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by renita kalhorn

I was out with two friends, one a Parisian and the other a Brit who was fluent in French. The Parisian, a former dancer, was telling us (in French) about how she had had memory slips in performing which she was never really able to “surmonter.”

“How do you say surmonter in English?” she asked innocently, not realizing she was sparking an invisible battle of survival. “Overcome,” said the Brit. “Get over,” I said.

“No,” he said, “overcome is the right word,” as if there were no room for debate.

I didn’t disagree, but as someone who has experience with memory slips, “get over” is how I would have put it. I noticed I was triggered by his assertion, but didn’t think it was worth debating.

Except, after my friend finished her story, he brought it up again, launching into a mini-lecture why overcome was a better translation. “Get over is something you do in a break up,” he said.

Now, he didn’t actually say “I’m right and you’re wrong,” but since I’m someone who cares about the precision of words, he might as well have.

Notice, this was a casual dinner conversation with a friend and an acquaintance. The stakes couldn’t have been lower — and yet, I found myself feeling defensive and critical of him.

This exact same dynamic is happening all day, everyday in workplaces around the globe where important decisions are being made and there are budgets, careers and reputations at stake.

Focused on survival, our primitive brain is constantly gauging our relative status in the group. Being wrong translates into lower status and triggers the “fight, flight (or freeze, in my case)”  reaction.

That’s why, no matter what we’re talking about — there are brilliant PhDs arguing over expense reports — our default priority is making sure we’re “right.”

That’s why one of the most inflammatory things you can say to someone is “you’re wrong” (or “you don’t get it” or “what are you talking about?”). You might as well punch them in the face.

Here’s the thing: When we’re focused on not being wrong (i.e. survival), we can’t create connection. We can’t build trust. Which means we lose our ability to influence. If this dinner scenario had been in a professional context and the Brit came to me asking a favor, my primal response would have been not to help (overcome that, baby!).

But when we care more about connection than being right, we acknowledge there are other perspectives: “Here’s where I’m coming from, I’d like to better understand your point of view.”

We take responsibility for someone’s lack of understanding: “Maybe I’m not being clear, let me try again.”

So it’s up to you. Would you rather be right or influential?

what’s your point?

May 10, 2019

by renita kalhorn

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If you’re talking and someone (me, for example) interrupts you to ask this, it may feel jarring and rude, but it’s actually a good sign. It means someone is still paying attention and they actually want to know what you’re trying to say.

Because most people will just tune out. Studies by the Brief Lab found that nearly 75% of professionals check out of presentations within the first 60 seconds, stop reading an email after 30 seconds and stop listening to colleagues after 15 seconds – 15 seconds!! — all because they didn’t get to the point quickly enough.

And if people tune out when you’re speaking, well, there goes your chance to influence them.

If you want to have powerful influence, you don’t have the luxury of rambling, repeating yourself or thinking out loud: “Was it Tuesday morning? No, wait, it was Wednesday.” Does it matter!?

Here are two reasons why people don’t get to the point.

One, they don’t know what their point is. They don’t take time to reflect on what happens in their world and what it means to them. When they speak, they don’t ask themselves: “What is it that I want to say?” They don’t “start with the end in mind,” as Stephen Covey advises. Instead, they over-explain and expect others to sift through the extraneous detail to figure out what’s important.

Sometimes, after a client has rambled on for 10 minutes, I’ll say, “Okay, explain the same situation again in less than a minute” and, now that they’ve gotten all their thoughts out of their head, they’re able to get to the point more succinctly. Most people won’t give you that second chance though. (Remember, 15 seconds.)

Two, they’re too self-oriented. I don’t mean in a narcissistic way: we’re all focused on ourselves, that’s normal. But a conversation is not just about you and what others think of you. It’s about connecting. So to influence others — to get them to pay attention, do what you want them to, make a decision — you need to 1) focus on communicating facts, not your emotional experience; and 2) curate what you say through the filter of “How can I make this relevant to this person?”

In other words, you adopt more of an ‘other-orientation’ and ask: “What does this person care about? What’s important to them?”

When a surgeon speaks with you about your upcoming operation, she doesn’t tell you about this new scalpel she’s going to use and that she’s going to start with a paramedic incision. She doesn’t mention that she’s concerned about potential complications, especially after what happened to her last week (“just what I need, another malpractice suit”). No, she tells you what the recovery process will look like, how noticeable the scar will be, when you’ll be able to work out again — you know, what you care about.

When people sense that you care about what they care about, that’s when you’ll keep their attention.

by renita kalhorn

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“I am a victim of introspection” ~Sylvia Plath

Say you’re on a cross-country road trip, from New York to California, for example. You program your destination in the GPS and then, at some point, you realize you’ve taken a wrong turn and are now going in the wrong direction.

The GPS doesn’t say, “Well, that was stupid. Why did you do that? Why can’t you follow simple instructions? You got lost last week too. And two years ago, when you were going to that client offsite. Why do you always screw up?”

No, the GPS simply says, “recalculating,” and figures out what you have to do to get back to the right route.

“Okay, Renita,” you’re thinking. “That’s a cute analogy but my life is a little more complex than a road trip. Shouldn’t I be reflecting on why I am the way I am? Why I feel and do certain things?”

The short answer is: yes, reflection and introspection are good. It’s just that most people aren’t doing it right.Our brain is like an obedient search engine: it will look for the answers to questions we ask. And too often, when we introspect, our ego mind asks the wrong questions: “Why did this happen to me?” “Why doesn’t anything ever go right?”

Here’s the thing: Research has shown that we simply don’t have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motivations we’re searching for. But ego is convinced if we just keep asking we can figure it out, and we end up inventing answers that feel true — “I’m just not good at managing people” — but are actually irrational and full of biases.

The key lies in changing just one word.

Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich and her research team found that highly self-aware people do introspection differently: In reviewing their interview transcripts, they found the word “why” appeared less than 150 times while the word “what” appeared more than 1,000 times.

Instead of “Why do I feel so awful?”, self-aware people ask “What are the situations that make me feel awful, and what do they have in common?”

Instead of responding to negative feedback with “Why did you say this about me?” they ask “What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?”

Instead of self-flagellating and asking “Why wasn’t I able to turn things around?” when their business fails, they ask “What do I need to do to move forward in a way that minimizes the impact to our customers and employees?”

“Why” takes us into the past, swimming in murky emotional waters. “What” keeps us focused on the future and productive actions we can take going forward.

So go ahead, send your brain on that search. Just ask what, not why.

by jennifer bezoza

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Recently, I have been thinking about the delicate balance that leaders need to weigh in being both authentic to their voice and disposition, while also cognizant about what is useful and motivating to share with their team members.   It’s easy to understand at an intellectual level that leaders’ words and behaviors paint a huge horizon (if positive) or alternatively, a dark shadow (when negative).  Gallup conducted open-ended research from 10,000 people about what we most value from our leaders, and they discovered that people most value leaders for their ability to convey hope, stability, trust and compassion.  We want our leaders to paint a brighter tomorrow and give us hope that things will be better, that we will reach our goals and reach our potential.  We want leaders to cheer us and our organizations to the finish line.

But let’s be real. We’re all human beings who experience a range of emotions on a daily, if not hourly basis.  It is hard for leaders to maintain an inspiring and calm demeanor for colleagues and direct reports in the face of complex business challenges, big workloads, high stress, and typical organizational and business constraints. It actually seems more unnatural for leaders to always feel upbeat and optimistic. Yet that’s generally what we want and need from leaders.  So how can leaders walk that tight rope of real while also inspiring?   Read below about two different client case studies that explore this delicate “tightrope” of leadership.

I recently completed an engagement with a leader who initially felt that “editing” herself from justified emotional outbursts, loose talking at the water cooler or frank disagreement with leadership decisions was akin to being fake and in conflict with who she was.

It took time and also substantive qualitative data from the 360 review to see how “letting it all hang out” was hurting her credibility, demotivating her employees and also making her desired promotion out of reach. On a positive note, she also saw that her words and behaviors had a huge impact on others; she grew in her desire to be an inspiring leader to others, and wanted to use her voice in positive ways.   This fundamental shift to focusing more on positively developing and inspiring others and less on speaking candidly at any moment was a game changer.

She was then able to slow herself down and reflect on her intentions before speaking, whether in meetings with senior leaders, on a conference call or merely reading her emails in an open workspace.  She now would ask herself the following questions: Will this be useful and productive? Or just entertaining, at the expense of other more substantive business and professional conversations and comments?

Since the goal for her was to be an inspiring manager and leader, we needed to translate that to her behavior in every day moments and conversations. Holding her tongue from a dramatic expletive became easier when it conflicted with her genuine desire to positively inspire others, even if that outburst was completely justified and a form of comic relief at times.

As is natural with behavior change, it doesn’t happen over night and there are inherent relapse moments and errors; the distinction of change is recognizing the lapse, and getting back on track with the goal.  Often, I ask clients to reflect on how they will confront this type of situation going forward to reinforce the desired change.

For another client, leading an early start up organization, the challenge was not regulating his emotions and negative comments, but rather how much information to share with junior team members early on in a decision process.  As a collaborative, inclusive leader of a lean team, his initial instinct was to share preliminary thinking on various issues, with hopes of gaining further clarity.  What he quickly realized, however, was this type of openness created anxiety for team members and seemingly reduced his credibility.

To help him to avoid this pattern of “processing out loud,” and appearing uncertain, he needed alternative approaches for brainstorming and thinking throughout the day.  We explored how he had generated his best thinking on decisions in the past, which led him back to an old-fashioned notebook and pen for preliminary processing and playing with ideas.  Not only did this introverted leader appreciate the quiet space for thinking privately, but also felt a lot better about showing up to the team with more developed options and thinking.

At the end of the day, leaders are imperfect humans just doing the best they can in every moment.  Yet with clear intention and practice, leaders choose to bring their best selves so that others can do the same.  In my mind, this does not conflict with authenticity or realism.  The art of leadership is how to interweave the positive vision and encouragement with the dose of reality and candor.

by renita kalhorn

Recently, I went to a chiropractor here in Paris to treat the pain in my lower back. When speaking in English, I have a wide range of vocabulary to describe pain — throbbing, aching, burning, shooting, tender, sore, tingling. In French, however, all I could say was “it hurts.” If it had been a more serious condition requiring surgery, my inability to describe more precisely what I was feeling could have been a real hindrance to getting the best treatment.

It turns out the same is true with our emotional vocabulary. If we want to master our emotions, we have to first be able to understand them and express how we feel to others. In its research of 1M+ people, however, TalentSmart found that only 36% could accurately identify their emotions in the moment. This is problematic because unlabeled emotions often go misunderstood, which leads to drama, irrational choices and counterproductive actions.

There are six basic emotions — fear, anger, disgust, surprise, happy, sad — but they don’t begin to cover the nuance of feeling we can experience in a given situation. If the COO corrected you in front of the team, you would probably speak to her very differently if you knew you were more embarrassed than furious.

So the ability to pinpoint what we’re feeling accomplishes at least three things:

  • It gives us a sense of control and helps us find better solutions. 

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  • It helps us communicate better.

In my case, the subtle nuance between my “mad face” and “grumpy face” can be hard to detect. But if I say, “Don’t mind me, I’m feeling out of sorts today,” it creates a kind of emotional buffer, saves others the mental energy of wondering if they’ve done something to offend and avoids an unintentional flare-up.

  • It helps us feel empathy and bond with others.

My friend was having a rough day, and seemed agitated. “Sounds like you’re really getting pummeled,” I said using a word that I thought might conjure up a lighter image and take some of the edge off. “Yes!” she said. “That’s exactly how it feels,” and we shared a chuckle.

Does your vocabulary revolve around the usual suspects — mad, sad, bad, good, fine, upset, anxious, happy, stressed or tired? Pick your “favourite” and find a juicy alternative in this word wheel with almost 100 choices:

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by renita kalhorn

How do I know if it will work out? In working with 1,000+ clients over the past 10 years, I’ve heard countless variations on this question.

How do I know …

… if I should start my own company.
… if I should take the new role.
… if I should reach out to that person I admire.
… if the guy/girl will stick around.
… if people will read what I write.

As a coach, my job isn’t to answer your questions, it’s to help you upgrade their quality. And any question that starts with some version of “How do I know if…” is not a high quality question.

Because that’s your primitive brain talking, and its job is not to look for opportunities for you to have an exciting, fulfilling life. It wants you to be SAFE, and it’s looking for guarantees: “Show me evidence this is going to work out and then I’ll do it.”

When we let our primitive brain run our lives, we get so fixated on SURVIVAL that we don’t give ourselves a chance to truly LIVE.

And most of the opportunities that make life interesting come out of the unknown and unexpected:

The musician who founded a tech startup when his iPhone died and he lost hundreds of valuable contacts (the Amos Winbush story).
The Japanese salaryman who invited the daughter of his American colleague to live with his family (my story).
The tongue-in-cheek article meant to be an inside joke for other chefs that gets published in The New Yorker (the Anthony Bourdain story).

The world is only going to get more uncertain and unpredictable. Instead of trying to control what happens, you would be better off deciding what you want to experience — and then developing capabilities that would support your evolution towards it.

So, instead of trying to figure out what to do to avoid disappointment and mistakes, what if you learned to bounce back quicker.

Instead of being afraid to make the wrong decision and getting caught up in analysis paralysis, what if you learned to make the best decision you can with the information you have —  and then commit to making it the right one.

Instead of trying to control external circumstances, what if you became more mentally agile and resourceful.

Because these skills — resilience, conviction, adaptability — are the ultimate survival kit. With them, you’ll create a sense of safety and confidence no matter what happens. And that will fuel your ability to spot and take advantage of the next opportunity.

With this, as we are coming to an end of 2018, we hope to have inspired you to make 2019 count, to get closer to living the life you want to be living.

Check out some of our previous posts on how to develop resilience and make better decisions:

Resilience as the new happiness

Bouncing back after Sandy – a matter of resilience

The body scan may build your resilience for change

Slow down and speed up your resilience to stress

Are you agile enough to lead the cahnge you want to see?

How to make good decisions


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persuasive or manipulative?

November 1, 2018

by anne lueneburger


Psychiatrist Dr. Raj Persaud shares some insights on how to seduce others. And while our work life is in many ways separate from our dating life, both share our need to connect with others.

Most of Persauds’ suggestions may not be ground breaking, such as the necessity of meeting another persons’ wants in order to persuade them into our camp. One thought was noteworthy, however: to influence others, in exchanges it serves us to strategically disagree with everything the other party says for the first half of the time and then to switch to agreeing for the second half of the conversation. What we know from social psychology research, this approach flatters as it gives the recipient the impression that they ‘turned us around’ due to their own powers of seduction. It provides the illusion of having an impact, a very seductive thought.

Is this playing a game, is it manipulative, even Machiavellian? Persaud argues that life itself is a seduction and that if we do not play the game we risk running into trouble.



by anne lueneburger

Lumbergh’s a purveyor of the blandest cruelty possible. He is despicable, smug and downright unpleasant.  Movies are full of Lumberghs aka arseholes (onward referred to as AH). Unfortunately, AHs are ever present in reality. They have a clear lack of respect for boundaries. They intimidate and harm others, repeatedly over time. AHs often feel threatened by others, they might feel weak and insecure. Sometimes they desire to get a competitive edge over so-perceived limited resources. Often a more powerful individual attacks a less powerful one.

Bullying is a well-known term to describe those types of behaviors. Bullying is bad for everyone involved. In fact, already looking at youth, both bullies and victims of bullying have a raised incidence of suicide attempts. Both perpetrator and victim are at particular risk of psychological distress: anxiety, low self-esteem and depression.

Toxic physical stress literally ‘gets under the skin’ as it raises inflammation levels. It is the number one cause of job absenteeism. The exception are psychopaths who show up as bullies – they will not experience any stress but derive pleasure from inflicting pain on others. About a quarter of all bullying in organizations can be traced back to corporate psychopaths.

Nobody likes an AH, so why do they survive in organizations? According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 70 percent of today’s workforce has been exposed to bullying. And why do we enable or even get a kick out of AHs? After all, we could be the next victim. Social media makes it even easier to attack someone without a ‘real trace of blood’. It can be fairly easy to be a bully when you can hide behind a screen.

So how can you deal if you have an AH in your ranks? Given this is such a common source of stress, Stanford’s Richard Sutton has launched a bestseller with his book “The Asshole Survival Guide”. It is an interesting read and offers some good tips on how to manage this dilemma. However, while quite insightful, it is not a silver bullet when it comes to dealing with AHs. Toxic situations are often very unique to the individual and their context. This in turn will determine what strategies and tactics are most effective.

Here some thoughts for you to consider:

Step 1: Self-awareness first.

We often have knee-jerk reactions when we suspect someone to be an AH. But before we react, we have to ask ourselves the following mortifying question: who is really the AH here? It may not be the other party after all. Or it may be the two of you. Research tells us that we tend to inflate our own abilities and downplay our faults. We are quick to label others as the problem. In challenging situations, start with asking questions, be curious, and understand more of the context and what drives another’s behavior. Consider this: “Be slow to label others as assholes, be quick to label yourself as one.”

Step 2: Remain curious.

Let’s assume your assessment confirms that you are not at fault for the current dilemma. What now? Whether you should act, according to Professor Sutton, depends on your answer to the following questions:

  • How long does the bullying last?
  • Is he/she a temporary or a permanent AH?
  • How much power do they have?
  • Is it one or are there many?
  • How much are you suffering?

If the dilemma seems to last for a while, you are looking at a permanent AH, possibly with power, and he/she is causing you significant stress, there are some ‘flight, freeze or fight’ tactics that you might find useful.

And as you contemplate your next step, important is to target the AH, not the team or organization as a whole. Radical and general actions such as withdrawing from work altogether, reducing your visibility or slacking off in your deliverables is bound to result in self-sabotage and play into the hands of the toxic individual.

Step 3: Act.

Option ‘Flight’: Create distance.

*Minimize time with problem people. Keep interactions as short as possible, slow down the rhythm of interactions.

*Stick to the facts, keep it logical. Communication should be fact based. Trying to connect or even reason with toxic people has a high chance that it will derail.

*Deflect, focus on them in conversations. Change the topic if they try to put the attention on you. This way you avoid being the target for any manipulative tactics.

*Distance yourself physically. If you can, get 150 feet (45m) away from them. It is almost like you are in another country.  If toxic people are within 25 feet or less, the odds go up that you will also become toxic and are more likely to get fired.

*Create a distraction. Plan the interaction around a recreational activity, one that keeps them busy and occupied.

Option ‘Freeze’: Protect yourself emotionally.

*Find ways to emotionally distance yourself.  If it is someone you feel close to, resist the temptation to save that person. Consider looking at this from an angle of the future, such as “how will I feel about this 10 minutes/10 months/10 years from now”?

*Get support. Collude with others, possibly with someone who has previously been the victim of the toxic individual. Realize that you are not alone, you can turn to peers, family and friends for support.  If there is no one in that very moment, think about what you would tell your best friend, what advice you would give. Then take this advice and use it on yourself.

*Learn how to reframe the situation, a technique often used in cognitive behavioral therapy. The more you can change the definition of the situation, depersonalize it (“he is the problem, not me”), the less will it upset you.

*Adopt a learner mindset: what can I learn about this? Especially if you are someone who needs to understand something to process it, this tactic can be very useful. Google toxic behaviors you are exposed to (i.e. stonewalling, contempt) and explore publicly available advice on how to deal with it.

*As they go low, go high. See if you can find sympathy for the devil. Try to see them for what they really are: weak, insecure, often victims themselves.

Option ‘Fight’: Take back control.

If the AH is Machiavellian, often the best approach is to stand up, step up and speak up.

*Use the ‘velvet hammer’ and address them in a direct but respectful fashion. It is a thin line between assertiveness and aggression, but staying respectful works like a charm.

*Connect with your values, to what matters to you. Setting boundaries involves tolerating the uncomfortable feelings that often accompanies that. You may encounter anger, disappointment or retaliation from the other party. Not surprisingly, it can be scary to speak up. Reminding ourselves of our purpose, of our own value or that for what we stand for strengthens backbone.  You might even create your own mantra around this such as “I am enough” or “People first”.

*Document everything. While there are some jurisdictions where this is illegal, many do allow for this option. Record them, keep records of emails, phone calls etc. It may be very useful, should the dispute become elevated.

*Love bomb them. Turn haters into friends. I have a colleague who is an absolute pro when it comes to turning skeptic clients into devoted fans. One of her techniques is to shower them with attention and to be fully tuned into their needs.

*Have them accept your favors or accept their favors, assuming it feels ethical. Psychologically, due the concept of cognitive dissonance, we are programmed to perceive people who we exchange favors with as being in ‘our camp’.

*Use humor. Humor reduces social distance between people, it makes us seem more approachable, supportive and reduces stress. If you are witty, why not use that to your advantage? Make them laugh. When Abe Lincoln was aggressed by a bully who accused him of being ‘two-faced’, his response was “If I had two faces, do you really think I would chose wearing this one?”

Final food for thought

I don’t believe, however, that the burden of stopping an AH or bully should be the burden of the victim alone. It is not enough to ask the bullied person to step up and be courageous. All of us need to take responsibility. We need to build powerful coalitions around a victim to make progress. Leaders in organizations need to promote and reinforce a ‘no asshole rule’.  There needs to be awareness, dialog and support as well as accountability.

In this context I am also thinking of those of us who are parents/uncles/grandmothers/family friends, responsible for raising the future generation. A 2012 research study by the Journal of Cybertherapy and Rehabilitation showed that both a lackadaisical (permissive, lack of boundaries) as well as an authoritarian (harsh, punitive) parenting style breed future bullies. While the two styles are seemingly on opposite spectrums, both lack a respect for rules and for the rights of others, essentially what characterizes AH behavior.

So as grown ups, either directly or indirectly, modeling a facilitative, warm and responsive style and providing appropriate levels of autonomy, is where we need to start. If you do not wish to raise a bully, don’t bully your own kids.