Moving From Theory To Action

To support you in reflecting on your “no”, here are some reflection questions:

-How did my background (culture, gender, race, socio-economic status, education, work history, personal experiences, etc.) influence my relationship to saying no?

-To what extent can I appreciate how this perspective was trying to keep me safe?

-What are the risks and costs to saying and not saying no generally?

-From the voice of my inner wisdom, what do I want to remind myself the next time I want to say no?

To say no to a specific request:

-What is the yes, behind the no? For the sake of what do I feel I need to say no to this?

-What do I want to say/have them understand? (although “No.” is a complete sentence, so you may choose not to say more.)

-What might be my opening lines?

-How can I prepare your body to be centered (vs. tense, rigid, collapsed, etc.)?

Why Saying No is Good

This time of year always seems particularly full: work projects to be completed before summer begins in earnest, end-of-school activities, yard work and planting that needs tending and gorgeous weather that calls me to go outside for a bike ride, walk, or a casual drink with a friend. “Can-do” attitudes are admired at work and at home. Saying “yes” when someone asks you for something makes you a team player, an ideal employee, and an all-around productive human being. But in deeper reflection, maybe it’s doesn’t?  Taking on too much, losing priorities and trying to be something to everyone can not only leave an individual exhausted, but can compromise our personal capacity as well as the capacity of an organization.

This year at the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility conference, I co-presented a workshop on “Why Saying No is Good for Business.” Learning how to successfully navigate a “no” and communicate more honestly and effectively when given a request is an essential skill for everyone wanting to create balance and focus both in work and in life generally.

The first distinction I want to offer comes from Fernando Flores, an Argentinian professor, entrepreneur, politician and management consultant. He created a model on types of conversations, including Conversations for Action. In it, he asserts that there are five possible responses to a request, not just two, “yes” or “no”. (And many people, especially at work, may think that no isn’t an option, so there isn’t really much choice).

Responses to a request:

Request for clarification -For many of us this step is critical. I think I’m not alone in having said yes, and then realizing I don’t really understand what was asked for me, or it turned into something much bigger or different than I expected.

Ex: “I’m not completely sure what you’re asking for. Could you give me more specifics of the changes you want to see in this month’s report?”

Accept – The tricky thing here is for your “yes” to truly be a “yes.” Align your word and actions. When we say “yes” and then don’t follow through, it breaks trust and puts our integrity into question.

Ex: “Yes, I can do that by 4pm today.”

 Decline -Many people think that a “No” isn’t allowed or appropriate, but if we don’t say no to active requests sometimes, then we may be saying no to things that are actually more important to us. If I say yes to every non-profit board request, I’ll be at meetings most evenings, and then I’ll in effect be saying no to family dinner. Getting clarity around your “yes” behind the “no” can give you the grounding and energy to be willing to give the uncomfortable “no”.

Ex: For a tech-savvy person who gets asked to solve everyone’s computer problems: “I’m sorry, I know I’ve helped you with that before, but I really think you need to ask someone in IT about that.”

Counter Offer -This is helpful if you want to say yes to at least part of it, but you have other constraints or considerations. What I appreciate is that it’s more honest than making a promise you can’t keep. People would rather have the truth than to have you say yes, but then not fulfill. Counter offer is stepping into a negotiation to find common ground on what works for both of you.

Ex: “Sorry, I can’t get that to you today. However, I could get you a draft before my meeting starts at 2pm. Or alternatively I could get you a finished draft by 10am tomorrow.”

Promise to commit -For those situations when you just need a bit more time to process and consider the request, promise to commit offers a pause button to center and consider what you really want and can do. I often invite people who tend to be “automatic yes’s” to master this strategy.

Ex: “I need to check in with my supervisor first. Can I give her a call and get back to you in an hour?”

What I appreciate about this model is that if offers me more choice and agency in responding to a request.

That said, applying these strategies isn’t necessarily easy. Social context matters. This is the deeper aspect of understanding why no can be so difficult and why we all won’t just go forth with the above-mentioned suggestions. We need to recognize that our backgrounds and experiences are going to have a profound influence on how much agency we think or we have to say no. As an example, generally speaking, women are “supposed” to be helpful and kind- and saying no goes against the norm, and thus may carry greater negative consequences. One’s positional power (boss makes a request of subordinate) or social context-cultural upbringing, race, social status, education, etc. will all influence our relationship with “no”. What is the fear behind saying no? All of this comes into play. It makes it more complex than we’d probably like, but it needs to be considered when we enter this topic. See below for some more reflection questions.

Book Review: Pioneer Species

By: Ross Thurber

“Let winter sink into a soft spring night.
May valley fog rise to the foothills
and the foothills be buried in a purple cloak.”
-Excerpt from the poem, “Bell Foundry “

A book of poetry isn’t my typical book recommendation on leadership, but with the theme of nature, mud season, and Vermont, I wanted to offer this book as an opportunity to access a different way of learning through the beauty of words, slowly sipped. Ross is a dairy farmer and dear friend of mine, and this collection of his poetry takes you through the seasons as he lives them on his farm in southern Vermont. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I find his poems to be thought-provoking but not too obscure. Just like mud season, there are jewels and lessons to be learned through poetry if we can take the time to let the words unfold in their time.

Moving From Theory To Action

While it may not sound serious enough for a leadership topic, everyone has opinions about the weather (think about how much time at work is spent talking about it!). To support you in cultivating acceptance and patience for whatever weather you may get, here are some reflection questions:

To what extent do I notice myself complaining about whatever weather there may be (if it’s winter it’s too cold, if it’s summer, it’s too hot). What would it be like if I didn’t judge the weather?

— What is uniquely possible only in this weather that I can be grateful for? (I love the feeling of hiking in early spring when the air is warm on my face, but there is cool air coming from the snow beneath my feet).

— In which season do I have the hardest time being present and accepting? What is a mindset shift I can offer that might support me? What are some actions I can take to learn to appreciate this season more? (For example, I think about the farmers in early spring, and I wear a light green fleece hat in March to symbolize spring!).

What Mud Season Can Teach Us

It’s mud season here in Vermont, and it can be a tough time for me. As some of you know, I lived in Washington, D.C. for ten years. I have fond memories of March, when I’d had enough of winter, and spring swiftly came in with a warm breeze, bursting with beautiful tulips everywhere. It’s magical. Not so in northern New England- we just got slammed with two snowstorms this month, mixed in with raw rainy days and muddy roads with gravel-covered snow piles lasting into May. It was the hardest aspect of moving to Vermont for me. I realized I had to shift my thinking.

It is said that comparison is the root of all suffering, so if I keep comparing Vermont spring to that of Washington, it’s going to be painful. So I took a deep dive into the lessons that mud season has to offer, and I am cultivating the patience to enjoy the season without rushing it. For example, one of the greatest benefits of those forty-degree temperatures that drop down below freezing is that this is the necessary recipe for a great sugaring season. It’s the time of year we visit our friend’s sugar house and can taste still-warm maple syrup after it’s been boiled down from sap. I now think of our extended early spring as good for the farmers, and can appreciate and take comfort knowing that there is life flowing through the trees just underneath the bark that we can’t see. Spring has come in its subtle ways. Am I present to see the signs?

I recently gave a keynote address to a statewide organization titled “What Mud Season Can Teach Us About Living in Community and Organizations.” I’ve created a short promotional video from it and offer it here. In this clip you’ll see two lessons I’ve learned from mud season. It’s a bit of a risk to share it so widely, and I feel a bit vulnerable, but it’s also a way to share my thoughts. If you know of any organizations, companies, or events that might be looking for a keynote speaker to share some hopefully insightful and entertaining thoughts about Vermont mud as it relates to life, I’d welcome the introduction. Thank you! And cheers to mud season!

Book Review: Change Anything

By: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

 This award-winning team of writers does it again. What I like about Change Anything is that it breaks down how we make change happen from six main sources: 1. Love what you hate- learn to like the changes you make; 2. Do what you can’t- learn the skills through deliberate practice in order to make the changes you want; 3&4. Turn accomplices into friends- we all have people in our lives who sabatoge our best efforts- turn them into supporters. 5. Invert the economy- by bribing yourself and raising the cost of bad behavior you can actually get yourself to act in ways you want 6. Control your space- use the environment to become an ally for the change you want rather than a barrier. It’s an engaging book, with good examples and really breaks down the change process which will increase your likelihood of success! (Their book Influencer does the same thing in an organizational context).

Moving From Theory To Action: On Planning

To support you in moving toward action, here are some reflection questions based on the recommendations by Richard Wiseman:

1. What are the benefits to me of taking on this goal? How will my life be better?

2. How can I break down this goal into manageable steps? What are some realistic dates for completing these dates? What is one action, no matter how small, that I can take today?

3. After looking at this concrete timeline, what are small rewards I can give myself to celebrate milestones along the way?

4. How will I track my progress? Visual calendar? Phone app? Handwritten journal? (set this up now)

5. Who do I want to tell about my goal, and what are the specific ways people can support me in reaching it? (accountability partners can be very helpful).

The Power of Planning vs. Dreaming

This summer I decided to begin my goal of hiking the entire Long Trail. It’s a 272-mile trail that runs north to south in Vermont, and I’ve been thinking about it for years. The problem was that my mindset around it was getting in the way. I had dreams of hiking it with my two daughters and a friend of mine who also had a daughter or two. One minor flaw to this plan was that this ideal person didn’t exist, my daughters have stated in no uncertain terms that they “Hate” hiking (and walking for that matter these days), and other family trips took priority over planning a week in the woods for the next three summers.

And then I paused, broke it down and started thinking concretely about this goal. First, I decided it was my goal to hike the Long Trail, no one else’s, and so I would let go of finding a partner to hike the whole thing with, and instead would section-hike it, breaking it down into small chunks. One weekend I could go with my husband and do a part of the trail, another weekend with a girlfriend, a weekend alone, and if the stars align, perhaps in a few years, I might even get my daughters to do a section with me. I moved the timing on my goal out- no need do complete it by the time my elder daughter completed high school. What if it took me ten years or more? After all, to repeat the often-said quote, it’s about the journey, not the destination, right?

And so I have begun, first with my husband in August, then with a girlfriend a week later. I thought that was it for this summer, but unexpectedly a bike trip with friends turned into doing another section of the LT when I injured my shoulder and couldn’t bike for a while. With this long-term goal clarified, I am now seeing ways to make progress even though the completion date isn’t in sight. It’s a good reminder about the power of breaking goals down.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about dreaming. It can provide us with hope and inspiration. In my case it motivated me to buy new gear so that I could travel lighter on the trail. That said, just as buying the gym membership doesn’t improve your health, a new backpack didn’t get me on the trail.

Here is an excerpt from researcher and best-selling author, Richard Wiseman, from his book: 59 Seconds: Think a Little Change A Lot. See below for his top five list of what works in achieving one’s goals:

  1. Break your goal into a series of steps, focusing on creating sub-goals that are concrete, measurable, and time-based.
  2. Tell your friends and family about your goals, thus increasing the fear of failure and eliciting support.
  3. Regularly remind yourself of the benefits associated with achieving your goals by creating a checklist of how life would be better once you obtain your aim.
  4. Give yourself a small reward whenever you achieve a sub-goal, thus maintaining motivation and a sense of progress.
  5. Make your plans and progress concrete by keeping a hand-written journal, completing a computer spreadsheet or covering a notice board with graphs or pictures.

OK, so I didn’t pull out this list before I started thinking about my Long Trail adventure, and in fact, I didn’t know about it until I started researching for this newsletter. But what is interesting is how many of these I had done in my own way:

  1. As I shared, I decided to section hike it in smaller pieces, extended the timeframe, and shoot for 2-3 weekends a year (that puts me at under 10 years if I do 27 miles a year- clearly doable).
  2. I put my goal on Facebook- and was surprised and grateful for the number of encouraging comments. Several people said they would love to join me for a weekend.
  3. Benefits are clear, as I love being in the woods, hiking and sleeping out. I miss my big international backpacking trips of my 20s, and this connects me to an important aspect of myself.
  4. From my backpacking friends in Lithuania, I learned a lovely tradition to bring a “surprise” on each trip. I love pulling out an unexpected surprise and to receive one. My girlfriend carried in fresh orange juice for our morning after our first sleep out-awesome!
  5. The Long Trail requires a journal to get credit so I created a spreadsheet with who, where, miles covered, and fun notes to remember about the trip. I also started taking one video on each section to remind me of the experience. Maybe I’ll put it into a montage at the end.

What about you? Any big goals that you haven’t figured out how to make happen yet?

Book Review: The Upside of Stress-Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It

By: Kelly McGonigal

If you’re curiosity is piqued and you think you’d like to really pause and dig into this really important concept- please read this book! It’s a way to walk yourself through a process of creating a new, more positive relationship with stress. Part One engages you with rethinking the narratives and stories you have about stress and countering it with some useful research that shows stress actually has some upsides. Part Two explains how to transform stress, including rethinking anxiety and building deeper connections with others in stressful times as a way to build resilience against stress. Throughout the book there are personal reflections to prompt your thinking and great stories that cause you to nod your head and say “Me, too!” Two thumbs up!

P.S. If you’re feeling too stressed to read another book, here’s Kelly’s  TED talk on the topic:

Moving From Theory To Action: On Stress

To support you in changing your mindset on stress, here are some reflection questions:

1. To what extent do I find the stressful aspects of my life also meaningful?

2. When have I experienced that stress actually makes me more productive and engaged?

3. What is the language I use around stress and how might I make a small shift toward a more positive relationship with stress?

4. Since reaching out to others is one of the ways to reduce stress, who can I reach out to for support?

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