Creating the Narrative for the Stay At Home Directive

Several girlfriends encouraged me to write a piece on some of my strategies for the Stay At Home directive. I begin with deep appreciation and gratitude for the blessed life I am living and recognizing that social distancing is a privilege, staying in my own home with my family is a privilege, having nature out my front door is a privilege, internet and online schooling is a privilege, safety is a privilege, and soap and food are privileges that won’t be afforded to so many in the US and around the globe.

Still, the day-to-day challenges that come with social distancing and self-isolation are real, and what I’ve decided to focus on is Steven Covey’s Sphere of Influence vs. Sphere of Concern, and put energy toward where I have power- with myself, my family and those connected to me. While there is a lot of uncertainty, for now I’m holding that I get to create the narrative for my family and me. What is my intention for holding all of this? Here is a poem that resonates with me:

Don’t Hesitate

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
–Mary Oliver

In the martial art Aikido, one of the main principles is to move where you can, rather than where you can’t. If your opponent has your arm, don’t focus there and resist it, but rather bring your awareness to all the other places that are open and make your next move there.

This is how I have been feeling about the “Stay at Home” directive. I could spend my energy resisting and being angry and sad about what is so–  that my girls aren’t going back to school this year, I can’t visit with friends, our April vacation to a warm beach is off… all of it. But to help me move through this grief (please check this out On Grief), my next move is to focus on what I can do, rather than what I can’t do. In many ways, boundaries are crucial for creativity. The structure of a Haiku is what makes it so powerful, brainstorming can be helped by setting parameters of time, and “Stay at Home” boundaries give me new territory in which to focus– the four walls of our home.

I believe I can have huge influence over the narrative I create for my family on how they will later look at the Covid-19 crisis. What do I want them to remember? Certainly not just the sibling squabbles, boredom, and frustrations. I’d actually like them to look back at this and say there were some fun things we did, and it was a special time in some ways (though they’ll probably never admit it until they’re adults).

So here are a few examples of what we’re doing in hopes that it might spark some ideas that feel doable for you and the loved ones in your life.

  • Family Fun (or Forced Family Fun as it may be). Each member of the house is responsible for leading one  evening family activity per week. It could be as simple as choosing a game of Scrabble, or more creative– one of my daughters came up with an Aubrey (our dog) trivia game on Aubrey’s birthday. (Our younger daughter won, as Jon and I had no idea Aubrey had a favorite color). I had a fancy dinner where everyone dressed up and spoke in bad British accents all night. (Our elder daughter surprised us wearing her prom gown as it seems that’s off this year). And Jon has been using his evenings to show old family videos when the kids were little, which we all love. We take lots of photos of these events- it will help with the memories later on.
  • “What I wouldn’t have done today if it weren’t for Covid-19”- Each night at dinner, we write down one thing we wouldn’t have done if it weren’t for the pandemic. They can be simply be a record of where in the pandemic we are, from “Had first zoom class” to “Saw a raccoon, a fox and a deer” (Younger daughter as she spent much of the day doing homework in our cozy chair that looks out toward the forest).
  • Physical Challenge- We have a pull-up bar that’s been used more for hanging laundry recently- so Jon had us do a baseline pull-up contest, and now everyone gets money for each additional pull-up they can do. We’ve got a weekly mandatory hike (with lunch and treats on top, taking photos when they’re smiling) and I am trying to learn one hard yoga pose. 
  • Individual goals-I relooked at my Sabbatical List (as I wrote about here) and realized I had quite a few things that I still want to do but didn’t prioritize last year, and which don’t require me going anywhere: reading, gardening, cleaning out the garage, etc. There are new opportunities as much of the world has opened its doors to take online courses, watch a Broadway show, etc. And then there’s the opposite- your goal could be to do less, to sit with a cup of tea more frequently. It’s up to you. Putting intention to it can be powerful. The thing that I learned from my sabbatical, though, is that you can’t do them all.  Pick one that really interests you right now, and keep the others on the list as a “could do” for the future. No added stress needed, the intention is to just offer a little focus.
  • Relationships- We all know how important this is now: Regular phone call check-ins, virtual happy hours with long-distance friends, walk and talks with friends (where we’re each in our own neighborhood taking a walk and talking on the phone), help me feel connected. And having a couple of coordinated family activities like movie night where things are positive helps to counter the moments of friction.

At work, we can also influence the narrative:  it is about what we pay attention to and highlight. I am working with an ER Nurse Manager at a hospital and we spoke about the importance of highlighting the wins and small positive moments that make it worthwhile. At work, to recognize the effort people put in to make one’s office go virtual. In The Power of Moments, by Dan Heath he speaks about the importance of creating or noting peak moments as what influences how things are remembered. How can you create a couple of peak moments in your work now? 

To close, I remember the first time I saw footage of the Italians out on their balconies singing, I was moved to tears. Such an simple, amazing example of turning toward what they could do in the boundary of the four walls.  While it may be bumpy and difficult at times, I believe it is in our power to create our personal narrative and to find meaning in all of this.

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: The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

By: Michael Bungay Stanier

 A client raved about the impact this book is having and I want to share it with you. It’s a highly pragmatic book that offers a clear structure on how to have coaching conversations with your subordinates that will have impact. It is based on seven basic questions:

 Question 1: “What’s on your mind?”

Question 2: “And what else?”

Question 3: “What’s the real challenge here for you?”

Question 4: “What do you want?”

Question 5: “How can I help?”

Question 6: “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”

Question 7: “What was most useful for you?”

This is one of those cases of simple doesn’t equal easy, otherwise we could just end here. In the book the author helps you understand why these question are so powerful, how to use them in a work context, and put them into practice (this is the hard part). A great read and reference to have on your management shelf. And when I think about it, my sense is that these questions would really work at home, too!

Moving From Theory To Action: Rethinking Critical Feedback

To support you in preparing for giving critical feedback, here are some reflection questions:

 –What is my mindset going into this conversation-how do I remind myself that feedback is my interpretation and not necessarily a fact? Where can I be curious? Can I hold that I might not have all the information?

 –What does this person care about that would make the feedback important for him/her to want to know? How can I frame this conversation from that perspective?

-Who am I in relation to this person? What is my level of power? How can I be responsible for my social context such as race, gender, age, etc. in offering this feedback?

-What is my mood right now and how can I put myself into a frame of mind that will be helpful? Is the other person in a mood to be able to listen? What is the mood I want to create in through this conversation (shame, blame, accountability, possibility, empowerment)?

-What is my first sentence to “enter” into the conversation in an honest, straightforward way?

Taking Apart the Feedback Sandwich

I have been working with several individual coaching clients recently on improving their coaching skills with staff. One aspect that always comes up is how to give critical feedback. One of them told me recently that she is known for her sandwich feedback with one of her subordinates in particular. (He’s the one who struggles the most). The standard format of the feedback sandwich is praise-criticism-praise. She said that whenever she gives him a compliment he now jokes and asks what it is she really wants to say to him. The sandwich isn’t really having the impact it is supposed to. He doesn’t really hear or believe the positive acknowledgement because he knows that the meat of the conversation is coming, and then doesn’t really hear the compliment on the other side because he’s thinking about the critical feedback and knows that the praise is just designed to soften things anyway.

That said, the sandwich approach to feedback, “praise-criticism-praise”, is a well-known strategy in management training. For those who are giving feedback, many believe it feels a bit easier to “soften” the negative feedback by adding in some positives. Some people think it will give balance to the feedback, and others think it’s easier for the recipient to hear it when presented this way.

Roger Schwarz in his Harvard Business Review blog, “The ‘Sandwich Approach’ Undermines your Feedback” offers an alternative view. To summarize:

  • “Easing in” to sharing negative feedback can actually increase discomfort and anxiety for the person giving the feedback as the longer one talks without giving the negative feedback the harder it can become. This may also result in the recipient sensing the discomfort and becoming more anxious themselves.
  • In his work with teams interviewing direct reports, it turns out that almost all say they want just the meat-not the bread on each end. It undermines trust.
  • People learn better when receiving feedback, positive or negative, in a timely manner, so rather than holding positive feedback for a time when you need it as a part of a “sandwich”, offer it when it happens. Employees report not believing the positive feedback anyway if it’s presented as a part of a feedback sandwich, so to increase one’4ts trust, authenticity and transparency, offer the positive separately from the negative feedback.

So what’s a better way to approach giving negative feedback than serving a lukewarm, stale, overdone sandwich? Try two things. First, don’t assume that you necessarily have all the facts. Sometimes you can start with an open-ended question—“Bill, I heard that the client was unhappy that you didn’t get that to her by the deadline. Is that right?” Maybe you don’t have all the information.

Furthermore, a mind shift may be helpful for you in giving negative feedback. We try to soften it with a sandwich, and sometimes dread giving it, because we worry that it will hurt them and our relationship with them. But if you can identify what they care about and anchor your feedback in that, then you’re not hurting, you’re helping them with their goals and helping them to improve.

Not easy, but certainly worth trying if it might have a deeper impact. Let me know what you learn!

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).

Moving From Theory to Action: Curious vs. Convinced

To support you in deepening your curiosity with those who hold different views from you, I offer some questions reprinted with permission by my friend and colleague, Howard Ross. These come from his company’s resource guide: Inclusive Responses in Times of Fear. See this and other resources on cookross.com.

 1. How do you feel about people who think differently than you about this?

2. What are you afraid of? What is more inspiring to you than fear?

3. How can you engage in these conversations authentically and whole-heartedly? What might get in the way?

4. What are you committed to? How do you see your role/contribution in any conversations or actions?

5. What is your desired outcome for these conversations?

Curious vs. Convinced

I’m going to go out on a limb and talk about politics. This presidential election season has been hard for me. The name calling, rudeness, and divisiveness of this campaign has me disheartened, and I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. I just can’t wait for it to be over. The major media outlets including The Huffington Post, The Atlantic and even Fox News are writing about how to manage election stress. It feels like the negative election energy is seeping into our pores, and to try to prevent that, we armor up and get rigid in our views and stay in our camps of righteousness in order to not feel the fear, and the pain of not understanding one another. Yet I don’t want to harden myself against half the population. That feels like a very high cost to us as a nation, and I’m in the inquiry of how to hold my dignity and the dignity of others through this election period.

“I’m right, they’re idiots” is what it boils down to in our political dialogue, not only with the candidates but also how we look at our neighbors, colleagues and family members who disagree with us. Recently I’ve been thinking, “Where do I go from here? How do I get out of this righteous mindset?” Rather than convince myself more that my side is right, how might I open the door to curiosity instead? Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (click to his fascinating 19-minute TED Talk) offers a path of understanding. He explains that reasoning with others doesn’t work because our beliefs are based more deeply than that. He asserts that there are six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Republicans and Democrats vote based on these moral interests, and how they weight each in importance tends to define their vote.

For me, this premise helps me to be a bit more curious and less judgmental. Fundamentally, I believe that fear is a prominent driver in our life, as our brains are hardwired to sense danger and to protect. And if we fear that our moral values are at stake we will fight to protect them. In this case, fighting is the rhetoric we hear in the election arena. But instead of fighting the Other, if I can understand the fear behind others’ view I can then find a place where I can connect with them– what do they fear losing? What are the values they hold dear? It doesn’t mean I’m negating my views, but for a few moments, it allows me to pause and connect with their humanity and mine. Haidt’s research helps make it more concrete for me.

This topic feels risky for me to put out here, and as I reread it, I know that I risk being misunderstood, or considered preachy, naïve or something else. But ultimately I want to share the value in upholding the dignity of all, which is sometimes lost in the Red versus Blue war. If it serves as one small drop in the well toward understanding and healing, then it will have been worth it.

water-shed (watr'shed') Noun: a critical point that marks a division or change of course; a turning point — © 2014 WatershedCoaching. All rights reserved.