The Greatest Gift You Can Give

Leading up to the holidays I spent so much time determining the best gifts to give family members.  Will she like a scarf or new sweater, how about a video game or lawn darts?  Let’s flip this thinking upside down.  Instead of a thing, how about giving the nontangible gift of being present and listening?

In my frenetic pace of working mom, wife, school board member, etc. I find it hard to make time for just being present with those I care about at home and at the office.  When I slow down and just settle in to being available and focus on listening to what others care about, I am rewarded with enriched connections.  It feels good.

A prerequisite to listening is an authentic intention to care for and desire to understand another.  Listening for information is common, but when you pay attention to the emotions involved and possibly what is not being said, we listen at a much deeper level.

The first, and most difficult step to listening, is to quiet your mind.  Listening requires us to focus on what is being said.  It does not involve preparing our rebuttal.  Because the mind works faster than words can be formed and spoken, our minds race ahead.  We draw conclusions, finish sentences, or worse drift off to think about something totally unrelated to what they are saying.  I find taking a deep breath and consciously suspending judgement helps me to quiet my mind.

I believe that a deep human need is to be heard, and to believe we have value in the world.  Truly being present and listening to another is a gift that costs nothing to give and will be appreciated at a deep level.



Human Nature Avoids Hard Conversations

Have something hard to say, but are afraid you’ll upset someone?  You are not alone.  I hear this concern all the time.  Avoiding difficult conversations is almost human nature.

The people you work with want to work with other human beings. And part of being human is expressing how you feel.  That takes courage and authenticity.

Saying how you feel and being willing to be vulnerable are signs of strength. Vulnerability and authenticity help other people see you as human, and make people feel closer to you.  People want to work with other human beings, not people devoid of emotion who never show their cards.

If you’re nervous, say you’re nervous. If you’re afraid you’ll negatively impact your relationship by speaking up, say so. If you’re not sure it’s your place to raise an issue, say that. You won’t lose anything by stating your concerns. You only stand to gain.

Showing that you care is the first step.  Expressing your interest in helping the company or individual succeed is a great place to start.

Consider starting difficult conversations like this:

Option one: “I’m not sure it’s my place to talk about our client satisfaction survey results, but I care about our reputation and have a few thoughts. Is it ok if I talk about them with you?”

Option two: “I’ve got some input for you that I’ve been hesitant to share, but I think the information could be helpful to you. I care about you and your career, and I want you to be successful. Is it ok if I share my thoughts?”

Option three: “I’ve got a few things to talk with you about, but haven’t brought them up because I’m a bit concerned about how you’ll react. Is it ok if I share them with you? I’m saying these things because I care about our team, and I have some ideas we can try, for better results.”

You probably noticed that in the examples above, I stated that I was concerned about speaking up, asked for permission to do so, and stated the reason I wanted to provide input. Your motive for having difficult conversations is very important. When people trust your motives, and believe that you have their best interests at heart, they will listen.

Don’t be afraid to say how you feel. If you’re afraid to speak up, saying so won’t reduce your credibility, it will likely increase it. State your concerns, explain yourself, and ask for permission to give feedback. Doing those three things will help any message be well received and is likely to make it easier for you to say what you want to say.



Stop the Bleeding of Employee Turnover

Do you ever wonder how many of your employees would consider leaving their job if presented with other opportunities? It could be an unsettling number that emphasizes the struggle to keep top talent.  Turnover is a prevalent issue businesses have to address.

So, who’s responsible for employee turnover?

While there are a wide variety of reasons an employee will decide to leave a company, it’s likely the root of the problem stems from a few key sources.

The company culture overall

Executives at Microsoft have estimated that of the company’s $450 billion market capitalization value, $350 billion is attributed to the stuff in their people’s heads. Employees are a company’s greatest asset – no matter how large or small. So, to keep top talent from seeking greener pastures, it’s vitally important to ensure a strong culture.

Company culture refers to a range of factors that differentiate one company from another, like vision, core values backed up by decisions and behaviors, style of office, employee development practices, and leadership styles. Businesses that invest in developing a strong and positive culture have less problems with turnover, and often attract the best talent from other companies.

Exit interviews are one effective method to help stop turnover before it spreads through your company. Take time to talk with exiting employees about the factors that motivated their decision to leave. They’ll be more likely to provide honest feedback on the way out and may be able to shed some light on problem areas that you will be able to address before you lose anyone else.


According to a Gallup poll, only 22% of workers leave a job because of pay and benefits alone. The number one reason an employee will seek new opportunities is leadership. An employee’s relationship with his or her supervisor is one of the most critical factors in creating a work environment that encourages productivity and dedication to a company and its mission. Without a strong sense of mutual respect, the people you lead will be looking for a way out.

Stop the bleeding

If left unchecked, the bleeding of employee turnover can bring a company’s forward momentum to a screeching halt. Preemptive action is the best defense, and leaders who can recognize the early signs of turnover stand the best chance of not only stopping it, but also preventing it in the future.


Negative Feedback – Disaster or Opportunity?

My co-worker recently said to me, “Giving negative feedback is a disaster, it’s just not possible.”  The frustration in her voice was clear. She was really concerned about damaging her relationships by being too direct.  Hurting someone’s feelings is usually what keeps us from making suggestions for improvement.

On the other hand, if we don’t help people see where they could improve, they can’t get better and neither can your team or organization.  While people may not want to hear negative feedback, most people do want to know what they can do to improve their performance and get ahead.  If your choices are to give negative feedback and evoke defensiveness, or say nothing and put up with whatever isn’t working, I would prefer that you give the feedback, believing that it empowers growth and improvement.  The question is how to do it effectively?

I recommend starting by setting expectations that you will give, and want to receive, balanced (positive and negative) feedback regularly.  Simply say, “I realize we don’t give each other a lot of feedback, but it is a great way to help each other improve.  I would like to add it to our weekly check-ins.  Are you up for that?”

Be sure to give plenty of positive feedback so people know they are appreciated and aren’t solely focused on the negative feedback they receive.  It is also important that you are receptive to feedback.  When you react positively to their feedback, you earn the right to give feedback.  When they realize that there are no negative consequences to receiving suggestions for improvement, they will slowly come to accept your comments.

Lastly, remember how hard it is to hear negative feedback.  People tend to question their skills, pull back emotionally, and play it safe.  Tread lightly and pick your battles.  Only address what you really need to and say things kindly remembering that everyone is sensitive.

Giving feedback does not have to be a disaster.  It really is an opportunity to support another person and strengthen a relationship when you come from a place of care and support.


What’s In Your Left Hand Column?

Every conversation has two sides; what is said and what is thought but not said.  What is thought and felt but not said is described by Peter Senge as the “left hand column (LHC)” versus what is actually said as the “right hand column.”  If we always said what we are thinking, we would never get anything done.  If we never said what we are thinking we would just do what we are told.  The challenge is to determine what is of value from our LHC and produce a conversation that advances the task, the relationship, and ourselves.

During challenging conversations, you can consider what is in your LHC to be like toxic waste.  If you bury it, the consequences are likely to be stress and anxiety leading to physical manifestations such as high blood pressure, ulcer, heart attack, not to mention being out of integrity with yourself.  If you dump that toxic LHC waste, you run the risk of damaging the relationship and feeling guilty later.  If burying the toxic waste pollutes yourself and dumping it pollutes the relationship, we must find a way to process the waste as we would process crude oil into gasoline.

You can’t choose the thoughts that show up in your LHC, but you can choose how you respond to them.  Taking responsibility, avoiding unfair and untested conclusions, productive advocacy and inquiry all come into play.  Often this seems overwhelming.  Here is a simple model that I think is very effective for difficult conversations.

  1. Set the context – Be sure to say what is important to you.  For example, “What I care about is our team goal.  I am concerned that we are losing trust with the client because our team cannot agree on how to handle this.”
  2. Check for alignment – Does the other person care about the same thing?
  3. Share content – Advocate for your position and ask others where they stand.
  4. Come to resolution

Having difficult and important conversations successfully is a life-long practice which takes just that, practice.  I find that it is so valuable to talk through a difficult conversation before I have it.  When I spend a few minutes thinking or talking through what I want to say, I am always glad I did.  We spend so much time planning our work and completing tasks.  How much time do you put into your communication?  It’s so much better to leave a conversation feeling productive and whole rather than frustrated and disconnected.  Take the time to give it your best.






Can we change the world through effective communication?

I think we could change the world if we could just truly listen to each other and strive to understand where others are coming from.

There are three key elements to a successful conversation.  The first two are probably familiar, advocacy and inquiry, but the third element might be a bit unfamiliar; checking for understanding.  It makes total sense that you would explain your position, inquire as to someone else’s, and then to check to make sure you understood their position and they yours.  Brilliant!  How often do we actually do that?  I know I need to do it a lot more.  Such a simple thing to do which can eliminate so many misunderstandings.

Now that I have my own “Ah ha” moment out of the way.  Let’s look at the three elements staring with advocacy.

Effective advocacy is expressing your specific position or concern in a succinct manner.  Include facts to explain what leads you to take a particular position.  Avoid getting into a long story that “justifies” what you think or feel.  Your experience is completely valid the way it is.  Be sure to make a clear proposal for action and not just talk about your concerns.  Your advocacy is the fuel for others to align with you or identify where they disagree.  End your advocacy with an invitation to respond such as… “Does that makes sense?”….or “How does that sound to you?”…  Often people will ignore what you say and proceed to tell you what they think, without addressing what you have just said.

Effective inquiry means asking questions from a position of curiosity to understand the roots of another person’s concerns, position, or opinion.  It demonstrates to another person that they are being heard by you.  This builds trust in a relationship.  It also identifies assumptions you may have made that are not accurate.  Which leads us to the critical nature of checking for understanding.

It’s useful to check to see if you really understood what they said.  Distill and synthesize what you heard.  They have the opportunity to correct your understanding and can help build trust in your relationship as well as minimize miscommunication errors.

Here are the three elements of a great conversation again:

1 – Advocate

2 – Inquire

3 – Check for understanding

Let’s change the world by starting with effective communication ourselves.


“It is error only, and not truth, which shrinks from inquiry.”  – Thomas Paine


Emotions Make Us Human

Emotions are part of being human and, as a result, part of how we work. In businesses where expectations often run high and resources low, emotional outbursts are common.

If you’re a manager, there’s the additional pressure to set the tone by appearing in control while managing your team. But that is a tall order. The complexities of business make an emotion-free workplace unrealistic, so managers are better served to learn to handle it appropriately versus trying to banish it from the office altogether.

The unflappable manager is a fallacy. The demands of running a business – constant time crunch for strategic planning, performance reviews, the anxiety of making payroll, etc., can often be overwhelming. As a manager, there’s also added pressure to maintain a management style that keeps a lid on emotions. Sometimes it feels like we need body armor to make it through the day.

Managers who are honest about their struggles will earn employee loyalty and trust. If your staff is not aware of the pressure you are under, they cannot work to help you and the team in a way that is meaningful. When you keep everything in until the 11th hour then explode, you damage your credibility and your relationships.

Managing emotions in the workplace starts well before the geyser erupts. Look for what is triggering an employee’s emotional behavior in the first place. This positions you to deal with issues at their root level. The goal isn’t to pretend the emotions aren’t there, but to step in and help the employee gain composure.

We are all human and have emotions that are hard to handle at times. Applying some empathy and possibly the space to regain composure is a compassionate approach.

Did you know that we are physiologically wired for tears? I recently learned that women have six times the amount of prolactin (the hormone that controls tears) than men and our tear ducts are significantly larger. Tears communicate that something in our lives is out of kilter right now.  We are overworked, we feel angry, or we are frustrated. Rather than seeing tears as a sign of weakness, they signify that there is an underlying need that should be addressed.

Try looking for the same emotional triggers in yourself that you do in others. When you get into a position of feeling overwhelmed, if you can be self-aware enough to know the things that put you in that vulnerable state, you can be in a better place to manage it. That ability will help you notice and assist others to manage their emotions.

When it comes to emotion in the workplace, managers have a complex challenge where the ripple effect of any emotional situation can run deep. Great managers can set themselves apart by approaching emotions as part of the human condition that shows our vulnerability and our passion for a job well done.


Why So Opinionated?

What is one thing we do all the time? No, I am not referring to breathing or sitting, but to making assessments of the world around us.  Right now, you may be thinking, this is going to be boring, or the opening question is good.  Those are opinions or assessments.

Making assessments is crucial to our performance in many areas including building competence for ourselves and our team‑mates. Too often, though, I find that people make assessments very casually, with little commitment to action or to the people involved. People also tend to hear assessments as if they were permanent truths about a person’s character. When they listen to a negative assessment in this way, people often feel defensive, guilty or upset. They are cut off from what they might learn if they could listen more openly. Conversely, when they listen to a positive assessment in this way they might become complacent and not see it as an opportunity to grow.

I want to make one claim very clearly: assessments are not eternal truths. We make assessments to further our work together and to improve.

Making assessments is something each of us does every day. For instance, whenever we say that Bill did an outstanding job, or Aaron is difficult to work with, or that Eva is a good boss, we are making assessments or characterizations.

What takes place whenever a characterization is made? It seems as if we are describing some truth about a person. Thus, we might believe indisputably a person is intelligent or not; he is honest or dishonest; she is hard‑working or lazy; and so on. Characterizations, then, are usually taken as an actual description of someone’s personality. We have the tendency to lose sight of the fact that they are opinions, not facts. But assessments or characterizations are not descriptions. They are judgments, or interpretations.

Consider some of the kinds of assessments people might make about “Samantha”:

  • “Samantha is really smart.”
  • “Samantha has a bright future ahead of her in the company.”
  • “Samantha is a nerd who studied too much in school and doesn’t know how to have fun.”

This kind of statement is neither true nor false, they are judgments or interpretations. And it’s not clear that they are all useful for producing action. Calling Samantha “smart”, for example, doesn’t help you to decide where she’s competent and can be relied upon, and where she isn’t. And how can calling her a “nerd” be helpful to her especially if it’s said behind her back, as it probably would be?

We are all opinionated. The value of our opinions lies not in whether it is true or false, but in whether it is useful for helping one take action to address one’s concerns.  You can’t stop making assessments, you can see them for what they are and make them useful.






Feedback Bombs Cause Destruction

Constructive feedback is a fallacy. The traditional form of feedback looks like, I am right you are wrong, let me tell you how to stop screwing up and to work better.  This usually comes across in an arrogant way and does not consider the other person’s perspective.  Dropping a feedback bomb on someone always causes destruction.

To have a better conversation, we have to change the frame. We must both be open, honest, and willing to help each other improve.  There is no such thing as a hole in your side of the boat.  If the boat is sinking, we are both going down.  We both need to see how we can help each other.

The goal should be performance improvement by way of collaboration to make things work better; to help improve performance. Performance is measured around tasks, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.  The interpersonal dimension involves working together to get a result.

The language you use matters. Dangerous language confuses facts with opinions.  Opinions are personal views.  There is a difference between saying “You are doing something wrong” versus “I don’t like something”.

The first step is always preparation. Approach the conversation with the right frame of mind in the spirit of improving.  Both of you have something to contribute.  Use “I” language and give evidence of your view.  By doing so, you take responsibility for your opinion.  It helps minimize defensiveness.

Here is an example of what I mean. Consider the difference between these statements.

“It is taking you 3 days to return customer’s calls. You have to get it to 24 hours.”

I am not comfortable with it taking our team 3 days to return customer’s calls. I would like to talk through how we can improve the time to 24 hours.  What do you think?”

The first raises defensiveness and assigns blame without checking for another’s views. The second takes ownership of the view and states a standard to work toward.  It also initiates collaboration by asking what the other person thinks.

Never drop a bomb. Lead by taking responsibility for your opinion and collaborating to achieve improved performance.


To learn more about giving feedback that sticks, please join me for my upcoming series, How to Become a Highly Successful Manager: Essential Supervisory Skills, hosted by the Larimer County Workforce Center October 14, 21, and 28 in Ft. Collins, CO.  For more information and to register, go to


How to Decide?

We seem to talk incessantly, but have a hard time making a decision. Dialogue is not decision making.  Dialogue is the process for sharing relevant information.  Talking things through does not necessarily mean that everyone shares in the making of the decision.

A determination must be made regarding the method of decision making appropriate to the task at hand. This is usually left undecided, or certainly left unspoken.  When there is no clear line of authority, deciding how to decide can be quite difficult.

Consider the decision to place a student in a remedial class. Is that up to the teacher, their parents, a combination? Whose decision is it?  How about something as simple as where to go to dinner, or as complex as how to spend a limited budget?

There are four types of decision making options: command, consult, consensus, and vote. Voting is seldom used in business so I will focus on the three “Cs”.

Three Primary Methods of Decision Making


In the case of a command, one decision maker places a demand. This can come in the form of a safety mandate, speed limit, taxes, or directive to take out the trash.  With command decisions it’s not our job to decide what to do.  We agree to the commands as a member of the community.  In some circumstances, we may not want to take the time to get involved and gladly turn over the decision to others.  When a command decision is determined, explaining the why behind it can make the what easier to complete.


Consulting is a process where the decision maker invites the views of others before making their decision. First, you must determine WHO the decision maker is.  Consult decisions involve gathering ideas, evaluating options, making a choice and then informing others of the decision.  This can be an effective way of gaining support without getting bogged down, but you also run the risk of information paralysis.  Consulting could be effective when an IT Manager is selecting a new drafting software or an HR Manager is determining a location for an annual retreat event.  The pit fall of consulting others is that they erroneously think they also get to make the decision and can be let down when you don’t do what they think you should do.


Consensus involves discussing an issue until everyone honestly agrees to one decision. This can create unity but if misapplied, it can cause a terrible waste of time.  It should be used when everyone absolutely must support the final choice.  Consensus only works when everyone has the best interest of the whole in mind.

When deciding how to decide, ask yourself a few questions. Who cares?  Who must agree? How many people is it worth involving?  The goal is agility, choosing the most useful method for the decision being made and for those affected.  Command, consult, consensus.  Each type has benefits and drawbacks.  Effective decision making is essential to improve workflow and get to alignment.  How will you decide?


Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler (2002). Move to Action chapter 9, Crucial Conversations