Tuesday, September 29, 2015

How to deal with a difficult person

Photo license: CC0 Public Domain / FAQ

Conflict is a part of life. Whether in our personal or business lives we encounter people that we find 'difficult'. We may characterize this type of problem simply and say "we just don't see eye to eye". Or perhaps we may feel that this person was put on this earth simply to make our lives utterly miserable.

Sometimes we can brush this troublesome person aside in our minds and focus on other things. But usually, especially in a work setting where your success depends on this individual, it can lead to great stress. A lot of my mentoring conversations involve helping mentees deal with one or more difficult people they regularly encounter.

I have one useful tool to suggest that will either resolve the conflict or at least oftentimes lessen its impact. That tool is empathy - the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Seth Godin recently posted a wonderful article on the subject. It's quite short and worth the read - click here. Seth posits that deciding another person's actions are motivated by stupidity or evilness is rarely helpful. Instead it's far more useful to focus on the context of the situation and the motivation of the person you're dealing with.

Let me quote from that article: "If you want to know why someone does what they do, start with what they know, what they believe and where they came from."

The amount of conflict with another being is inversely proportional to your understanding of that being. You don't have to agree with that individual. That's ok. Just seek to understand - always. It's unlikely to change that person's behavior but it will put a far less vexing frame around them in your mind. And over time that mental reframing alone may transform that difficult person into an ally.

"The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend." 
- Abraham Lincoln 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Roll the Bones

"Why does it happen? Because it happens.
Roll the bones." - Neil Peart

In many mentoring conversations and blog posts I've discussed issues around the weighty topics of luck and fairness. Whether the subject is about a mentee being passed over for a promotion, enduring job interview rejection or having a perceived inability to be a natural born speaker or leader - ultimately the individual wants to understand why things are the way they are and could they have done something to prevent whatever pain they are currently experiencing. Could they have taken less risks? Could they have studied more? Could they have been better networkers? Or has it all already been decided by a force out of their control?

The question of "why?" is one of the most enigmatic and motivational questions of the human race. Scientists use that question to drive themselves to devise experiments to explain what they observe in the world. Clergy use that question to drive the faithful even closer to their faith. Teachers use that question to open minds. Many times politicians use that question to close minds.

I am neither politician nor clergy. If anything I aspire to be a part-time teacher through mentoring. I cannot even begin to answer that question for my mentees in a truly meaningful way. But what I can do is wonder along with them if that question even matters.

"Bones" is a slang term for dice. In fact "dice" were originally made from the ankle bones of certain animals and called "knucklebones" leading to that nickname.  Dice have been used since before recorded history most often in games of chance. Humans, it appears, have had a very long and romantic relationship with the concept of luck. It's all fun and games until it's not.

If you've been reading this blog you'll know I'm a big believer in someone's ability to "make their own luck". I've often offered many quotes along the lines of "luck happens when preparation meets opportunity". All still true but what happens if, for example, opportunity never comes knocking? Bad luck. I believe you can minimize the influence of luck but you can't eliminate it completely. And when luck happens "to" you then you need to deal with it the best you can. "Why did it happen?" is no longer a question that matters. It happened. The sooner you deal with the situation at hand and plot your course for a better future the sooner you've worked to minimize the impact of luck.

Bad luck is also not a reason to avoid rolling the dice, trying new things or taking a risk. Other very famous and very powerful quotes remind us: "nothing ventured, nothing gained" and "if you've never made a mistake then you've never tried anything new" [Einstein].

Dealing with bad luck, making mistakes, taking risks in search of greater rewards is all part of the human experience and that's all reason enough. "Why?" isn't a question that can always be answered or even always needs to be answered. "It is what it is" as they say.

I wish you all a heart full of courage to persevere no matter the situation and a world full of good luck!

"Why are we here? Because we're here.
Roll the bones." - Neil Peart

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Not What Ships Are For

Photo credit: Alan Saporta
“A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.” 
                                       - John A. Shedd

When explaining what mentoring consists of my definition always begins with: "it's a set of conversations between two people who trust each other". I am reminded of one of my most favorite quotes about conversations courtesy of Susan Scott:

"While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a business, or a life—any conversation can." - Susan Scott

I would posit that mentoring conversations have a far higher chance of impacting a life precisely because a mentor creates a safe "harbor" for the mentee to ideate, question, learn, experiment, vent and validate. In the end however the entire point of these conversations is for the mentee to sail back out into that dangerous sea full of possibility and promise.

Ships do need to dock in a harbor to do business, for repairs and to onboard personnel and provisions. The harbor is a good place to reassess and recalibrate risk but not to the point of inaction. And what is usually the reason for a person's inaction? Quite simply: fear.

Mentoring conversations in a safe space are a good partial antidote. It sets up a foundation for the mentee to conquer their fear. The ultimate cure to fear is to build up the courage and take the risk (what's the worst that can happen?). The way I help my mentees do that is to remind them that their risk-taking will either lead to success or learning - both positive outcomes. By framing "mistakes" as "opportunities to learn" it takes much (though not necessarily all) of the sting out of trying something and getting an undesirable result.

Some may argue that not all "undesirable results" are equal. Some possible results may be quite difficult to contemplate and deal with. And I agree that not all risks are worth blindly taking. When a risk is identified to act on that is both highly impactful and has a high chance of resulting in something very unpleasant I work with the mentee to figure out ways to fail/learn quickly and as cheaply as possible to minimize damage. A little extra thought here goes a long way to saving pain later on. Those types of risks are also ones that benefit from developing a backup plan or two.

So think positively, be courageous, have a back up plan if necessary, take control of the ship and sail it into the ocean to explore new and wondrous shores.

Monday, March 9, 2015


Image credit: Fpound at the English language Wikipedia

I recently watched a very enjoyable "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee" episode by Jerry Seinfeld with Bill Burr as his 'vehicular guest'. Early in the show Bill espouses a philosophy of life that was passed down to him by his financially astute brother. It goes something like this: "You don't want to be the guy that owns the boat. You want to be the friend of the guy that owns the boat. Let him deal with docking fees and the barnacle cleaning. You just show up with the beer and you're the hero. You get on the boat, you enjoy it and when it's done you can [wipe your hands of it.]" 

You can see the clip for yourself by clicking here and fast forwarding to around 3:50 minutes.

On the surface that seems like a perfectly good, perhaps even admirable, way of living your life. You get all the benefits with none of the inconveniences. But I'm not so convinced. While you may enjoy many of the advantages with fewer burdens in the end you are not the master of your own destiny. You are completely dependent on your friend to want to take out the boat which he or she will do on their schedule and at their convenience. You may be enjoying the ride but it's likely not when nor how often you want it.

When discussing a complex situation with a mentee there sometimes comes a time when the mentee wishes someone else would be stuck owning the problem. I gently remind them that all problems have gifts hidden in them. If the fear of making mistakes comes up I gently remind them that their decisions will either be correct or they will learn something - all positive outcomes. The joy then comes from owning the issues and having the independence to make decisions and reap the benefits whether they be success or learning. Independence and the ability to control your own destiny are precious qualities to cherish.

I'm not suggesting to shun the help of others. Few of us advance without the friendship, encouragement and guidance of family, colleagues, friends, managers and mentors.That's equivalent to getting help picking out the boat or maintaining the boat or steering the boat. It's not the same as just going for a ride.

All this talk of boats and sailing and destiny brings celestial navigation and the following quote to mind:

"It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves."
- William Shakespeare

Monday, January 12, 2015

What Is Hidden In Front Of You

Image from: is0b3lpalm3rs0n  Creative Commons license

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don't believe in magic will never find it.”
                                                                - Roald Dahl

This post has been a struggle to complete. My initial notion of what this article would be about was "what might be hidden in front of you" in terms of you as the mentor. I was going to use this phrase as an introduction to the concept that there's always more to what your mentee is saying. You should be paying attention to what's not being said in your conversations just as much, if not more, than what is actually being said. Do you notice patterns in topics or tone of voice around certain topics? Are there areas the mentee consistently avoids? Is there advice the mentee is resistant to consider?

Then when I sought out quotes I could share along with this article I found the two that bookend this text. These quotes expanded my scope of what secrets are hidden around us all.

Considering the Roald Dahl quote and hidden magic: Magic is defined as "the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces." Putting the believability of supernatural forces aside, the quote is about you being an active participant in finding wonderment at what happens around you. Staying open and curious ("watching with glittering eyes") is the key to finding this magic and being able to create a space for your mentee to feel safe giving up their 'secrets'. This is not something that you can fake or easily turn on just for your mentoring conversations. It's an overall approach to life that others, including your mentee, will sense and respond to positively. And if curiosity and wonderment are things you consider yourself poorly skilled at it's actually something you can significantly improve on by simply practicing (click for related article)!

The Mike Murdock quote below, just as in the wisdom of Roald Dahl, is one that applies to all of us - mentor or not. We may all have big dreams and big plans to get there but what makes up a life is the little bit we focus on and achieve day to day. And yet our daily routine is rarely something we are conscience of which literally makes it hidden from us. It's like commuting to work and not remembering how you got there because it's become rote. Our day to day activities pass unnoticed and we essentially fall into a walking slumber going through our daily motions. It would be devastating then to fully awaken one day horrified at where we ended up.

Here's something that I do to counter that danger and ensure that my day to day activities support my intended path: Once or twice each year I decide to break up my routine. Usually this happens on a weekend. I spend my day alone and in a manner that's unusual for me. If I've never gone to a particular library or coffee shop then I'll go there. While I'm there I review how I've spent my recent days. I ask myself if the actions I've been taking day to day are pushing or pulling me on my desired direction.

By being in a "strange" new surrounding my brain thinks differently. It's amazing how changing your surroundings and taking the time to simply ponder impacts your thought processes. This allows new ideas to come to the fore. That's precisely what happens when you go on vacation and why vacations are so important.

All these secrets, whether they are yours or your mentee's, are extraordinary ones to reveal with curiosity and amazement. Awaken yourself, discover and process them for they hold the keys to your future.

"The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine."
                                                                - Mike Murdock