Management Advice: Stop saying “BUT”

So here’s your very simple but difficult management advice for today: stop using the word but! Whether you’re parenting or working or hanging out with friends, the word but needs to go.

management advice Why?

I was first clued into this concept when reading a parenting book called How to Talk so Kids will Listen which is excellent and you should read even if you’re not a parent. The authors explained that anytime you use the word “but” you end up negating everything you’ve just said. Let’s do a quick example:

I say “Hey Canon, you did a great job with clean up time but you forgot to pick up the toys in the family room.” What does that sound like to you? Did he really do a great job? It sounds like I’m trying to let him down easy, that actually no, he didn’t do a good job cleaning because he forgot a key part of the process. What does he hear? That I don’t mean what I said and I’m really just criticizing him.

How could I say it better? “Hey Canon, you did a great job cleaning up in the playroom. Can you also grab the toys in the playroom?”

It applies equally well in the workplace context. I was reminded of this principle reading Fierce Conversations this week. Susan Scott writes, “Multiple, competing realities exist simultaneously: This is true and this is true and this is true.” When we say “yes, but” we don’t acknowledge the competing realities, we just try to keep persuading other people that our own version is correct.

What to say instead

The word “but” negates other views and can come across as blaming. Scott recommends trying to replace every “but” with an “and” so that both realities are acknowledged as valid pieces of the whole picture.  Instead of “You see it that way, but I see it differently” try, “You see it that way, and I see is differently.” A really simple switch that has the potential to keep discussions civil and people feeling like they are heard while still also allowing for differences of opinion. Win Win. Other options include:

  • “The problem I see is”
  • “At the same time”

Watch out though, as these can also come across as condescending based on your tone. And is probably the safest bet. You can also just stop your sentence and replace that “but” with a period. Start the next sentence as a question instead. Because asking questions is always a good principle for parents and managers anyway. That was bonus management advice right there.

The Coaching Habit – a great book for everyone who leads

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay StanierThe Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier (CEO of Box of Crayons) is super practical, super funny and easy to implement immediately and in small chunks. In fact, he also has a video that goes with each chapter so if you prefer watching to reading you can still get all that practical advice without having to turn pages.

Who is The Coaching Habit for?

It’s for busy managers and leaders who want to be “coaching” their employees and helping them develop their potential. The key word is “busy.” Stanier provides seven questions for managers to ask and gives you scenarios to understand how asking these questions might play out. He makes you think about what moments might trigger the need for one of these questions, and help you prepare for how you want to coach differently.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of management and coaching books out there. If you’re like me, it makes you feel a bit panicky about all that knowledge you haven’t yet absorbed. This book is a great place to start and might be all you need for a long time! Stanier knows you’re busy, knows you don’t have time to implement huge complex changes. He even gives you some great tips about how to build your coaching habit so that it feels doable and really sticks.

Did I mention this book has a really fun readable layout is absolutely hilarious?

What is The Coaching Habit about?

Stanier suggests that most of us spend too much time in meetings or coaching sessions handing out advice that won’t get followed anyway. He recommends sticking with some concise questions to get to the real issue and solve that in less time. The seven questions are really simple (sometimes the most simple things are most effective right?):

  1. The Kickstart Question: What’s on your mind?
  2. The AWE Question: And What Else?
  3. The Focus Question: What’s the real challenge here for you?
  4. The Foundation Question: What do you want?
  5. The Lazy Question: How can I help?
  6. The Strategic Question: If you’re saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?
  7. The Learning Question: What was most useful for you?

You can be a great coach without letting it eat up your whole day. If you’ve felt overwhelmed with all the options, this book is a great place to start. Read it fast, try one thing today already and see how it works!

**The link to Amazon is an affiliate link!**

Sticking Points: 4 Generations Working Together

GenerationsBack in July, my good friend Marie lent me her advance copy of Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart by Hadyn Shaw. Now that it’s out and available for everyone, I wanted to let you all know that you need to buy this book now!

It’s a quick read and you can easily jump around as needed. Shaw provides a simple five step model for working through the sticking points: acknowledge, appreciate, flex, leverage, and resolve. In each chapter he provides an example of putting the five steps into action.

Especially important is the “flex” step. Shaw differentiates between business necessity and generational preference again and again, highlighting how often managers think doing things one way is a necessity when actually it doesn’t really affect business. He defines necessity as anything that will make you lose your foot, customer, money, or funding. Everything else is simply preference.

Each generation also gets a chapter that describes their “ghost stories”  or the formative events and experiences of each generation that consequently influence them in the work place. The second part details the 12 sticking points he discusses:

  • communication
  • decision making
  • dress code
  • feedback
  • fun at work
  • knowledge transfer
  • loyalty
  • meetings
  • policies
  • respect
  • training
  • work ethic

Some other interesting takeaways for me were:

  • Shaw explains that these days people believe you’re not an adult until 28 (both older generations and Millennials think this)! Instead of bemoaning how lazy and unambitious Millennials are, he points out that in the pre-war childhood of the Traditionalist generation, life on the farm offered you ways to contribute meaningfully and see the fruit of your labor from very early on. That’s simply not the case in today’s environment where meaningful contribution and seeing the fruit of your labour is sometimes assumed to only come after at least five years of paying your dues post-college.
  • He notes that parents treat their Millennial kids well (Millennials and their parents are often good friends) but then gripe about their Millennial employees’ behavior. He terms this the “half-step back” problem: when you start managing, you take a half-step back in to the older generation because that’s who trained you. So you manage from an older generational mindset than how you parent.
  • His main suggestion for leaders who are running into these generational sticking points is to forget trying to manage the issue with top-down policy decisions. Instead, gather a task force with a rep from each generation to hash out the “sticking points” your organization faces. They’ll come up with a plan that will have more buy-in from everyone.

I’ve read quite a few books on generations now and while Shaw can’t and doesn’t take the time to go into all the nuances of each generation, he definitely captures them fairly. As a Millennial, I especially appreciated this since so many articles and books about Millennials in the workplace tend to only paint us negatively. I highly recommend getting this and discussing it at your workplace!

Why a little doubt is better than supreme confidence

doubtI recently read Daniel Pink’s book To Sell is Human. He makes the case that we’re all in sales now even if we don’t have a “sales” job. He defines non-sales selling as: “the ability to influence, to persuade and to change behavior while striking a balance between what others want and what you can provide them.” He explains why the old sales model got such a bad reputation (used car salesmen) and what you have to do in order to be successful in today’s work environment.

He explains that, contrary to a lot of advice we’re given, it’s actually better to ask ourselves “Can we succeed?” than to simply pump ourselves up with an “I can do this!!” mantra. This is called interrogative self-talk and we should be using it before any daunting task.

In sales particularly, most of the focus has been on declarative self-talk that is positive “I am amazing” “I am the best salesperson ever!” etc. Pink writes, “Yes, positive self-talk is generally more effective than negative self-talk. But the most effective self-talk of all doesn’t merely shift emotions. It shifts linguistic categories. It moves from making statements to asking questions.”

A little doubt: “Can I do this?” allows us to marshal the reasons we can. A question like this forces us to answer it by thinking through our preparation and analyzing our resources. If we’re doubting whether or not we should take on the task, asking the question will also help us clarify our internal motivators, “Questioning self-talk elicits the reasons for doing something and reminds people that many of those reasons come from within.” When we’re intrinsically motivated we are more proactive and often do better at whatever challenge we’re tackling.

Pink highlights a social science experiment where participants had to solve anagrams, “The researchers instructed the first group to ask themselves whether they would solve the puzzles and the second group to tell themselves that they would solve the puzzles. On average, the self-questioning group solved nearly 50 percent more puzzles than the self-affirming group.”

So if you find yourself facing a challenge in the next few days, remember to ask yourself “Can I do this?” and then take the time to answer your own question.


The simplest problem-solving method we never use

problem-solvingJohn and I are listening to a fascinating book in the car. It’s call Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by two brothers name Chip and Dan Heath. They tell story after story of how big changes took place because of surprisingly simple solutions. We’re not even halfway through the book yet but I already feel like this simple problem-solving method is a major takeaway.

The authors tell a very moving story about malnourished children in Vietnam during the 1990s. A man named Jerry Sternin was tasked with addressing this issue in a six-month time frame by not-too-friendly government officials who weren’t thrilled to have a foreign expert telling them what to do. It seemed impossible since many many experts had already spent hundreds of hours analyzing all the contributing factors and determining root causes and pointing out the systematic problems causing malnourishment, none of which Sternin could influence or change within a six month time-frame.

So Sternin did something else. He started interviewing Vietnamese moms in villages. All the kids were weighed and measured and they discovered that even in the same conditions, some kids in the village were actually not malnourished. Sternin established what moms were normally doing to feed their children and then interviewed the moms of the healthier kids to see what they were doing differently.  The moms of the healthier kids were feeding them four times a day instead of twice (not more food just spread out over four meals) and they were supplementing the rice with tiny shrimp and crab collected from the rice paddies (traditionally not fed to the kids) and mixing in sweet potato greens.

The changes were tiny and easy to replicate.

Sternin used a problem-solving method we don’t use enough: look for what’s already working and then see how we can replicate it. This is also called Positive Deviance.

This “problem-solving” method isn’t looking at the problems at all – it’s looking at the positive “bright spots” as the authors term them. How simple is that? And yet, by nature, we all tend to focus on the negative. We get mired in analyzing all the things that are wrong instead of looking at what’s already right and seeing how that could translate for us. We focus on fixing what’s broken instead of just implementing more of what’s already working.

We do the same thing when we consider our own strengths and weaknesses. Instead of focusing on what we’re already good at and continuing to hone those skills, we often bog down on trying to “fix” or improve all our weaknesses.

So the next time you feel like there’s a huge problem you’re facing, is there a way to turn the question around and say “What is working in this situation and how can I apply that to what isn’t?” It might just work.

Dependable Strengths or Motivated Abilities Exercise

I recently got to attend a great seminar on finding your “Dependable Strengths.” It was interesting to see that the core exercise was very similar to the Motivated Abilities Pattern that Arthur Miller suggests in his book The Power of Uniqueness. Today I thought I’d repost an exercise I blogged last year with a couple updates to the instructions from this seminar.

“The surest way I have found to unlock the essence of a person is to look at what he likes to do and do well.” – Arthur Miller


Jot down at least 10 experiences you can remember that satisfy the two criteria: things you enjoyed doing and things you did well.

Be specific about these experiences. List as many details as possible about what you were doing, how you did it, who else was involved and what you felt throughout the process. Here’s a handy acronym to help you:

  • S – Situation
  • T – Task(s)
  • A – Action(s)
  • R – Result(s)

These experiences don’t have to be from a job or school. If building sandcastles as a child was something you enjoyed doing and did well, then write about that! Cleaning your closet, dancing, leading meetings – it really doesn’t matter what realm of life your accomplishments come from or how tangible/abstract they are.

When you’ve written out these ten things that you enjoyed doing and did well, you want to look at the patterns. Even if the activities themselves are widely diverse, there will probably be things about each one that are the same.

Here are some questions to help you:

  1. Do your experiences all fall into one or two general categories of interest? If not, are there other things that each experience has in common?
  2. Did you see patterns to the situation, tasks, actions you took in each scenario?
  3. Look carefully at the results you wrote down. What do they tell you about your motivations?
  4. What did you enjoy most about each activity – your actions, the social factor, the environment you were in?
  5. If you had a hard time coming up with ten things you liked doing and did well, why do you think that was?
  6. Did anything surprise you?

If you try it, I’d love to hear what you uncovered about yourself!

Working Identity Book Review

Working Identity by Herminia IbarraI just sped through Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra because it’s due back at the library today and I can’t renew it. Ahh – the pressure of library due dates. I know technically I could just ignore them and hold onto books for another week without incurring any fees or punishment but out of respect to my librarian mother I just can’t bring myself to bend rules like that. So I live under the constant pressure of which book is due when. I really should start controlling myself when it comes to how many holds I place at a time. Inevitably I find 3-4 books all waiting for me at once, all non-renewable because another 50 people after me want them. Talk about the woes of a bookworm.

Anyway – this book had some gems and while it focuses on the process of midlife career transitions, there was a lot of connection and crossover between two other books I hope to be blogging about soon, The Gifts of Imperfection and Transforming Conversion. While its intention was to describe how people move from one “working identity” to the next, it seemed highly applicable to personal growth and the process of coming to faith.

Ibarra’s work focuses on people who realize they are no longer satisfied in their chosen careers:

When the question “Who am I?” reasserts itself long after we thought we’d figured it all out, it is usually motivated, at least in part, by some form of what academics call “disconfirmation” – a tangible sense that our earlier ways of understanding ourselves and the world have failed us or that fundamental assumptions about who we are are no longer as sturdy or satisfying (p. 35).

Ibarra argues that rather than spending a lot of time on introspection, assessments, theories and plans, we should begin a series of small experiments designed to test out the variety of directions we’re interested in, “Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking than to think their way into a new way of acting” (p.2).

While we often want to have a clear path laid out for us before we begin the process of change, Ibarra concludes that, “Transformation, then, happens less by grand design or careful strategy than by the small wins that results from ongoing practices that enhance our capacity to change” (p. 87) and goes on to warn us that, “When we craft experiments, we increase the likelihood that things will never be the same again” (p. 106).

This advice resonated with me as I think we often get stuck in the thinking/planning process and forget to ever actually move forward towards our distant goals. The series of small experiments is exactly what I suggest for people who are trying to “find their calling” but have so many interests they’re not really sure which they’re most passionate about. The only way to find out where your calling lies is to start doing things and see what fits best. Connections happen in motion. Her warning is also important though because we sometimes don’t realize that once we’ve started down this road of exploration, we won’t easily settle back into the old patterns, jobs and lives we had before we started looking around. It can get messy.

Taking action and being aware of the likely consequences is essential. At the same time, we definitely need time and space to step back and reflect on our experiences and evaluate what they mean. Ibarra uses a French phrase “reculer pour mieux sauter” which literally means “stepping back to better leap forward” (p. 148). That step back helps us to ground ourselves, look around and make sure we are leaping in the right direction.

Here’s her summary of advice for making career transitions (and I would argue any major life changes!):

  1. Act your way into a new way of thinking and being. You cannot discover yourself by introspection.
  2. Stop trying to find your one true self. Focus your attention on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about.
  3. Allow yourself a transition period in which it is okay to oscillate between holding on and letting go. Better to live the contradictions than to come to a premature resolution.
  4. Resist the temptation to start by making a big decision that will change everything in one fell swoop. Use a strategy of small wins, in which incremental gains lead you to more profound changes in the basic assumptions that define your work and life. Accept the crooked path.
  5. Identify projects that can help you get a feel for a new line of work or style of working. Try to do these as extracurricular activities or parallel paths so that you can experiment seriously without making a commitment.
  6. Don’t just focus on the work. Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition. But don’t expect to find them in your same old social circles.
  7. Don’t wait for a cataclysmic moment when the truth is revealed. Use everyday occurrences to find meaning in the changes you are going through. Practice telling and retelling your story. Over time, it will clarify.
  8. Step back. But not for too long.
  9. Change happens in bursts and starts. There are time when you are open to big change and times when you are not. Seize opportunities.

These points sound simple and succinct but Ibarra notes that most major career transitions take between three to five years and the process is circuitous. She reminds us not to get too frustrated with the messiness of life in progress.

Have you struggled through a career transition experience or any time in your life that felt like you were living in limbo between who you were and who you were becoming? I’d love to hear your story. Did you use any of these strategies or wish you had?



Decluttering: Making Room for Your Calling

This might be the most basic, practical blog post advice you ever get from me! Last week, we were comparing eustress and distress. If we’re going to even be able to respond to opportunities and challenges that stress us in a positive way and invite us to grow, we need to find ways to mitigate or eliminate some of our sources of distress.

The first year I was in Seattle, my major source of distress was my job. This might be your problem too. It’s usually not that easy to just quit your job or even to make small changes for the better in your workplace.

So what else can we do?

Start at home.  I don’t know about you, but an out-of-control messy house often coincides with me feeling overwhelmed with stress. In fact, I can feel my blood pressure rise, just looking at the picture in this post. One of the easiest ways for me to cut down my stress level is to simply take 10 minutes after dinner and clean up the clutter around me, so that I can sit down and enjoy the rest of my evening in greater peace.

Physical clutter is mental clutter. It’s distracting and frustrating. I think we all have different tolerance levels so it’s important to simply pay attention to your own sense of stress and try to understand what is triggering it.

How will de-cluttering help you follow a calling? It’s probably not a direct cause and effect, but I think it prepares a space for us to do better work. It frees up our minds and attention to focus on things that are important instead of being distracted by the running “to do” lists in our heads.

[WARNING: cleaning and de-cluttering can easily become an unhelpful procrastination tool instead of a helpful preparation tool. Trust me, I know all about this. Cleaning up and checking things off the list give me a great feeling of accomplishment and I can enjoy that as long as I ignore the fact that maybe those chores were not the things I was supposed to be accomplishing with that time. Procrastinating on truly important things by doing other fairly important things is one of the best tools of the trade. We need to be aware of that.]

But tonight, I just want to encourage you to make your home a peaceful place. My parents always modeled this for us so excellently when we were growing up. They know how to enjoy the small pleasures and create an atmosphere that is restful. It was often as simple as putting on classical music, dimming the lights and lighting some candles for the dinner table. If our homes are havens of rest and rejuvenation, we may find ourselves with more energy and motivation to pursue the calling that we’re sensing in our lives.

How to Ensure Good Closure

This past weekend our church put on our annual Christmas production. It’s a huge production with choir, orchestra and cast in a three act musical. John had a role this year. They’ve been rehearsing twice a week since September. Yesterday, they finished the whole thing in the fifth and final performance. When John came home from the all-cast party last night, I asked him how he felt now that it was all over.

“Finishing is bittersweet” he said. In some ways, it’s a relief to have time again, to have successfully accomplished what you set out to do, to no longer have the pressure of an upcoming deadline. But, as you’ve probably also experienced at some point in your life, when you come together with a group of people to accomplish a long-term project, you bond. When that season ends and you suddenly go back to normal life, it can feel like a major loss because you’re not regularly connected with that group of people anymore.

Good closure is something I’m always concerned about and while its connections to calls may be slim, I wanted to spend a little time on it today. I grew up in a community where people came and went constantly. Some missionaries came to teach at our school for a year, many came as resident assistants in the dorms for two years, and far fewer stayed for the long-term. This meant our classmates and friends were also often gone after one or two year stints. My sister and I were the only ones at our graduation who had started first grade at our school too. Getting closure with the friends who were leaving was essential. Without it, it was easy to feel like making friends and investing in others wasn’t a worth the pain when they left.

Closure was just as important in college. Our Resident Director made sure she imparted how to have good closure to her student leadership teams and the dorms each year. Here’s what she taught:

1. Debrief what you’ve learned or gotten out of the experience – whether it’s a project, a trip, a year of dorm life, or a play. It’s so important to take the time to pause and reflect on how the people in the group have affected you, how you’ve changed. Without this pause, we fly on to the next thing and don’t take the time to cement those memories in our brains.

2. Throw a party! This goes along with debriefing. You want to affirm how great and worthwhile this experience has been. Celebrate what you had and validate how meaningful it was for you. It helps ease you into the fact that it’s over now and let’s you go out with a bang. You can look back joyfully.

3. Acknowledge grief as a legitimate reaction. You are experiencing loss of community and, while it isn’t the end of the world, it’s still a loss. Sometimes, people feel like it’s stupid to feel so sad about something that’s so small in the general scope of life but you’re allowed to feel sad, to cry, to hug everyone multiple times and wish that things could have stayed the same a little longer.

4. Move on. We can’t keep it the same no matter how much we would like to. Know that you’ll have more experiences like this in the future. This won’t be the only time in your life that you’ll experience this kind of community. Don’t get frozen looking back at memories that will never return. Instead, anticipate the opportunities to build new community in the next season of life.


Listening Exercises

If you need clarity and want to develop your ability to assess what your life is telling you, here are some options for different “listening” exercises you can do. If you love efficiency like I do, you can probably find a way to wrap all of these exercises into one.

If you’re not the kind of person who usually journals, I would say give it a try. Writing a journal can be useful to anyone, even if you don’t normally like to write. If it really sounds awful, tell yourself, you’re going to only do it for one month and then see what happens. Otherwise, get creative – to avoid writing, you could draw, sketch, collage or record yourself talking!

1. Keep a Calling Journal

When you sit down to journal, ask yourself the following questions and track the patterns you see over time.

  • What work were you doing last time you were so absorbed that you lost track of time?
  • What issues or causes really move you?
  • What problems in the world or work world do you think need solving?
  • When you lie awake at night obsessing over the state of the universe, what obsesses you most?
  • What are you constantly reading about and talking to people about?

(this exercise is from Whistle while you Work by Richard Leider and David Shapiro)

2. Daily Examen

This exercise is based on/adapted from Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. This is probably most effective written down, but these questions can also simply be prayed through.

  • Ask God to help you identify the moment today for which you are most grateful.  Recall that moment in as much detail as possible. What made it so special?
  • Ask God to help you identify the moment today for which you are least grateful. What made it so difficult?
  • Follow this with “When did I feel most alive today? When did I most feel life draining out of me today?”

Try to keep the Daily Examen as consistently as possible. At regular intervals look back over your journal entries and consider:

  • What might these writings be telling you about how God is speaking to you?
  • What do these writings suggest about your identity? Your purpose? Your direction?

(this originally came from Trinity Western University’s website although it looks like the link is no longer available)

3. The Morning Pages

Every morning before beginning your work, write exactly three pages of everything and anything. “Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages– they are not high art. They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only.”

For those of you who cannot imagine ever writing longhand again, there is a 21st century method for doing this is at (750 words equals approx three handwritten pages). This can be especially useful for clearing your mind of all those little nagging items you can’t stop thinking about, worries, anxieties, hopes, or just your to-do list. You’re seriously allowed to write down ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING.

At the end of a month of morning pages, block out an hour or so to reread the morning pages and see what you find there. They’re a great reference point for reviewing your life and the discipline of doing them is a great kick-start to other creative activities.

(This exercise is from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron)

Listening is one of the most important skills we can develop, especially in regards to following our callings.