Emotional Responsibility

I found myself in yet another conversation with a particularly difficult person in my life whose favorite default phrase is “I’m not responsible for your feelings”.  And yet again, I found myself raging against the concept that we are not responsible for the impact of our words and actions. It’s especially top of mind for me these days, as we watch the #metoo movement act and react to the events unfolding in Washington, D.C.  How do we balance our responsibility for managing our own emotions with our responsibility to treat others with kindness and respect? When, or if, are your emotions my responsibility?

Indeed, there is an enormous body of work on the subject that emphasizes how important it is not to take responsibility for someone else’s feelings, not to regulate someone else’s emotions. This is so very true in relationships when there is an imbalance of power, so to speak, where one person assumes full responsibility for the other’s emotional stability. I’ve been in relationships like that, and there is nothing healthy about the dynamic.

What I have trouble with is the idea that we’re free to say and do whatever we want, only to be absolved of responsibility by affirming that your feelings are your problem. This is often disguised in the phrase, “I’m just being honest with you”.  Quite frankly, I don’t want people close to me who believe they’re free from responsibility for the impact their words have on me or anyone else.

It’s another way of shifting responsibility to the recipient of awful words or actions. How did your terrible behavior become my burden to shoulder, my emotional storm to weather?

The best way I can explain my thinking is this: If I walk up to you and punch you in the face, does it hurt? Yes. Am I responsible for causing that pain? I am. So why are words any different? Why am I absolved of responsibility for causing emotional pain, when I might very well be arrested for causing physical pain?

I believe I am responsible for your feelings, when I act or speak in a way that affects you. I’m not responsible for what you do with those feelings, however.  Or to put it another way, I’m not responsible for our relationship, but I am responsible to it.

All things considered, I would much rather live in a world where we are responsible for our words and actions and are deeply aware of the effect they have on others.

3 Common Communications Issues and What’s Really Behind Them

I started to write about ways to fix three common communications problems, but I realized understanding the why often reveals the solution. There is almost always a reason for the obstacles that impede healthy, effective communication, and the solution lies in three words: give it back.

When your boss, or colleague or family member isn’t communicating well (or at all), it forces you to assume responsibility for the resolution. Some people do this deliberately by engaging in a volley of emails, one more confusing than the last. Others simply don’t respond. It’s important for you to see it when it happens and give it back.

#1 Passive-aggressive communication

This can sound (or read) like:

·       “I guess so.”

·       “If you think that’s what we should do.”

·       “I’m swamped, but if it’s that important to you, I’ll do it.”

The only effective way to counteract passive-aggressive communication is to end it. Quickly. So, from the above examples:

·       “I guess so.” 

               Your response: “OK, great!”

·       “If you think that’s what we should do.”

               Your response: “I do. Here’s how I can help with that.”

·       “I’m swamped, but if it’s that important to you, I’ll do it.”

               Your response: “It is.  Thank you for taking care of it.”

The idea is to hand the responsibility right back – you don’t have to take it on out of guilt or anything else.

#2 Confusing emails

We’ve all waded through more than a few of these. Misspellings, half sentences, missing info, typos – they all force you to read it several times to figure it out. The sender decided his time is more important than yours, so he handed the job of deciphering one of these things to you. Give it back.  

Respond with something along the lines of, “This sounds interesting. Would you clarify a few things for me?”  Then, bullet point your questions.

·       When is this event?

·       Where is this happening?

·       When is this due?

Now, you avoid the trap of spending a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out what in the world he’s trying to say.

#3 No response

This is one communication issue that may require several steps to resolve. More often than not, when you email a colleague or your boss with a request and get nothing back, she’s simply swamped. Emails can pile up and odds are, she lost track of it. The important thing again is to give it back. You’ll want to follow up in an appropriate amount of time. (Unless you’re on deadline, I recommend waiting 24 hours).

Then, please don’t start your email with, “I haven’t heard back from you.” It tends to put people on the defensive. A better way to start is, “Did you have time to…” or “Have you heard back from…”

Phrasing it that way gives your boss or co-worker a way out of feeling like a jerk for not responding.  (Cornered people can act like cornered dogs. They bite, and no one wants that.)

If your second email generates nothing but crickets, you’ll need to find a way around it. Who else in your office might have the info you need? No need to rat out your colleague – simply say, “Julie is crazy busy right now, and I really need this info by tomorrow morning for my presentation. Would you be able to pull those numbers for me?”  If your colleague is a chronic non-responder, the word will get around without your having to say a thing.

Most of us want to be helpful, and we want to succeed.  Just make sure someone else’s communications issue doesn’t become your problem to solve.

Give it back.




Being Uncomfortable

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.

M. Scott Peck – “The Road Less Traveled”

My mom likes to say one of the greatest gifts she gave my sister and me was the gift of boredom. She believes every child has within themselves an incredible level of creativity and being bored allows that to emerge. When we stop trying to entertain our children every moment, they find ways to entertain themselves with some pretty incredible results. My sister used to put on what we called “funny shows”, a goofy kind of sketch comedy with no real beginning (or plot, for that matter).  Some of my best memories are of the two of us as little kids, laughing until we cried and couldn’t breathe at some crazy, comedy routine Allison came up with.

As the parent of a teenager, I realized some years ago that my mom gave me another gift, concomitant with boredom: she let us be uncomfortable.

I want to make everything in my daughter’s life peaceful and happy and perfect. I’m a fixer at heart, and when she’s curled up in a corner of the couch, angry or sad or confused, I want to fix it.  But I’ve learned that not only does she need to work it through, she deserves to. She deserves to know she can. When I’m willing to sit with her and allow her to be in that space, however uncomfortable it is, she discovers her own strength. Her own resilience. Not mine.

Change is terrifying sometimes and very definitely uncomfortable. But when we allow those around us to be uncomfortable, we allow change to happen. We get out of the way and allow growth and development, and yes, resilience.

When I get a panicky email from a colleague who needs help “right now”, I remember to take a breath or two or three. And then I ask myself if she might be OK, being uncomfortable for a little while. What does that look like, exactly? I’ll often send a quick note back to say I got her email but that it will be later that day, or the next, before I can tackle the issue. (Provided it’s not an actual emergency). Perhaps she can start working on it, and I’ll touch base later. It’s pretty amazing to see what happens. That panicked colleague will almost always find a way through the uncomfortableness to a solution, even just a temporary one.  

My daughter knows I’ll hold her hand and catch her if she falls. She also knows I believe she can find her way out of that uncomfortable place to somewhere new.

'Parking Lot' Is Not A Verb

“That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer, but I’ll parking lot it.”

                                                                                                         -Too many corporate trainers

 The first time I heard the phrase “parking lot” in a corporate environment, I was in training to work for a large financial institution. One of my colleagues had asked a question, and the trainer didn’t have an immediate answer. Her response was, “That’s a good question. Let’s parking lot it.”

At the time, I was transitioning from journalism to corporate communications. The reporter in me burst out laughing. I quickly remembered, I wasn’t in a newsroom anymore. I also noticed no one else was laughing. It was not my finest moment.  I decided I would have to speak differently, write differently and think differently, if I were to make this mid-life transition successfully.

Evidently, it worked, because I came to be known as an “early adopter”. I learned this meant I picked up on the company’s language and messaging and was able to communicate successfully. I was way too new in a new field to color outside the lines.

It was only years later, after I had established myself as a corporate communicator and executive coach, that I felt comfortable enough to advocate for plain language. Now, I encourage leaders to say “training”, if that’s what they’re talking about. (It’s “on-boarding”, if your new hire is filling out paperwork and signing forms).

It occurred to me that we often fall back on these corporate buzzwords and phrases, when we’re trying to sound smarter than we are. When we’re writing to impress, not express. When I’m working with someone struggling to find the right words and getting all tangled up, I ask them the same question my mom always asked me when I got stuck in the middle of a term paper:

“What are you trying to say?”

What follows is usually a clear, concise sentence that communicates exactly what they want it to. Sometimes we focus so much on how to say something, that we lose sight of what we want to say. The next time you can’t figure out how to say something, you might ask yourself that question. What are you TRYING to say?

The Illusion of Communications

“The single biggest problem in communications is the illusion that it has taken place.”

                                                                                                       -George Bernard Shaw

I’m a communications professional, a storyteller and a grammar nerd. When I first read that quote from George Bernard Shaw, I was mystified. How could anyone think communication had taken place, if it hadn’t?  So, I started studying communication lapses in organizations and how they happened.

It became clear to me that an awful lot of people were convinced that technology was communications, that technology was the thing. In the legal profession, it’s often referred to as res ipsa loquitur (Latin for "the thing speaks for itself"). 

You sent an email, therefore, you communicated. You texted, therefore, you communicated. Or, you held a meeting and talked at people for an hour. Absolutely nothing happened afterward, because nothing was actually communicated. So how, then, do we craft communications that do?

Perhaps the key is in this, from Sir Isaac Newton:

“Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”

Effective communication should answer one question: “Why?”

Why are you sending that email? Why are you holding that meeting? 

Here’s an example – you need to let your staff know about new sales incentives that take effect next month.  Your email communication should start with a subject line that is clear, not cute or super creative. Just clear:

Subject: New Sales Incentives

The subject line is important for two reasons. One, it communicates exactly what’s in the email. Two, it’s easy to find later when the day’s other emails have buried it. A subject line like, “This is so cool!” might be cute, but it’s not especially helpful.

Then, deliver. Tell the staff what the incentives are and when, exactly, they take effect. You don’t need to set it up. Just tell them what they need to know.

One of the first lessons in journalism is to ask, then answer, the basic questions:

Who, what, when, where, why and how.

Our communications should provide answers to all of them, and I would add one more:

“What now?”

The recipients of your email or the people who attend your meeting should leave knowing what they’re supposed to do with the information you shared. 

You can probably tell I’m a big believer in straight talk. Corporate speak and weird buzzwords are not communication. More to come on that – for now, just remember, “parking lot” is not a verb.

The Arena

I fell in love with the idea of living life in the arena when I heard Brene Brown read from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech. It was one of those moments a dozen clichés could describe – the turning point, an aha moment – they all fit. As I listened to Brene read the speech Roosevelt delivered in 1910, the words provided structure to what I had been thinking about for years. I was finally able to quiet the critics in my mind, the imaginary ones I invented whenever I wanted to try something new and the real ones who doubted (loudly) my ability to start over.

I was six years in on a total life rebuild, kind of like “Fixer Upper” if Chip and Jo needed to fixer-upper a house with no money, materials or help.  Why I was rebuilding my life at 45 is a story for another post. For now, I will simply say it was terrifying and overwhelming, but also exhilarating and incredibly, marvelously fulfilling.

There were wins and losses. The losses were so painful, I wanted to quit. There were people who told me I would never succeed, would never work again, would never have the life I dreamed of. But there were also a lot of people who believed in me when I didn’t. They said they would believe for me until I could.

So, when I heard “The Man in the Arena”, it made sense. I found the place where I belonged. My face was, indeed, marred by dust and sweat and blood, but I was in there and I was thriving.

For those of you who are still searching for your place, here’s a portion of that speech:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”