Intergenerational Lessons

Nash enjoys an afternoon in the park under his mom's watchful eye.

My husband and I have the privilege of spending time with our 15-month old grandson, Nash.  It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about child-raising issues, so I am happy to receive wisdom from my daughter’s knowledge and the wealth of child development resources that are available to today’s parents.

Recently I was reading about a child’s fight-flight response and the neurological impact fear has on a developing brain (Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood, Fay & Fay). In short, an adult who understands the importance of being calm when a child makes a manageable and safe mistake helps the child’s brain learn.  An angry and fear-producing response from an adult sends the child’s brain into flight and survival mode where the important lessons of learning are blocked.  Makes sense. Yet maintaining calm is easier said than done in all instances!

Recently, I also read an article in the Harvard Business Review called “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.”  The author, Chris Argyris, contends that some of the most highly skilled employees in companies are the hardest people to teach because “behind their high aspirations is an equally high fear of failure…they become despondent in situations in which they don’t excel immediately.” He maintains that some employees who make mistakes actually feel ashamed.

So, how do these situations connect?  In both childhood and adulthood, mistakes will happen – need to happen for the purpose of learning – and how a parent/caregiver or supervisor responds sets the environment for either learning or fear.  Argyris argues that senior managers set the tone. When they acknowledge their own mistakes and coach others to critically examine their mistakes, they create an environment where true learning can take place.

A place for mistakes…can you imagine such a place?


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The Fearless Front Line

I have just read and reviewed a new book written by a friend and colleague, Ray Attiyah. His leadership philosophies help us understand how to engage front line workers in a way that creates ownership of their business.

In the Fearless Front Line: the Key to Liberating Leaders to Improve and Grow Their Businesses, Ray discusses his Run-Improve-Grow model for organizational success.

At the heart of Ray’s book is the understanding that all business success must flow from work relationships that are built on trust. When supervisors develop trusting relationships with employees, they are well on the way to creating thinking teams. This book makes the case for why healthy employee engagement must be the top priority in any organization. When front line employees are free and able to manage day-to-day responsibilities, supervisors and managers are set free to improve and grow the company.

Want to learn more? Check out a glimpse of Ray’s philosophy at The 2nd Annual International Leadership Blogathon.

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Conversation and Connection

Many years ago I was a participant in a diversity training session, and the facilitators introduced an activity called “We Connect®.”  Each of us was given a set of colored plastic links with cards that led to self-disclosing discussions.  If we found we had similarities with another group member, we clicked a link together thus forming a chain. The purpose of the exercise was to illustrate how much we have in common with others.

I have been noticing a similar conversational pattern between people.  One person will share something, and another person will then share a similar situation or experience – thus creating an “I-know-what-you-mean” scenario.

Is this a problematic habit?  Not necessarily, although I think we have to be careful:

  • Sometimes jumping in too quickly with our own story may leave the other person feeling dismissed.
  • “We Connect Talk” may be a cover-up for the bad habit called stagehogging.
  • Matching our story with the other’s story may be seen as a competitive move.
  • Speaking too quickly about our own reality may short change the new learning we might gain if we spent more time listening.

Can this conversational pattern be helpful at times?  I think so:

  • If done well, connecting stories can send the signal we’re empathetic.
  • Some people feel better when they sense there is some identification with their situation.
  • Connecting stories may lead to new insights for both parties.
  • Sharing a similar situation may actually prompt more reserved types to more fully open up.

So, how do I know if I’m being helpful or annoying? Do your homework:

  • What might be most beneficial to this person right now? Speaking? Listening? What does my gut tell me?
  • Am I taking over the conversation to fulfill my own ego needs?
  • Am I talking because I’m not comfortable in listening mode?
  • Does joining in like this make me feel needed?

One size never fits all when it comes to interpersonal relationships.  As always, take time to become an expert on the self. The best results come from self clarity.


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What I do is who I am.


 I’m getting ready to conduct a communication session with a group of high school women. During our time together we will explore the statement, “What I do is who I am.”

 This is a tough concept.

 As I reflect on my own life, I remember many times when I was apt to say, “That’s not the real me. I acted that way because… (insert the explanation/excuse for my bad behavior here)…”

 No matter how we might spin it, what we do DOES matter. It adds to the definition of who we are as people in relationship. Our actions create our identity.

 I’m glad that some people in my life have been forgiving and have given me a ‘pass’ from time-to-time when I have been less than civil.  I am fortunate to have relationships that understand I continue to be a work in progress. 

Having said this, I still need to be mindful of my actions. There comes a time when the explanations will no longer get me that pass.  There comes a time when what I do may be the real me.

Let’s own it.

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Confident Parents Confident Kids


Happy New Year! I hope 2013 has started out well for you.

I want to share with you a new blog that I think is terrific! Jenn Miller is an educator to schools and parents.  In light of today’s current events, her insights, hints and guidance will support all of us who understand good communication skill building begins at home.

I hope you will become a fan of

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“I want people to like me!”



When I have the privilege of working one-on-one with an employee, I frequently ask, “How do you want to be seen by the people who report to you?” In essence, I’m asking about their identity needs.

On more than one occasion a person in a leadership role will say, “I want my employees to like me.”


Being liked is certainly a good feeling. At the same time, the need to be liked may interfere with a leader’s primary role responsibility – to develop and support employee skill sets and hold people accountable for excellent work. If we don’t hold people accountable, we say, indirectly, “I don’t believe you are capable of achievement.”

Cognitive therapists have identified an irrational belief called The Fallacy of Approval. It’s based on the idea that it is vital to get the approval of all people – even if it means sacrificing the responsibilities associated with one’s role.

So, how do we refute this irrational belief?  One suggestion is to start with the statement, “In my role, I am called to________.” Fill in the blank (s).

Then speak from the perspective of your role: “In my role as Shift Supervisor, it’s my responsibility to ensure safe work practices. What I see here is not safe.”

Presenting yourself in your role may alleviate some of your fear that employees won’t like what you’re saying or asking.  They may not like it – or like YOU in the moment, but I guarantee they will respect your clarity.

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Beyond Civility


The elections are upon us, and now, more than ever, we need honest communication to move our country, our states, our counties, cities and communities in a positive direction.

For the past several months, I’ve been involved in a joint effort to encourage collaborative discourse among civil leaders in the Cincinnati area.  The project is called Beyond Civility (, where citizens and civic leaders meet to explore the barriers and bridges to effective dialogue. Our goal is to learn and practice techniques for communicating around and through our differences; communicating to hear and be heard, to understand and be understood, and to show and receive respect. 

My colleague on the project, Bob Rack, recently wrote an article for, sharing the project’s progress.  I share the article with you as an impressive example of collaborative dialogue between diverse, public leaders.

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Responding to Children and Adults Alike

On Monday morning, my family and I were driving back to Milwaukee from a weekend away, when we learned of the tragedy that befell the Sikh community in Oak Creek.  We were stunned, angered, and saddened by this senseless act of violence in our very own community.  My husband glanced back at our 7 month-old son, sleeping in the back, and asked, “How could we ever explain something like this to Nash?”

The next day, Nash and I were on the way to a library Storytime when I heard an interesting piece on our local NPR station.  The segment addressed how to answer children’s questions after traumatic events – events that can be hard for even adults to understand.

The guest, Mary Esser, is a child psychologist for Milwaukee Public Schools, and she highlighted some communication principles for facilitating dialogue around these difficult topics.  I couldn’t help but notice that her key recommendations for children were 100% relevant to adult and workplace communication as well.

I’m not suggesting that difficult workplace scenarios are even comparable to this shooting tragedy (although sometimes we over-react and believe that issues at work are tragic, don’t we?).  I do think that we all can learn a great lesson about responding to any difficult situation from this interview.

Mary suggests that the first thing to do when responding to a difficult situation is not to “do” anything at all, but to listen and observe.  How often is our knee-jerk reaction to do just that – react.  Say something.  Do something.  Fix something.  Imagine if leaders simply watched to get a pulse for what real feelings and reactions were before responding. Imagine if leaders listened to our questions and concerns first.  This would create a culture of free speech.  Dialogue would naturally unfold because dialogue is two-way and authentic.

Next, she suggests the best response is an honest one, even if it means saying “I don’t know.” Transparency, for children and adults alike, fosters honesty and trust.  She suggests sticking to facts and avoiding speculation.  For many of us, uncertainty is what makes us the most anxious.  With the best of intentions, I have seen leaders speculate and reach for answers, when in fact, they are unintentionally creating more anxiety by guessing.  Sticking to facts in your response is what can help people feel the most settled – “I don’t know all the details about our re-organization, but I do know everyone will keep the same job titles and wages.”

Finally, Mary suggests that welcoming questions is critical to building more trust and dialogue.  I once worked for someone who would record any questions she couldn’t answer, and would always promptly circle back with answers and updates when she had them.  It made us feel heard and that our questions were valuable.

The recent tragedies of the past several weeks have forced us to ask, “How do we respond?”  I’m new to being a parent, and obviously my 7 month-old isn’t asking penetrating questions just yet.  But whether in response to children or adults, I can see that respecting feelings and taking questions and concerns seriously is what can be most helpful.  Hopefully, if we learn how to discuss difficult topics, we can promote understanding which will transcend tragedy.

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Repair and Return


I’m getting ready to participate in a communications session that addresses the topic of conversational tones. In short, we will ask the question, “How can we navigate difficult conversations where there are divergent views on an issue? How can we productively stay in a conversation when defensiveness escalates and respectful listening shuts down?”

Here are several ideas from the upcoming workshop:

If an exchange or conversation begins to slide into defensiveness and unproductive argumentation, what communication choices do we have to get back on track?

  • Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to say, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, I’m interrupting you.”

“I’m sorry, that was a low blow.”

“I’m sorry, I’m off the issue.”

“I’m sorry, I’m monopolizing this conversation.”

  • Sometimes you can get back on track with phrases like,

“Let’s stop a minute. We’re getting defensive.”

“Say that again. This time I’ll listen to understand your point.”

“Let’s start this conversation over.”

There is no guarantee that every conversation can be repaired. At the same time, a small, manageable tactic may be all that it takes to stay on course.

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Communication Rituals

   Many books have been written on the benefits of rituals. Healthy family rituals can offer stability; meaningful love rituals may enhance trust; well-managed company rituals can serve as motivators and morale boosters.

Communication choices also can become ritualized; i.e. we may respond in the same way to repetitive situations.

 Example:  I recently was in the grocery store and watched a young father manage a discussion with his little daughter:

 Dad: “Make sure you stay seated in the shopping cart.”

 Daughter: (playing with the cart’s steering wheel) “Why?”

 Dad: “Why do you think?”

 Daughter: “I don’t know.”

 Dad:  (reviewing his grocery list) “Because you don’t want to fall out of the cart and get hurt.”

 And off they went.

 I have a hunch a similar exchange has happened between this father and daughter many times before.  While I appreciate the dad’s choice to engage his daughter’s thinking (“Why do you think?”), the response he received sent a signal from the daughter that she has ritualized the word, “Why?” It’s what she says when she is given direction.

 So, if Dad woke up to this ritual, he could ask himself, “Is what I’m doing getting the results I want?”  If the answer is no, he will need to do something else.  And doing something else can be as simple as changing a few words and vocal tones:

 Dad: “Make sure you stay seated in the shopping cart.”

 Daughter: (playing with the cart’s steering wheel) “Why?”

 Dad: (giving his daughter direct eye contact) “Let’s think about why. I have a thought, but you start. What’s one idea you can think of for staying seated in the cart?”

 Two lessons:

1. Don’t keep doing that which doesn’t work. Try something else.

2. Small changes may get you the results you desire.

Posted in Interpersonal Communication, Nonverbal Behavior, Tone | Leave a comment