Create Space in an Overwhelmed Life: A Recipe

About a month ago I was talking with a friend at a coffee shop on a Saturday morning. Dana is in her mid-30’s, and she seemed unusually low-energy. She admitted being tired and discouraged about her progress at work and, before long, she noticed she had the same issues at home too. “I can’t get ahead of it,” Dana said.

Naturally, I asked, “Ahead of what?”

“I can’t get ahead of the tasks that keep piling up, and the things I have to do, the people I need to contact, stuff like that. There just isn’t any progress in my job, and when I get home I’m too tired and crabby to get things done there either.”

We talked over coffee, and before I finished my 1st cup, Dana said what she really wanted was to be able to work on her pet project instead of the thousand things that weren’t that important to her. Too much paperwork, too many interruptions, not enough “quality time”. Sound familiar?

Of course, I got talking about closure and completion: What is the unfinished business you’re carrying around with you every day? What do you need to put in the past instead of keeping it in the present?

Halfway through my 2nd cup of coffee, we had made up a homework assignment for Dana to do by the following Friday:

  1. List 3 work tasks and 2 household tasks that you will Stop Doing – including having the conversations with the relevant people to let them know – in a respectful way – that you won’t be doing them anymore.
  2. List 3 email conversations you are going to Close Out – including making it clear to the other person (or group) that you have been able to talk – or work – with them about this subject in the past, and that it is now complete for you and wish them the best going forward.
  3. List 3 relationships that are sort of weighing on you and Clean Up something from the past – maybe something you haven’t asked or said to them – that is still hanging around and making things heavier than you’d like.

It was an interesting conversation. I never used this Stop Doing/Close Out/Clean Up recipe before, but it evolved as we saw the things that she was tired of dealing with or carrying along throughout her days and evenings.

We talked again this past weekend, and Dana reported her results. Here is her bottom line on the project:

  1. I never knew I could Stop Doing things just by having conversations and being a stand for my own time and energy. I’ve got a new habit here! No more Miss Nice, saying Yes to everything someone asks. This has changed my life.
  2. I did Close Out several conversations – more than three, but not all on email. I had one associate who was complaining to me about her marriage and I told her I didn’t want to talk about that with her anymore. This has been really useful in keeping my energy and sanity.
  3. The Clean Up assignment was hardest, because I hadn’t seen how much I was overlooking in my relationships. Now I’m more real with people about what matters to me, and better at listening to what matters to them.

Hats off to Dana for taking her “assignment” seriously. Maybe you can customize your own Stop Doing/Close Out/Clean Up recipe to take a load off yourself – I know I will. When overwhelmed or run down, it’s probably a good idea to lighten up. How: we can take just a few minutes to locate some of the baggage we’re carrying and schedule the conversations necessary to get rid of it.

The Problem with People: Hidden Agendas

You know those name-badges people wear at conferences? I’m thinking people should wear them to state clearly what they are – and are not –committed to in life. It would save so much wasted time and confusion.

  • Did you ever have a conversation with someone who said they wanted your help , only to discover that all they really wanted was someone to agree with what a jerk their mother-in-law (or that guy down the hall) really is? Badge: “JUST NOD YOUR HEAD AND LISTEN”.
  • Or how about being in a conversation to solve a problem, where you keep sharing your good ideas and the other person keeps saying “Mmm hmmm”, or “Maybe…” – and then later you realize they collected all your ideas and used them later, as if they’d thought of all those things themselves? Badge: “DEVOTED TO LOOKING GOOD”.
  • And have you ever worked hard to fix something or make it work better to help somebody out, and they didn’t even seem to care what you did? Badge: “YOU’RE HERE TO SERVE ME”.

Seriously, I got a call from a business manager – let’s call her Lindsey – who told me about how she worked to pull together information from 6 sales training programs that had been used in the past 4 years, and turned it all into one new training program, updated it with all the organization’s current information and ideas. It took several days to do the job, which meant she worked into the evenings to finish her regular work. But she was sure it would be appreciated, because her boss needed the program materials. He was expected to train the new sales team in the coming week, and he would not have known how to assemble something that good from the company’s program materials.

So he was delighted, right? Nope. “How do you know this is what I would want to use?” he asked Lindsey. “I was thinking we don’t need this kind of standard training thing, and I was just going to have a round-table discussion.” He did the round-table, and never said another word about it. Lindsey, of course, had to field all the complaints from sales team members: “We didn’t get trained in the methods we’re supposed to use for renewals of old systems or for selling the supplies for our new systems either,” they griped. “We got to talk about how we feel about sales.” Boss’ badge: “SELF-IMPORTANT ASS”.

The real problem is that we think everybody operates pretty much the way we do. If you’re a problem-solver, you think other people are too, and are sure they’ll be interested in that. If you’re focused on advancing your career, and one of those problem-solver people starts yammering about an idea they have to make something work better, you’ll try to be polite but wish they would pay more attention to office politics or following instructions.

The problem with people is they don’t wear their “agenda” on their lapel. So we have to figure it out ourselves, and sometimes we make mistakes that are costly. What to do? Listen carefully to learn what people care about, worry about, and what matters to them in their lives and their work. First, of course, you have set your own agenda aside – you know you have one, don’t you? – and listen well to what other people are really about. That way you’ll know how to best invest your time whenever you talk with them.

Do As I Say! (or, Why We Don’t Get What We Want)

Mostly, the people around you want to please you. OK, there are a few meanies who just want to give you problems and headaches, but I’m willing to bet that 99% of the people you know really want you to be satisfied. And they want you to be pleased with whatever they give you – whether it’s a product, a service, or simply a communication. The world is not out to make your life difficult. At least most of the time.

So why don’t they give you what you want? Three reasons: pick one.

  1. You didn’t ask. You said, “It would be nice to know what the committee decided”, instead of saying, “Would you check and see what the committee finally voted for?” Or you said, “I wish we had a better plan for getting this complicated job done”, then silently hoped someone would step up and draft a better plan for that job. NOTE: Hinting is not a reliable method for getting what you want.
  2. You weren’t specific. You said, “Please make a restaurant reservation for 7 PM this Friday at Hyde Park”, then were mad when you got there and found out the reservation was for two people instead of five people (even though you think “He should have known”). Or you said, “Please get me a list of all the properties associated with each of our customers”, and were disappointed when she brought you the customer property list on a paper Word document instead of emailing an Excel spreadsheet (even though you’re sure there is an Excel spreadsheet around somewhere). NOTE: Communicate the important details about what, exactly, you want.
  3. You told them what to DO, but not what to DELIVER. “Doing” is an activity. “Delivering” is the act of turning over something after that activity is complete. Not the same thing. You ask Jane to make a phone call and get some specific information on a recent new item in your industry. But… Did you also want her to let you know what she learned? Did you want that information before 5:00 today? Jane can do exactly what you asked her to do and still fail to deliver. NOTE: Delivery is what completes an activity, so spell it out.

Perhaps people actually DO do what we say – we just aren’t good at saying exactly what we want from them. Hinting, being vague, or defining things only in terms of tasks or activities without clarifying the delivery of results – that’s what costs extra time and goodwill in our communications. Each of those errors demands that we make another request, or fix the misunderstanding (wait for a table for 5), or go get the result ourselves instead of having it brought to us at the time we wanted it.

Conversations organize our lives and relationships. It’s worth the bother to give more thought to the specifics of our requests – and what we want delivered back to us – to make everybody happier. Including you.

Why We Don’t Put Deadlines into Our Requests  

I remember talking with a nutritionist many years ago, and she was advising me on how to place an order in a restaurant to get the meal I wanted. “You have to ask,” she insisted. “Ask them to put the dressing on the side so they don’t drown your salad. Ask them for fresh vegetables instead of their special potato-cheese-bacon side dish.”

“That would make me a picky eater,” I explained to her, actually feeling the embarrassment of a childhood moment when I was told that was a really bad thing to be. Now I’m an older lady, and quite able to fend for myself in a restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with asking, especially now that everybody does it: gluten free, sugar-free, fat-free.

I talked with some people yesterday in a really cool company near us. One person said she didn’t want to be so specific in requests – being very clear about what she wanted, or adding deadlines – because she didn’t want to be “pushy”. We can assume that she doesn’t always get what she wants, or get it on time.

I’m hoping she’ll start to practice making good requests. That self-consciousness about what “they” will think of us if we tell them exactly What we want, When we want it, and Why it matters to us – is understandable. But it’s also useful to see it from another perspective: when we give people clear direction, they have a chance to “win” with us. Plus, we might also be developing them to communicate more clearly with other people in their lives. You do know that people learn from you, right?

I remember the first time I asked for “dressing on the side” (in a restaurant that reliably drenched their salads). The waitress said, “Oh, thanks for reminding me. This is my third day here, and I keep forgetting to ask people about that. Also, do you want some bread? Some people do and some don’t.”

Go ahead, ask people for what you want. Not just the people who work for you, but everybody. Even people in other departments, or higher up in the hierarchy than you are. Ask! Use the 3 W’s: What, When, Why. Most people really do like you, and they want you to be pleased with them too.

Time Management – No Excuses

I just finished reading Brian Tracy’s “No Excuses” book about self-discipline in lots of areas of life. Actually I read it twice, marking the margins for points that applied to my current situation of Do-Due-Overwhelm, then going back to pick a place to start making changes. I liked one exercise in particular – “The Law of Three”.

The first instruction: Make a list of all the things you do in a week or a month – write everything, large and small.

Wow – it was way easier than I expected. I just took my calendar for a month and made a list of the number and type of appointments, lunch meetings, social occasions, and other things I’ve scheduled. Then I looked at my Do-Due List (actually lists: I confess to using post-its for added clutter), groaned a minute, and added those items to the list too.

It was a mess, so I started to clean it up. Some things were duplicates, just using different words. Some things were never going to get done until other things were finished, so I lumped those together into one group and sequenced them. Best of all was when I separated one item into two: my category of “Well-being appointments” included Pilates, yoga classes, haircuts, and facials. Hmmm. Maybe the workout items don’t really belong in the same category as beauty treatments?

I probably spent an hour scraping the barnacles off my “What I Do Every Month” list, then shifted over to scheduling tasks and playing around to see how they might fit into my life. Result: I’m not overwhelmed. I just needed to get clear on what matters to me, then figure out the best time to do those things in the course of a week or a month. This morning I went downstairs to spend some time on the treadmill (which beats walking in the snow, by the way). It’s the first time I’ve used that treadmill in over a year!

I never did get to the Rule of Three, where you pick the things that contribute 90% of value to you or your business. The setup was the value – seeing what I really do, and saying it more clearly changed my conversation about several things. Especially about workouts: they work to create energy, which you can’t really say for a haircut or facial.

Reading a self-help book now and then is a great way to get some new vocabulary and perspective on both daily humdrum and overwhelm. Changing your conversation also changes perspective, which changes circumstances and relationships. Oh the power of talk!

PS: If you want to read Brian Tracy’s book, you’d better hurry. It’s on the Sale shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Time to Talk? Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

The idea that time is “speeding up” is very popular, says the latest issue of The Economist – and they also say it’s very hard to prove. But the growth in computing power, along with management tools that increase efficiency by reducing delays in processes, have made it seem like time itself really is going faster.

Lonnie is a senior manager with a time complaint. He said, “I had a schedule that was out of control. I’ve asked my assistant for help, but she can’t seem to handle it. So I decided to be more efficient with my time.” Here’s what he had done by the time I met him, 3 months after he started practicing “efficiency”:

  • Tracked where he was spending his time: over 30% of his day was spent on communications by email, phone, and in meetings.
  • Identified the work he felt was really the most important, and that needed more attention: the most neglected high-value job was preparing product & program plans and proposals for his VPs, peers, and staff.
  • Practiced “efficiency” by scheduling his product development planning as the first job of the day, cutting down on his meeting attendance, and leaving the email to be handled after lunch.

This helped him meet some deadlines, especially for the VPs, but, he said, explaining why he needed help, “I still have much email, too many unnecessary appointments and meetings, and I’m interrupted all the time.”  I asked Lonnie about his assistant. Why wasn’t she able to filter the email and appointments and reduce his interruptions? Had he really made a good request?

“I told her I wanted help with my schedule problems,” he said. “But nothing changed.” Uh oh. He “wanted help”? We designed a real request, and he practiced saying it before he delivered it.

“Melissa, I request that tomorrow you start reviewing and screening my emails three times a day, eliminating all meetings on my schedule where I am not absolutely needed to attend, and preventing any phone or drop-by interruptions in my work between 8:00 and 10:15 AM. Is that something you can do?”

Lonnie made the request, and was surprised by Melissa’s response. “She gave me a big smile and told me she was glad to know specifically what would help me get hold of my schedule, and that of course she would start doing those things.”

Two weeks later, Lonnie was out from under the burden of calendar chaos, and had learned the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency: improving the process for getting things done; Effectiveness: getting the right jobs done to meet goals. He laughed at himself, saying, “Of course, if I had made an effective request to Melissa in the first place, I could have saved 3 months of being Efficiently Ineffective”.

No Closure, No Accomplishment

A normally upbeat and productive guy was suddenly downcast and discouraged yesterday morning. I went in to see Chuck and talk about progress on his most important project – implementing an employee development program – and he wasn’t even interested anymore. Wow.

“This project doesn’t matter,” he said. “I thought it would make a huge difference in the whole department, and get people working together in a new way, being more productive and satisfied. Nope. Nobody cares.”

That led us into talking about who he thinks should care about this, and how he knows they don’t. That’s when I found out about the department meeting two days ago. On Monday, two bosses in the organization – both VPs – had attended the department meeting in Chuck’s area. When Chuck presented an update on his Team Building project – progress, participation, and on-time project performance – all the statistics were looking good.

“But the Veeps didn’t ask anything about it, and didn’t even seem like they thought it was a good idea,” Chuck said. “My boss didn’t speak up for it either. I’m tired of busting my butt on things that don’t make any difference.”

I’ve been a management consultant my whole career. That means as soon as I’m done talking with Chuck, I can zip over to those two VPs and have a chat about this project and the importance of speaking up for it. So I did that. I saw Chuck later that afternoon, and he’d regained some energy.

“I got a call from one of those Veeps,” he told me. “She asked how long my project had been going on, and seemed surprised it was such a new idea and was already showing good results. Then she asked me to come and talk with her team at their next meeting, because they might want to do something like that in their division.”

His energy was coming back. All it took was for him to have a sense of the value of this thing, and when nobody bothered to have even a quick Debrief-and-Thanks conversation, the air went out of his enthusiasm. Closure conversations are the most necessary conversations in any relationship – at work or at home. Acknowledge the facts – that’s the debrief part. Appreciate the people – that’s the thanks part. And it can be useful to dust out any crumbs of discontent too, by adding the other 2 pieces: apologize for anything that’s been left swept under a rug, and update any old expectations from the past so they fit well with today’s reality.

Closure conversations can restore a sense of accomplishment and resuscitate a neglected project. Sometimes a little Thank You, laced with some appreciation of the facts in the matter, makes a big difference.

Conversation and the Ego-Magnet

Ever try talking to someone who brings everything you say back around to themselves? Here’s a clip from a conversation a friend reported to me last weekend:

Joan: I watched 3 reruns of The Mentalist on Friday night and learned more about how to observe and understand people than I ever thought possible. That guy is pretty interesting.

Keith: I try not to watch television – it’s not good for your brain. I’m pretty good at observing people already. My boss says I can size up a sales prospect better than anybody.

Then Keith held the stage for the next 3-5 minutes, cycling through a variety of personal opinions, self-praise, and topics that displayed his own superior knowledge and breadth of experience. Joan was in a shadow by the time Keith stopped to take a breath, and the conversation – if we can call it that – had traveled so far from where it had started that there was no hope of re-entry.

Joan concluded that she could not have a “grown-up conversation” with Keith, because, she said to me, “He is simply unable to take what is offered by another person and build on it in a way that others could both contribute and be contributed to by the dialogue.”

Sorry to say it, but she might be right. When one is looking for a conversation where mutual learning or interest or enjoyment are available, it doesn’t work to have one participant be a suction-tube, pulling everything in to him- or herself and simply sermonizing.

The only solution I’ve seen was when a Communications Professor demonstrated how to have an enjoyable conversation. She said, “It’s more about listening and asking questions than it is about talking.”

What we have called an Understanding Conversation is a dialogue in which both parties explore an idea – or any topic at all – and look at it from the perspectives of Who-Where-How or What-When-Why. Maybe that would work. What if Keith had said any one of these things?

  • Who is The Mentalist?
  • Where does he do most of his observing?
  • How did he learn to understand people?
  • What did you learn from him?
  • When is the best time to practice using what you learned?
  • Why are you home watching TV on a Friday night?

Perhaps the greatest gift we can provide in any conversation is just our own attentive listening and turning that toward an inquiry that elicits wider or deeper thought from others. Unless, of course, the other person is droning on and on in a self-referential promotion, trapped by their own magnetic ego. The solution to that may be to hum very softly to yourself until the sermon ends.

 

Back to School: Reduce Office Communication Problems

Here’s some feedback from people who just found out about solving the biggest issues in their office communication:

  • We took you up on your idea to find out about the communication issues underneath our department’s problems, and found that the category for “Poor Quality Work” was our biggest concern. We are putting your recommendations to work, reminding people about our department goals, talking to clarify the quality standards for what we want our products and documents to look like, and making better agreements for each assignment. After just 2 meetings where we added these conversations, our Quality issue is much reduced – so we’re going to tackle the 2nd-highest problem next!
  •  The boss thought our problems were caused by personality issues. But now we have proof that it’s time to upgrade communication. Thanks for just giving us just the group scores – we liked the seeing the totals and the averages on each of those 56 questions. It gave us individual confidentiality plus probably softened the Cranky Lady’s score too.
  • Wow – we didn’t know we had such a problem with “Lateness”! But we see it now – we didn’t have good deadlines for our assignments, and most of our projects went beyond the scheduled time and budget. We’ve been getting better at specifying due-dates for things instead of saying “ASAP” or “It’s a priority”. Thank you very much!

Our Workplace Communication Assessment for groups is available now – just go to the regular page where you can take the Workplace Assessment for yourself – https://usingthefourconversations.com/workplace-communication-assessment-2/ – and read the instructions. When you get to the “PS”, you’ll see that you can also arrange to have a profile done that summarizes responses from your whole group or department. Just click on that email and you’ll get the information on how to do it.

We’re betting you will appreciate getting your group involved in improving communication with just a few easy and simple steps to reduce recurring workplace problems. Much quicker than sending everyone back to school.

On Getting What You Want

The hardest thing about getting what you want is the problem of deciding what, exactly, you really do want. If the Lamp Genie offered you one wish, what would it be? Over 70% of people would ask for some time to think about it – which probably means they are living a pretty good life already. The almost-30% group would answer quickly, usually because they have some kind of emergency or are in dire need of something important (like food, shelter, and other basic resources).

But once you do know what you want, how do you get it? A friend recently told me this story as he drove off to a week-long getaway (he was talking to me on his car-phone):

“I wanted my girlfriend to support me in taking a solo summer trip to a quiet cabin by a lake. The place is a long day’s drive away from where we live, and I knew she would rather have me stay home with her. So I explained that I needed the “alone time” to clear my head and make some decisions about work, and that I would only be gone for a week and would bring back a nice surprise for her. Then I took her out to dinner at our favorite place. This softened her up and she helped me pack my stuff so I could leave early this morning. Now all I have to do is figure out what kind of “surprise” I need to bring her.”

This poor guy might need a few lessons in Straight Talk. He reminded me of a quote by Albert Camus: “Charm is a way of getting the answer ‘Yes’ without asking a clear question.” Wouldn’t it have been easier to just propose the idea (an Initiative conversation), discuss the ways it would alter their daily household routines (an Understanding conversation), then make a clear request (a Performance conversation)? Seriously, it’s not hard to say, “Would you please support me in taking a 1-week trip to the cabin so I can have some quiet time alone?”

But charm has its advantages, being softer-edged and less confrontational. It got him the answer he wanted. Now all he needs is a brainstorm idea for the gift he promised in order to close the deal when he gets home. Without that, he could join the 30% who need to put out a fire in their life.