Democracy Was Meant to be Difficult

November 6th, 2012

American democracy is still an experiment.

Does Mistake Free = Risk Free?

January 29th, 2012

oops.jpgCan mistakes be a good thing? Well, I hope so, because I don’t know anyone that doesn’t make mistakes – and who would want to be around anyone that doesn’t? An old baseball adage says “no one bats a thousand, but you will miss 100% of the pitches you don’t swing at.” I believe this is just as applicable in business, in school, pretty much in life.

Is There Room for Grace?

May 30th, 2011

hearts.jpgThe word “grace” is not used much outside of religious circles these days, but I have been thinking that this simple to say, but difficult to live concept, is very much needed in the business workplace today. The many textbook definitions of the word all are applicable: elegant, a charming quality, consideration of others, to regard with kindness.

“This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers…”

January 31st, 2011

Yes, we have all come through hard times at least once before. Troubles come and go, but we do go on. Carl Sandburg said it more eloquently than that (see the title above), but we all know what he means – and more importantly – what it means to us personally. We remember how it felt; both the pain of it and the power of overcoming.

Storytelling may be a lost art – but one that we as business people, non-profit leaders, and government employees, need to resurrect and make a part of our repertoire of communication. Quoting facts and figures, policy and procedure, trends and troubles, will simply not move many of us to action. These important but impotent bits of language will not rouse an audience, company or community to understand our pain nor join in the journey to meet challenges together – indeed they may not remember what was said much longer than passing your lips – let alone long enough to want to do anything about it.

There is a reason why the myths and stories of ancient times are still with us today, why classic stories are told over again from generation to generation, are updated, renewed and refreshed. Stories impact us on an emotional level (whether we know it or not). A good story fires up pathways in the creative left side of our brains – yes, even yours. This part of the mind sparks memory and unleashes the power of problem solving and creative thinking. Forbes magazine recently published an article on IBM research indicating that the number 1 skill needed by CEO’s of the future is CREATIVITY – not negotiation or financial skills – the ability to deal with the complexity of work, innovate, and get things done in a new way.

Are you concerned? “Aack! I’m not the artsy type!” Well, here’s the best part – you don’t have to be an artist or an actor or even a skilled writer to be a creative leader. Just start by telling a story. Perhaps I’m going out on a limb, but I’d bet that you used to be able to do this very well – when you were about five. Likely, your education did a good job of squashing the creative storytelling right out of you.

But you can reignite this ability – and like any skill – it just takes a little practice. The next time you have to address employees, customers or stockholders, tell them your facts and figures in a story. Make it a tale of the struggle for success, with the challenge as the protagonist and your people or products as the hero. Tell them the way the product or problem effected someone – maybe you -and they will connect to what you’re saying in a deeper, more personal way. They will not only hear you – they will understand.

If you don’t have the words – borrow from someone else until you develop your own vocabulary; Carl Sandburg, Will Rogers, even Abe Lincoln, can inspire you to tell your tale. You can make your business “our business” if we can share your story.

Deliberate Deliberation

December 2nd, 2010

Slow and SteadyDeliberation means “thoughtful or careful consideration, without hurry.” Everything in our world seems to go by so fast; speed is king and slowing down means you might get run over. Many accept this as the way we must operate to exist in a twenty-first century reality, but how can we maintain this break-neck rate? We can’t. We shouldn’t. Gosh, I hope we don’t!

Quick decisions are rarely the best decisions. Oh sure, there are times when someone may be faced with having to make an immediate judgment call – but those folks live in the realm of “life or death” kinds of situations – and the people that make those decisions are generally trained, or well experienced enough, to make them.  Most decisions we make, especially those in the workplace or the public arena, are not going to cost a life in the next hour.

If the outcome is important (and if you/your company are spending any time on it – it had better be important) it is worth allotting an appropriate time commitment to get it right. Especially if you are working in government or any endeavor that effects, interests, or needs the public citizenry, allowing time for deliberation is the critical component. Yes, it takes planning to factor time into the decision equation, but that is part of being deliberate – intentional.

Recently, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) held a conference in Austin Texas where a giant room full of people – community members, public officials, collaboration practitioners – came to confirm the importance of thoughtful, intentional, dialogue to solve the big issues. It was an affirming moment to see so many people say “enough is enough with the yelling” because, clearly, nothing is accomplished in that scenario as we have seen. The NCDD provided a good set of core principles for Public Engagement:

1. Careful Planning and Preparation

2. Inclusion and Demographic Diversity

3. Collaboration and Shared Purpose

4. Openness and Learning

5. Transparency and Trust

6. Impact and Action

7. Sustained Engagement and Participatory Culture

Speediness was not on the list. For more information on these seven principles, download the Resource Guide on Public Engagement here.

There is a reason why Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare has endured since before the 16th Century; time may fly, but the slow and steady wins the race in the end.

Dialogue – Can You Hear Me Now?

November 30th, 2010

ListenWhat is “dialogue” anyway? Dictionary.com defines it as “a conversation, an exchange of ideas or opinions on a particular issue, with a view to reaching an amicable agreement or settlement.” Wow, we certainly need more of that!

To have a conversation requires two people agreeing to give one another their attention and the gift of silence. Our society to so loud today – the music, the traffic, the rhetoric – finding a space where we can be heard and speak without interruption is more unique than we might like to admit. I’ve said before, that I feel a good deal of the angst in the political situation we’ve experienced over the past year is borne of a feeling of voices going unheard. “If they won’t hear me, I’ll shout louder!” was evident in the embarrassing displays in community and town hall meetings throughout the country. Unfortunately, those encounters did not even fall into the “debate” category, but looked more like school yard brawls. Opening avenues for people to be and know they are heard, is a big step forward in building constructive conversations.

The exchange of ideas is critical to finding solutions. Not only are “two heads better than one,” but the outcomes of putting those heads together are almost always better than one person’s input alone. Even if you have the best answer, allowing others the opportunity to give feedback, ask questions, or just be a part of the conversation elicits “buy in.” If your ultimate goal is success, bringing others into the dialogue is essential to avoiding or disarming blockades.

And finally having a view to reaching an amicable agreement sets the intention of the result. Without an attitude open to a mutually beneficial settlement, you’re just going in for a fight – someone wins, someone loses. In that case, the success of the issue is no longer the focus, just the power we garner at the end. There are many roads to most destinations, but you can choose the smooth or treacherous route. It is up to you.

Here’s an example of successful dialogue. Balcones Canyonland Public Access Plan: In 2000, the Austin Water Utility organized a Stakeholder Steering Committee to participate in a consensus based collaborative planning process to develop public access plans for the then newly created Water Quality Protection Lands (WQPL) program. If you’re not aware, developing a piece of land (especially public land) in Austin Texas is difficult, contemptuous, and many-sided. Long-story- short, a parcel of land was owned by the City and, instead of making a unilateral determination for it’s usage (and likely meeting opposition on all sides), they invited as many stakeholder groups as possible to dialogue. Restrictions on the land set by law where in play, one of which was that the area could not be used for soccer fields (there you have it). The Water Utility still invited the local soccer league leadership to the table. Risky move and not without conflict. After many meetings, a plan was devised – without soccer fields. All stakeholders were asked asked for their consensus and understandably the soccer league was not ready to comply. Thinking outside the box, asking what they really wanted, the Water Utility offered them the option on a completely different piece of land that the City was not going to develop. When the development plan went to City Council for approval, there was no opposition. In fact, community members had contacted their council persons with support and praise for the outcome. The proven process continues to be used by the Austin Water Utility.

Real dialogue brings real results. When people can hear, there is a chance to be heard.

Mom’s Rules Save the World: Rule 7

November 22nd, 2010

How have we come so far into a universe where rude behavior, hurtful language, and hateful attitudes are acceptable – not just among the young, crazy, fringe element – but even mainstream, “conservative” grandmothers and businessmen? It’s not confined to any political party, age group, geographic area, or gender – ugliness is now equal opportunity. Is anyone as embarrassed for our society as I am?

Oh, my mouth!Mom always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”

She didn’t mean that we couldn’t disagree, discipline or even tell the truth – but there is a way to communicate that isn’t derogatory, hurtful or intentionally inflammatory. The sarcasm or brutal honesty characterized by The Simpsons or American Idol, is not appropriate behavior for “real” life. They are after wild ratings, we need to be about workable relationships. What’s wrong with being “nice” anyway? At the end of my career or my life, I would prefer to be remembered as an amiable person rather than the Queen of Mean.

In public service, this adage is particularly applicable. An Assistant City Manager or Department Director cannot be free from public criticism – sometimes harsh and emotional. I got a lot of practice with this concept while working in those offices and drafting their responses to complaint letters. Every correspondence began with “thank you,” which set the tone for everything that followed. I learned very quickly how my attitude could be adjusted simply by reframing my mindset before putting pen to paper.

OK, it’s not as hard to manage our communication when we have the luxury of time to think and respond in writing. Thinking before we speak really is the key and the only way to be prepared to respond in a civil way – in the heat of a moment – is by practice. Just as an athlete trains his/her body to respond with perfect technique automatically in any situation, we too need to develop similar muscle memory over our mouths. Start a day with the intention to think before you respond and then, to let the first thing you say be constructive, not destructive. Intentional living is the foundation for the House of Niceness.

Likewise, at the end of the day, evaluate your performance and resolve to make adjustments tomorrow. We don’t hit a home run every time, but a great hitter keeps trying. In college, I was the statistician for our baseball team. I was astounded at how clearly and exactly each player could recall their every at-bat, location of a hit, circumstance of an error, what they were thinking and how they felt at any given moment of the entire game – for weeks to follow. Memory is a consequence of attention. As they were intent on correcting any misstep and building on each successful movement, so should we have the intention to do the same in our communication.

Be careful, too, not to fall into the “but” preposition / proposition. Have you ever said something positive to or about someone, only to follow the statement with a “but [what you really think]?” You might as well not have made the complementary phrase at all – it only served to make you feel better about yourself. Just kick the “but” out of your vocabulary whenever possible. What does it really mean anyway?

Don’t get me wrong, I know it is not always easy to say something nice, whether in response to a criticism or a difficult personality, but good relationships are not easy. There are definitely times when the “don’t say anything at all” part is necessary – bite your tongue, walk away. You always have the opportunity to come back and have a more thoughtful discussion later. You can never take back thoughtless words that you are very likely to regret later.

Disability Miss Manners

November 17th, 2010

I’m so glad that I was exposed to people with differing abilities and physical or intellectual challenges, as a very young teen. Volunteering with the United Cerebral Palsy Association, Special Olympics and later, leading recreation programs in my home town school for children with developmental disabilities, allowed me to learn how to relate to people that are different from myself in a very personal way. I saw that it was OK to be inspired, humbled, delighted, tickled to roaring laughter, irritated, confused, and challenged by those interactions – just like every other relationship. Now, I look forward to the opportunity to meet and talk with someone with an obvious “disability” – they are generally the most interesting person in the room.

Unfortunately, I see so many people who are visibly uncomfortable when someone in a wheelchair rolls onto the scene or walks up with a white cane. I know it’s just a fear of not knowing what to do, how to greet them, how not to offend. It’s easier to walk away, ignore them and the situation, than to struggle through an awkward encounter.

However, the reality is that we’re going to find that harder and harder to do. With the Baby Boomers living longer, staying in the workforce, and frankly growing into the many disabilities that come with aging, we had better learn how to engage better. Additionally, thousands of soldiers with physical AND emotional issues are returning to our communities, workplaces and homes, requiring us to ramp up our communication skills and collaborative instincts as professionals, team members, partners and people.

Remember that for every “disability” people have numerous abilities. Remember that we all have some disability or handicap – many of our own making, most not so obvious – that we deal with everyday already. Realize that we have more in common than you think.

Kudos to the San Antonio Texas Disability Access Department for publishing The Disability Etiquette Handbook. It’s a simple, easy to read, straight forward electronic document to give you some guidance on how to meet, greet, and interact with people in various situations with respect and confidence; sort of a Disability “Miss Manners.”

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Gary Guller, the only man with one arm to summit Mt. Everest. His story is astounding and I hope you’ll learn more about him, but he is a person that encourages me. If he can endure the struggle to reach the highest point in the world with one hand, surely I walk across a room and extend my hand to someone different than me – and it may turn out to be as exhilarating.

Mom’s Rules Save the World: Rule 6

November 12th, 2010

Now that we’ve had the opportunity to exercise our “civic duty” and vote, can we start trying to make our civics more civil?

How have we come so far into a universe where rude behavior, hurtful language, and hateful attitudes are acceptable – not just among the young, crazy, fringe element – but even mainstream, “conservative” grandmothers and businessmen? It’s not confined to any political party, age group, geographic area, or gender – ugliness is now equal opportunity. Is anyone as embarrassed for our society as I am?

“Two wrongs don’t make a right”

Revenge hurtsRevenge is a popular theme in literature from as early as Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad to Shakespeare’s Hamlet to today’s Harry Potter novels. Unfortunately, this ancient motivation spills, gushingly, out of the pages of fiction into our everyday reality. What makes for a good storyline, does not make for a good life. Revenge never ends well.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best, ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing. Plotting to “get even” eats away at emotional health, wastes time and energy. Inflicting some kind of pain (physical or otherwise) on someone else always hurts the avenger in the long term. “Getting back” never tastes as sweet as anticipated and the aftertaste is generally bitter and disappointing, because nothing is really returned.

“I don’t do revenge!” you say? OK, maybe not in such a blatant way as a Hollywood blockbuster, but haven’t you fought fire with fire? Someone shouts – you shout back, a coworker takes undue credit on a team project, so you don’t include him/her in the next one (even if you need their expertise)? It seems so much easier to play covert cat and mouse than to have a face-to-face conversation about the hurtful behavior. What’s the big deal? Is it the love of the game that keeps us on the “I can hurt you more” merry-go-round or is it the fear of what happens when we get off and step into unfamiliar territory?

Let’s look at it as an adventure. The unexpected has its advantages and living well really is the best revenge. Not playing along makes it hard for others to perpetuate the game alone. Acting in an unexpected way will make the others wonder what you’re up too – and, just maybe, see the open door they need to try something new themselves.

What did your mom say that could make it a better world today?

Mom’s Rules Save the World: Rule 5

November 10th, 2010

Now that we’ve had the opportunity to exercise our “civic duty” and vote, can we start trying to make our civics more civil?

How have we come so far into a universe where rude behavior, hurtful language, and hateful attitudes are acceptable – not just among the young, crazy, fringe element – but even mainstream, “conservative” grandmothers and businessmen? It’s not confined to any political party, age group, geographic area, or gender – ugliness is now equal opportunity. Is anyone as embarrassed for our society as I am?

“Pretty is as pretty does”

Pretty is as pretty doesSurely, Forrest Gump’s mother was not the only one to use this phrase. Mine did – frequently. It was her wise advice to be authentic – an important, if not critical, trait for successful collaboration, leadership, life. In our world today, so much of society is consumed with having super model good looks, ageless bodies, expensive cars, Armani suits, big houses in the “right” neighborhoods – you know the list – and with some twinge of shame I have to say that I, too, have found myself at times caught up in it all. It’s hard not to be when the media constantly floods every corner of our existence with images of – some world I hardly recognize.

We have become so adept at building facades around us in order to “fit in” to that bizarre image, that many no longer recognize themselves in the mirror or know who they are anymore. Having been an actor all my life, creating alternate existences, wearing another person’s skin for a while, does teach one to look for what is underneath the surface – what makes them tick. “Motivation” is an important concept in the theatrical world, and frankly, no less in the workplace, team, or community. All our behaviors stem from some incentive or fear, but those motivations can often be so deeply held, disguised or convoluted that we don’t understand them ourselves. How can we expect others to figure us out? All we can really go by when working (or playing) together, is what we see. “Intent” is not observable, so perception is in fact – reality. “Pretty is as pretty does” – how we act toward each other generally defines us in another’s eyes, and it’s often not so pretty. Ergo – incivility perpetuates itself in spite of ourselves and our best intentions.

There is a well known adage that I think would help us be more authentic in our relationships. “The Golden Rule” which appears in some form in basically all major world religions, as well as, in secular philosophies – treat others the way you want to be treated. If we would stop and think about the mirror effect our behavior may generate, perhaps we would curb the name calling, shouting, and physical retribution that shoots out uncontrolled. Some can practice this IF others are not behaving badly first. We are, unfortunately, as likely to meet bad behavior with an even worse retaliation, which only escalates from there. At some point, someone has to recognize the giant snow boulder barreling toward them, be the grown up, and break the cycle.

When incivility is all around you, ringing in your ears and raising your blood pressure…Stop, breath, and hear the voice of mom saying “pretty is as pretty does”… and make her proud.