Thursday, April 20, 2017

Four Ways to Ruin Any Social Situation

We all have a friend that always seems to know the right move in any social situation. This person handles every tense or awkward situation with grace and never seems flustered. I am not that person. Over the years I have found ways to mess up all kinds of social situations. I am able to create the following list of ways to ruin a social situation because I have done all of them:

1. Telling people how you would have handled a stressful situation better than they did.

Right after college I was working at a group home and after four months switched from one group of residents to another. On my first day with this new group one of the residents sent me to the Emergency Room. The injuries wasn't serious but it was painful. The next day when I was back at work, two of my co-workers told me in great detail all of the ways that I mishandled the situation and how they would have done better if they had been there. As you might imagine, the conversation did not make me feel better about what happened.

Nothing good comes from telling someone how to handle a situation after the fact. The truth is that you have no idea how you would have responded because you were not there. Mike Tyson said that everyone has a plan until they get hit. In a crisis some people rise to the occasion and others freeze up. It is impossible to predict how things will go and sometimes the biggest talkers come up short in the moment. The best response in this situation is to listen and be empathetic.

2. Offering unsolicited negative opinions.

I while back I was in the break room at work talking to a co-worker over lunch. I had just finished telling her how much fun I was having reading The Chronicles of Narnia books to my children when another co-worker came in. She looked at us and declared how she thought that those books are awful and boring. I haven't had many conversations with that co-worker since that day.

I come from a long line of people who are free with their opinions, no matter the situation, and it has taken me a long to time learn when to keep my opinion to myself. When someone expresses that they enjoy something, telling them that you don't like it serves no useful purpose. There are times when you can playfully poke fun at something someone likes, like their taste in music or favorite football team, but sometimes the things people like are a part of who they are, so tread carefully. Like your Momma said, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

3. One-upping other people.

Imagine that someone is telling a group of co-workers how she ran her first marathon over the weekend and what the experience was like. Suddenly another co-worker jumps in and says "I've run two marathons this year already." Then he describes each one in great detail while the woman who was so excited about her experience watches in silence. She has just been one-upped.

There are two kinds of one-uppers. The first just wants to be a part of the conversation. They don't mean to overshadow the person sharing and it's more of an accident. The second wants everything to be about them. It's important that everyone know how cool they are and they don't care if it's at someone else's expense. I have been both kinds of one-upper and I cringe every time I think about it. When someone is sharing something important or special, it's best to be quiet, listen, and let them have their moment.

4. Being constantly offended.

To clarify, there is a time and place for taking offense. I see red when someone makes fun of people with disabilities. My brother has developmental delays and I have no tolerance for it. Sometimes, though, I need to back up and look at intent. There are times when people say offensive things but they are not trying to be mean. They just might not understand. A number of years ago I used the phrase "beat the tar out of him" when describing a play in a football game. My friend Thomas gently informed me of the history of that phrase and how it is offensive to our African-American friends. I was embarrassed but grateful to Thomas for pointing it out. He could have been offended and called me out for using a racist phrase but he knew me well enough to know that I meant no offense.

In many situations we should be like Thomas and give people a chance to understand things before we automatically take offense. Of course, that does not mean that we should remain silent when someone says something truly awful, but to first consider someone's character and intent before speaking up.

I wish I was a master of all social situations but, alas, I am not. I ruin less of them than I used to, so I consider that progress. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pathways to Success: Having an Owner's Mentality

For ten years my wife and I owned a duplex. It was . . . challenging. Not everyone is cut out to be a landlord and that included us. However, it was a learning experience. Owners and renters have a different way of thinking. Even great renters don't have the same stake in the property as owners and therefore they don't take care of the property as well. This concept works with managers and employees as well. Motivated employees think like owners.

Here are five ideas for ordinary employees to think like an owner and see their candle shine brighter.

1. Owners don't say "that's not my job." I read a story a year or so ago about John Elway, former Hall of Fame quarterback for the Denver Broncos and now the General Manager of the team. He and two members of the team's management were about to leave for the day when one of them noticed several boxes of t-shirts that needed to be sorted and put on tables for an event in the morning. One of the managers started to call one of the administrative assistants to come in and sort the shirts but Elway stopped him and said, "no, let's just take care of it right now." The three of them sorted the shirts and let the administrative assistants leave for the day.

Good owners are not afraid to get their hands dirty and work alongside their people. Good owners pitch in when needed. When employees act like an owner, they take on the less glorious jobs when they need to be done. They take out the trash, answer phones, and empty the dishwasher in the break room.

2. Owners don't watch the clock. This does not mean following the example of Yahoo's CEO, Marissa Meyer, who is famous for putting in 130 hour work weeks. That's ridiculous and unproductive. It means being willing to put in extra time when needed and not expect anything in return. There are times when  a large project needs to be completed or there is a big event and good owners dig in to get it done. Sadly, there are many employers that are takers and will suck the life out of their best employees, so there is a converse to this. Good owners also don't work themselves to the bone. They take time to recharge and ensure that they have something to give. Watching the clock goes both ways.

3. Owners pay attention to the tiny details. When we owned the duplex, I spent much of my time picking up garbage, painting, pulling weeds, and fixing screens. It was someone's home and I wanted it to feel like a home. Owners know that the tiny details count.  

4. Owners move like a shark. Some sharks have to keep moving or they will die. Owners are always moving. They are always looking for something that needs to be done.  Six years ago my wife and I were trying to stay afloat with a toddler and infant twins. She would constantly remind me to move like a shark. There was always a bottle to be washed or clothes to be folded or a diaper to be changed. If we did not stay on top of it, we would get less sleep, which was our most valued commodity. When an employee is thinking like an owner, he or she never stops moving but keeps a constant eye out for projects to be done to keep the business or organization running.

5. Owners anticipate needs. As a landlord, when a tenant moved out, there was a lot of uncertainty. I would walk through every room with a notebook and write down the broken screens, holes in the wall, and every surface that needed to be cleaned. I knew that I would need to paint, fix screens, and clean, so I always had what I needed for those tasks with me when I arrived. I would almost always need a trip to the hardware store for the unexpected items like broken doors and cracked floor tiles. It was impossible to anticipate everything but I would make it much easier on myself by thinking it through beforehand and preparing my supplies properly.

Much of this comes from experience and once that experience is earned, an employee who thinks like an owner can start making everyone's life easier by anticipating the organization's needs.

There are two final items to be covered on this topic. The first is some managers seem to go out of their way to demotivate employees. If you read a "how to be a terrible boss" list that is popular on LinkedIn, it would look like a how to list for these managers. These insecure managers suck the life out of their employees and make it so much harder to care about their work. Kudos to the employees that can still think like an owner in those conditions.

The second item is that I want to clarify that I do not have this all figured out. Every day I work at having an owners mentality at my job. This is something I aspire to but have not figured it all out yet. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Five Thing You Learn When You Are Colorblind

As far as disabilities go, there are many that are far, far worse than being born with colorblindness. It falls mainly on the level of annoyance but it does change how one lives life.

One of nine males are born with a form of colorblindness and there are many different kinds of colorblindness. The two types of color blindness are red/green and yellow/green. They are exactly what they sound like, which is the inability to see colors on those spectrums. Yellow/green is less common and also less severe. Red/green is more common and tends to be more severe. Even within the types of colorblindness are subgroups, where a person can't see different types of red and green. My particular colorblindness is on the violet scale, which is the most unique type of red/green.  The rarest form of colorblindness is when someone has both types, called monochromacy. That is true colorblindness, like watching television on a black and white set, and anyone with that is not allowed to drive a car in the United States. If you put two colorblind men in the same room, chances are that they would see color differently from the other.

Colorblindness in women is extremely rare but, strangely enough, the genetic trait comes through mothers. I have three sons who are not colorblind while one of my sisters has two sons who are both colorblind and another sister has one son who is not. If Agnes has a son, it is probable that he would be colorblind.

Here are five things I have learned going through life with colorblindness.

1. I have been answering the same question over and over again my entire life. When I tell someone I am colorblind, before they can respond, I always tell them the same exact thing. I say "I am red/green colorblind. That means I cannot see all of the colors on the red/green spectrum. It's not like I see the world like a black and white television, I just can't see certain colors. It's kind of like you have the box of 64 crayons and I only have 12." Every single time, the person looks at me for a moment then points at an object and asks "what color is that?" I then give the same response I always give, "It's (whatever color), I can see colors, just not all of them. If I can't see  a color, I don't always know I can't see it." Then they always pause and point at another object and ask "so what color is that?" At that point I usually say "it's (whatever color), I think. I don't actually know." That is usually enough to satisfy them and the conversation moves on.

2. Some careers are unavailable to people who are colorblind. I have a friend who joined the Army and his colorblindness meant that he could be a medic or a Chaplain's Assistant, but all the other jobs were unavailable to him. I cannot be an electrician or graphic designer. Working in a clothing store would be challenging. In some cities I could be a police officer and in others I couldn't. I can never be a commercial or military pilot. With help from technology, people with colorblindness can be housepainters but they still have to be careful not to mix up the colors.

3. I cannot match clothes and that has led to interesting responses from people. Usually someone would say something like," that's an interesting color combination." Then I would have to explain that I am colorblind and have the conversation laid in point #1. Before I got married I had to rely on roommates for help. I would often ask friends or relatives to show me clothing combinations that worked and I did not stray from them. Much of my wardrobe was black and grey. If I needed to dress up, I wore a white shirt with a tie so that I wouldn't have to worry about it. One time in college I was eating lunch with a group of friends and one of them commented on my pink shirt. I asked what he was talking about since I was wearing a white shirt. Everyone at the table then told me that it really was a pink shirt. I had been wearing it regularly for quite a while without knowing it was pink. Whenever I talk to someone else with colorblindness, they almost always tell me that something similar happened to them.

4. I ask for help a lot. I used to remind my friends that I am colorblind and if they see me wearing a bad color combination, they should tell me and not worry about offending me. I often ask sales people at a store what color something is before I buy it. The only downfall of that is having to start the "what color is this?" conversation. Any time something is color coded I have to ask for help, even if I am pretty sure I know what color it is. After a few mistakes, I've learned to just ask. It's humbling to ask for help for something that most children can do with ease.

5. The frustrating part of being colorblind is not knowing when I don't know something. Since I have never seen the colors that I can't see, I don't know when I make a mistake with colors. The stakes are pretty low and I have found ways to cope but sometimes I wonder what I am missing. I have heard about glasses with special lenses that fix certain kinds of colorblindness but since my kind is so rare, I doubt they would work for me. Maybe someday I will try them then write an article about it.

That is my experience with colorblindness. If you have a friend that is colorblind and he's wearing a strange color combination, now you know why. Unless he's a hipster and then all bets are off.

Monday, February 13, 2017

3 Aspects of Public Speaking I Did Not Learn in School

In ninth grade I had to give a speech in English class and I was terrified. I vividly remember being too nervous to take off my jean jacket and wearing my old glasses because I'd lost a contact lens the day before. I knew that public speaking was a skill that I must someday learn so my Junior year of high school I joined the speech team. My first speech was a disaster. I was so anxious that I didn't eat anything all day and when I gave my first speech my cheek twitched uncontrollably the entire time. Over time I got better. I participated in competitive speech for two years in high school and three years in college. In fact, I have a Bachelor's Degree in Communications.

After all these years I realized that there were some vital parts of public speaking that I did not learn in school. I am going to look at three of them now.

First, I did not learn any tricks for calming my nerves. In that first speech class in high school we did activities that put us in front of the class and that was helpful, but I did not learn how to calm my nerves before a speech. There are a lot of tricks public speakers use but I cannot remember being taught any of them. The following are some examples:

  • Arriving early and scoping out the venue. Go to where you'll be speaking and stand there for a minute. It won't seem unfamiliar when you get up to speak.
  • Looking at a fixed point in the room when you start speaking and then looking around at the crowd once you feel more comfortable.
  • Knowing what to do with your hands. This is where you have to plan beforehand. Deciding what to do with your hands before you start speaking is essential. If I was speaking behind a podium, I would put my hands on it until my nerves calmed down. If there was nothing to stand behind, holding a microphone with both hands was helpful. Also, holding the microphone with one hand and putting a thumb in my pocket worked for me.  Standing and absentmindedly moving your hands around is a distraction to the crowd.
  • Wear clothes that make you feel more confident. When you are confident in how you look, that is one less thing to worry about.
  •  If you cannot have notes, write the key points of the speech on an index card and put it in your pocket. That way if you freeze, you can look at the card and get your bearings again.
Second, I did not learn how to craft a story. My greatest strength as a public speaker is storytelling. Telling a good story in an art and a truly great story is crafted before it is told.

  •       Stories are a great way to start speech since it usually makes the speaker feel more comfortable and people love a good story. One effective trick is to start with a story but don't finish it until the end of the speech. At an important moment, cut away to something else but return to finish it at the end.
  •       The first line is essential. "In the hole in the ground lived a Hobbit." JRR Tolkien's classic story starts with a great line. A good opening line catches the audience's attention and opens them up to trusting you to keep their attention.
  •             Next, the story must have some details but not too many. My tendency has always been to include too many details. A few tiny details make a story feel more real but momentum is more important than details. Details build trust but too many details bore the audience.
  •       The conclusion of the story is what our audience will remember. If it's a funny story, don't laugh yourself. Never laugh at your own jokes. Pause for laughs and then continue with the speech. If it's a serious story, the same rule applies. Pause to let it sink in, then move on.
Finally, I was not taught how to deal with frowns in the audience. In almost every crowd I've spoken to there has been someone who seemed to give me a negative response. It's unnerving. I would get rattled by one person who looked unhappy even if the rest of the room was engaged. Over the years I have learned several things about a negative response.

  •       The person in the audience may be genuinely unhappy but it has nothing to do with you. They could have just received bad news or dealing with a difficult situation. The person may have great interest in what you have to say but cannot get past their current circumstance.
  •       Someone might be frowning because they are intensely processing what you have to say. It's hard to discern when someone is reacting like that.
  •       Some people have what my wife calls "resting crabby face". They might be sitting and thinking about something they enjoy but their face looks like they are unhappy. They are not intentionally frowning but they give that appearance. That person might be enjoying your speech but giving the opposite impression. 
  •       If someone is falling asleep during your speech, you might feel like they are disinterested in your speech, but may not be  the case. Through my years of untreated Sleep Apnea I fell asleep listening to many speakers despite great interest in what they had to say. I'm sure some of them thought I was rude but I couldn't help it. 
  •       Some people may not like you for reasons out of your control. They may dislike you for your race, gender, appearance, or something you represent. They may be angry at something you said or for something they perceived you said. It doesn't matter how benign your subject matter may be, some people just need find something they dislike and dwell on it. No matter how hard you try, you will not win them over. The tendency is to try and win them over at the expense of the rest of the crowd. The sad reality is that anyone who engages in public speaking needs to learn how to accept the small percentage of people who don't like you and focus on the large group that does.
I don't mean to degrade the educators in high school and college that worked with me as I learned to speak to groups. I learned so much and will always be grateful them. My hope is that my children will learn some of these things earlier than I did and surpass me as a public speaker.