about left hand turns this week when my laptop told me it was time for an update. I hate making updates. It can mean I’ll have to learn something new and make some sort of adjustment even though I’m perfectly happy with the way things are now. Most of my adult life I’ve been a late adopter to technology and kind of proud of it. The same way Aunt Stell announced her commitment to avoiding left hand turns - as if that was the most sensible thing in the world.
But what if I never gave in and updated technology? I’d still be typing on a blue screen in Word Perfect.
A while back, I was speaking at one of those lunches where leaders come together to think and talk about some leadership topic that will hopefully be useful to them in their organization. We spent an hour talking about 4 ways people make decisions and what happens in interactions when members of the same group use opposing decision-making processes. Afterwards, a pastor came to me and said, “Can I be brutally honest with you? I might not be the right person for this job.” When he looked around the room during that training session, he felt so different from the rest. They seemed to thrive on structure and organization, but he was overwhelmed with his workload. He felt pulled between what he experienced as dreaded administrative and programming demands of running a church and the real desire to be with people in his congregation. Those administrative tasks were his left hand turn.
I knew it was a matter of time before I heard from a different pastor in that room who would say something like, “I’m not sure I’m the right person for this job,” because she feels pulled between what she experiences as the dreaded obligation of being with people in the congregation and the real desire to organize healthy and thriving structure and programs. The socialization required in that job is her left hand turn.
We all have something in our lives like Aunt Stell’s left hand turns, those things everyone else seems to be doing just fine. But we don’t have to organize our lives to avoid turning left. We can face that thing we find intimidating and develop the skills we need to address it. Here’s how.
Talk About It
My mom and I went on a cruise to Alaska this summer. We saw whales and seals and glaciers. We looked across the Pacific Ocean and had deep thoughts. We ate great food, and we met interesting people.
Some of our time was action packed when we took excursions. But there was a lot of time we just sat around. With little to no WiFi access on the ship, we couldn’t create much distraction. There was nothing to do but relax. My mind had nothing to occupy it – I just sat and looked out at the scenery.
It’s hard to get relaxed at home. Even when I’m not working, my mind tells me I should be. It has all kinds of thoughts about what I could be getting accomplished. Sometimes that’s helpful motivation, but often it’s just an unreasonable pace to keep.
That’s why vacations are important. Big ones that require saving up and making plans AND small ones – little weekends away or even pleasant afternoons in a park.
The US is the only developed country that doesn’t require employers to provide paid vacation leave. (Compare that to Brazil with a total of 30 paid work days a year or France with 36.) And even those who have access to paid vacation don’t always take it. In 2015, we left a whopping 658 million vacation days unused.
This is especially interesting considering that vacation actually makes us more productive and more efficient.
Fear is a main reason employees don’t use vacation, and 80% of employees in one study said they would take vacation if they were supported by their boss.
Here are some things you can do to integrate and celebrate vacation as a part of a healthy workplace.
At the end of my vacation last month, I got on a plane back to Canton, Ohio with a phone full of wild Alaskan pictures and an In Box full of email. I was thrilled about both. I hope your next vacation ends the same way.
Talk About It
I sat at 3 year old Isaiah’s tiny craft table last week to join a session of pressing seashells into homemade play dough. It was just the two of us. His little brother was asleep, his parents were at work, and we had about a half hour before he would be tucked in.
I had a busy day and my phone was still pinging with texts from clients, friends and colleagues tying up loose ends from earlier conversations. Isaiah patiently pointed out “You got a text,” with each ding. Eventually he reached for the green play dough and casually said, “You should turn your phone off.” No animosity, no frustration. Just a simple statement of fact.
Maybe he’d had enough of the noise. Maybe he sensed my distraction or my tension. I wanted to spend time with him – I love this kid – and I know how important it is for children and adults to share meaningful, focused interaction with each other. Whatever the case, he understood something I forgot. If all these texts were a problem, I could just turn off the phone.
I pursed my lips, shook my head and said, “You’re right.” He said, “I’ll turn it off,” and reached for the phone.
“Did I do it?” he asked as the screen went dark. “Well, you made the screen blank but to really turn it off, you have to hold this button down, then swipe your finger here.” I showed him. He did it and felt proud of himself for pushing the right buttons. I felt a strange mix of panic (“What if somebody needs me?”) and calm (“What a relief. I’m free to hold my full attention on this moment with Isaiah.”)
Sherry Turkle is a communication scholar who studies how devices redefine human connection and communication. Here’s Turkle explaining her research in an interview on PBS Newshour
“… all the research shows that the presence of that phone will do two things to the conversation. It will make the conversation go to trivial matters, and it will decrease the amount of empathy that the two people in the conversation feel toward each other. That phone is a signal that either of us can put our attention elsewhere.
Even a silent phone disconnects us.
And so it’s that feeling that we all are always potentially elsewhere that is cutting us off. And we’re finding ways around conversation, the kind of conversation that’s open-ended, where you give time for another person to sort of take a tangent and not go to a phone if there’s a little bit of a lapse.
And those are the kinds of conversations where empathy is born, where intimacy is born. And those are the conversations we’re not having with each other and with our kids.”
After reading Sherry Turkle’s book, I made a habit of putting my phone out of sight in conversations. Her research shows that the mere visual presence of a phone affects us, even if it is silent during the whole conversation. Sometimes I would tell people about the research, sometimes I just slipped the phone into my bag.
Somewhere between reading that book and sitting down to play dough, I let the habit get away from me. I’m glad a 3-year old reminded me to try again.
Talk About It
Last month my friend stopped short before making her first tee shot and said, “Let’s say we have to pay 10 cents every time we say something negative today.” I laughed.
This will be good for her because she is really negative, constantly criticizing herself for the whole round of golf. It will be a relief not to have to deal with that. So I said, “Let’s make it a quarter.”
She hit her drive, not a brilliant shot, but in play. I teed up and watched my ball hook way to the left. “Look at that,” I said, “right in the fairway.” My friend said, “That will be 25 cents.” I argued I wasn’t being negative – just making an observation. She said I was being sarcastic and negative since I’d hit the ball into the fairway of the hole next to us. Turns out I'm pretty negative myself.
That’s how the first three holes went. Each of us calling out the other’s negativity then defending ourselves. By the fourth hole, we just stopped talking about golf. Changing the subject helped some, but even that was precarious, because we couldn’t say anything negative about other topics either.
On the seventh hole, I hooked it off to the left again. Instead of saying anything, I just stood in my stance and watched the ball go. Then for some reason, I looked down at my feet and realized I’d hit the ball perfectly straight. I wasn’t hooking it at all – I was lined up pointing left. My friend had a realization of her own about her follow through and managed to fix a slice that had bugged her game for years.
After a while, we decided it was dishonest to ignore negative results in our game, but talking about that result wasn’t too helpful either. Instead we started to frame our discussion around what to do next time. So in place of, “What a stupid shot,” I would say, “Hmmm… next time I think I’ll check to see if my feet are lined up right.”
The last three holes were some of the most delightful golf we ever played. Not a perfect game – we still missed a few strokes, but enjoyable and even relaxing.
What happened? We think it had to do with our intention and our point of focus. Our negativity was always focused on the result, not the cause. The problem in my tee shot wasn’t that it went to the left – that was just the result. The problem was the direction I’d placed my feet. Venting about the result distracted me from recognizing the actual problem.
I’ve seen this power of intention play out in our work with horses during Equine Assisted Learning Sessions. A horse has sharp intuition and can read a human’s nonverbal communication to determine intention. For example, without using a halter and lead rope, without touching the horse at all, I might ask him to walk with me to the other side of the arena. My mindset will shape the result of that experience. If I set my intention to success (we’ll both walk together to the other side) and I focus on that success by walking with calm confidence, my eyes focused on where we’re heading, the horse is much more likely to follow my leadership.
If my mind is in a place of weak intention, of defensive hopes like “I hope this works out” or “what if the horse won’t come along” then the horse is more likely to perceive me as an untrustworthy leader and less likely to join me in the task.
Let’s go back to refusing negativity in a round of golf. After that first informative nine holes, we found creative problem solving and relaxed innovation seeped into other areas of our lives for several hours, even a full day, afterwards. Eventually it wore off and, like any new mindset, we have to keep practicing. So we scheduled the next round.
Talk About It
The sun came out in Northeast Ohio this week. We have about 300 cloudy days per year. That’s right up there with Seattle. So the first moment of Not-Winter when you drive with the car window down is pretty special.
I had that moment last week. To top off the sunshine and warm breeze, my mind was in a pleasant place too. Work is going well, my family and friends are in good health. And I was headed to one of my favorite events of the year, a concert put on by two local churches – a mostly African American Baptist congregation and a mostly white Mennonite congregation. The Baptists concentrate to stay in the structure of sheet music and the Mennonites concentrate to sway on beat. The end result is a lot of laughing and plenty of truly outstanding music. All was right with the world.
That’s when I heard the buzzing in my station wagon then saw it in my rearview mirror - a bee hovering around a back window. “Great. This ruins everything,” I thought.
I imagined the bee flying into my face, stinging me repeatedly until I crashed on the side of the road. All was lost. Just when life comes together, disaster is around the corner.
What This Story Means
How did I get from thinking all was right with the world to meeting my doom by the side of the road? Here’s an explanation from Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.
"Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense positive ones.” He describes the brain as "Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones."
“The alarm bell of your brain - the amygdala - uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: it’s primed to go negative,” writes Hanson. “Once it sounds the alarm, negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory - in contrast to positive events and experiences, which usually need to be held in awareness for a dozen or more seconds to transfer from short-term memory buffers to long-term storage."
That means all those positive thoughts about sunshine and good life passed through my brain really quickly while that darn bee threat hung on. So what to do?
Step One: Bring it Back to Reality. Pull out of that negative spiral and address the concrete present moment. Here are a few facts I considered:
*Not all problems are as small as this one. (For someone allergic to bees, this one isn’t even a small problem.) Before you dismiss this simple 3 step process, I ask you to consider how much of your thought space is taken up with small problems. If you pay attention to your thoughts, you might be surprised to find how many of them are just buzzing noises. Also big problems can still be helped by this process. It’s just that Step Two has more complexity.
Step Two: Consider Options and Address the Problem
Since the bee can’t sting me from the back of the car, I could just ignore it. Or I could easily pull over and shoo the bee out.
Step Three: Make time for the Positive Thoughts to Stick
Once I resolved the problem, I needed to go back to thinking about all the good stuff – the feeling of sunshine in a warm car, a job I enjoy, the pleasure of watching my family and friends thrive, the delight of this concert. It took some effort to concentrate on the specific details of these good things, but that concentration helps them stick.
In the end, I got to the concert a few minutes after hearing the first buzz and left the window open for the bee’s escape. We haven’t seen each other since.
Talk about It
In my first job out of college, I shared an office with Ann, who had already been working there 5 years. Although she was a kind and gracious person, I was intimidated. I wanted to prove myself to be competent and capable. During our first week, Ann and I spent time organizing the office and getting to know a little about each other. You can imagine the scene – an experienced employee trying to show the ropes to a new upstart.
The office was housed in a large residence hall on a small university campus. It was late summer before students arrived so it felt cavernous with all 150 rooms empty. She and I were alone working away at filing papers and organizing. At one point, Ann left the office to get a snack. She came back in with a bagel when I noticed a big glop of cream cheese hanging off her top lip. What to do?
In the whole scheme of things, it didn’t matter. No one else was there. If I didn’t say anything, I didn’t risk her being embarrassed in front of somebody else. Why make things awkward between us? So I played it cool. I was a capable, competent professional who isn’t distracted by such mundane things. But Ann kept talking away and that cream cheese blob kept flapping around. I had to say something. So I finally got the nerve, pointed at her lip and said in a low voice that trailed off at the end, “Hey Ann, you’ve got a little…”
I don’t know why I lowered my voice. We were in a giant building completely by ourselves. Absolutely no one could hear us. Maybe I thought I was protecting her dignity. Maybe I was protecting mine. The whole thing was just so awkward.
The moment I made my show of courageous confrontation, Ann threw down the folder in her hand and emphatically told me, “It’s about time! Do you know how long I’ve been trying to balance this thing on my lip? If we’re going to share an office together, you’ve got to tell me that kind of stuff right away.”
What This Story Means
It was a test, one hilarious test. But I failed. What Ann needed from me, and what I eventually understood I needed from her, was honesty in even the smallest things. That’s where trust comes from.
We shared that office together for 4 years, and it was one of the most collaborative and most enjoyable work partnerships I ever had. It probably looked like we had little confrontations every day. “What were you thinking when you did that?” or “Hey, where did that one file go?” But to us, if felt like we never fought at all. Saying what we thought or wondered, and trusting that the other person was doing the same, took the guesswork out of our relationship and freed us up to do our best work.
If you’re going to be on a team, you have to have each other’s backs. If you can’t trust someone for the littlest things, how can you rely on them for the big ones?
Talk about It
When I sat down in my car recently, the snap at the waist of my pants popped open. Fortunately, I was by myself and saved the embarrassment of anyone else noticing.
I assumed the pants needed to stretch a little since I just pulled them from the dryer… until I realized these pants have made plenty of trips through the dryer and never caused this problem before. So I assumed I should get some new pants since these make me look fat… until I looked down at my waistline and realized “looking fat” wasn’t the problem either.
The problem was more straightforward than that.
My stomach was larger than it used to be and the failure of that snap was just a symptom. Frankly, the snap deserved an award for lasting as long as it did. The only real solution was for me to make some changes in my own behavior, starting with cutting down on my milkshake intake, which incidentally was my motivation for being in the car in the first place.
So now I had a choice to make: pick up my friends as originally planned and drive to Kustard Korner to get that delicious self-satisfying giant milkshake or do something else.
I often run into people with the same Blame-the-Pants problem I have.
Once I met with a team of leaders because someone suggested we discuss their company’s retention problem. During our conversation, the chair of the team dominated the talking space, often interrupting and talking over other members of the team. At one point, I redirected the conversation, asking someone to finish a thought that had been interrupted by the chair. The chair responded by mentally checking out of the meeting and spending the next 20 minutes absorbed in his tablet.
He eventually closed the meeting by announcing they didn’t have a retention problem. They just had a young 20-something team of employees who didn’t yet know how to handle pressure. Whenever the company was up against a deadline or there was a glitch in their product that slowed down production, he expected to lose a few people.
What This Story Means
Changing this team’s product won’t solve their problem anymore than buying new pants would have solved mine. Low rates of retention are a symptom that something else is wrong in the culture. In this case, it’s certainly related to the chair’s domineering then dismissive way of communicating and to the leadership team's willingness to put up with that behavior.
The only way to a solve problem is to accurately define the situation, own your contribution to the problem and make helpful changes.
Here’s how that might look for my Blame-the-Pants problem.
And here's how it might look for the chair of that team.
Talk about It
A few summer’s back, three friends were at my house. We had supper together and sat around commenting on the comfortable, warm summer weather when Jessica said it was perfect for a run. Jennifer thought she might enjoy running too. Since I don’t run but was glad for their company, I volunteered to ride my bike alongside them. That left our friend Britni. She doesn’t run either. As we only had one bike, and as she is a national champion unicyclist, Britni agreed to ride her unicycle as part of this outing. Fortunately for us, national champion unicyclists keep a unicycle in the trunk of their car just in case a situation like this comes up.
So we headed out. I live in a reasonably safe neighborhood. People mostly look out for each other. In the summer, porches are crowded with neighbors smoking or talking or having a drink together, watching people go by. The occasional loud muffler or kids being noisy in the playground across the street, but nothing too extreme.
We must have stood out. Two runners, a slow biker, and a unicyclist. People would laugh right out loud when we passed their porch. Normally when a woman is yelled at from a porch as she passes by, it’s uncomfortable. You don’t know what the yeller’s intentions are and you can’t help being afraid. But we weren’t afraid that night. All we heard was surprised laughter at the unusual sight. And there was some pointing, but that seemed fair considering the unicycle.
After a few blocks something changed. We turned onto 19th Street, where the sidewalk on one side of the street was dark from the shade of old trees. A black man was lurking in the dark space, peeking his head around a large tree. We could catch glimpses of him when the breeze moved the leaves on the trees and let a little light in. He was watching us. He wore baggy jeans, big shoes, an oversized basketball jersey layered on an oversized white t-shirt. I kept my eye on him because he made me nervous. I heard him yell something, so I looked his way, willing him not to pick up on my fear. When he yelled again, I thought I heard my name. Thinking I recognized him, I squinted his direction and said, “Marcus?”
Marcus is a friend of mine. He was a member our church’s youth group and a talented volunteer at a local after school program. He’s warm and kind, gracious and intelligent. Marcus is a gifted musician and is remarkable with children. What a relief to see him.
“Aw man, Celia,” he said back to me with just as much relief as I had. “I’m glad to see you. I was getting ready to run. I thought a mob of crazy white people were after me.”
What’s This Story Mean?
Two people in the exact same situation can interpret what’s happening in very different ways. It’s worth the time and effort to ask, “What do you think is happening here?”
Talk about It
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