Saturday, October 30, 2010

Masters of Disguise

Funny how Halloween has become such a big deal. As soon as the "Back to School" signs were taken down in stores in early September, the Halloween theme was in full swing. Some people decorate their houses with as much passion as for the Christmas season. I've heard it said that Halloween is the second biggest boon for retailers after Christmas! Halloween has surpassed Valentine's Day and Easter in terms of our favourite holidays. Go figure. My daughter, who is fourteen, says that after Christmas, Halloween is her second most favourite time of the year and judging by all the hoopla in stores and businesses, I think she may belong to a growing group of people.

I must say that I have fond childhood memories of Halloween. Plentiful candies (that often lasted till Christmas) sure had something to do with it although, in the sixties and seventies, when I went door to door yelling "Trick or Treat" apples were one of the most common treats we would receive (and boy did they ever weigh down our bags!) Those were the days of the razor blade scandals so my mother would go through the trouble of sorting through all the apples and make apple sauce.

Second most common treat was those hard Halloween taffy (that I am sure brought profitable business to many dentists). Personally I did not like those either. The ultimate treat though, at least where us kids were concerned, was a chocolate bar. Those were keepers for sure. Candy Rockets and Tootsie Rolls were also up there on our top ten lists of favourite candies.

In the olden days (as my teenage daughters like to term it), there was also a big push for UNICEF. Remember those little black and orange cardboard boxes that we tied around our necks like a necklace to collect money for the poor? What happened to that more altruistic side of Halloween?

Yesterday I was sitting in the food court under a big government department building and watched people go by. Many people were dressed up in full Halloween costume regalia. I was surprised actually that so many people dared to dress up in their workplace. The Federal Government is a very conservative place to work (at least in my experience) but yet, here were hundreds of Public Servants walking around as sleazy serving wenches, sexy cats or Playboy bunnies, head bangers, and motorcycle dudes. Maybe putting on those kind of costumes are kind of a rebellion against the stifling bureaucratic climate in the workplace?

Some of us may revel in the opportunity to put on a new persona at least one day out of the year. Halloween gives us a socially accepted excuse to dress up and push the envelope. It can be so much fun finding or making a costume and pretend to be someone (or something) we are not. Putting on a costume is a way to express yourself. Your costume sends a message to the world. "Here I am!" Did you know that I have a creative side? A humorous side? A sexy side? A rebellious side? A dangerous side?

What prevents us from showing our authentic self at work? Maybe it is the suit and ties or the skirts and high heels that we wear at work that are the real costumes? I certainly feel like I need to dress the part when I am visiting my government clients. What would they say if I showed up for my appointments dressed in my weekend "real me" much more comfortable clothes. What would they say if they saw my more "granola" side with flowing dresses, beaded necklaces, and yoga wear? I would probably be judged as non-professional and touchy-feely. As long as I dress the part, they seem to be more receptive to what I have to say. Interesting huh?

I am kind of disappointed that I did not have an opportunity to put on a Halloween costume this year. So I am going to make up an excuse to at least wear Halloween themed clothes. We are invited at a friend's place for a brunch on Halloween so that is a perfect reason to wear my black shirt that says "Spooky" and orange stripped black socks. Better than nothing right? You gotta seize the opportunities to have fun wherever and whenever you can.

Why can't we be more like kids? They don't pretend to be someone they are not to please others. They seem to live to have fun. As I was backing out my car out of the parking lot of a shopping centre today, I noticed a mother and her son rushing to get to their car. It was raining hard outside. The mother had a grim look on her face and had pushed the hood of her coat low over her eyes to shield herself from the rain. She was holding the hand of her little boy who was a picture in contrast. He had his face turned up to sky and had stuck his tongue out to catch the raindrops. He seemed elated. He was having fun...and it's not even Halloween yet.

Let's not wait until next Halloween to reveal parts of who we are to the world. Let's not wait until next Halloween to let loose a little and have fun.What do you say?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Difficult conversations: We need to talk, but I don't want to

I was unwittingly sending "stay away from me" signals to my family members yesterday. A little nothing would set me off. Something is weighing on me and I don't know how to resolve it so my frustration seeps into my everyday life. My husband who has known me for over 30 years clued in that something was wrong. We went for a long bike ride together and he got me to fess up. I need to have a difficult conversation with a client about their unrealistic expectations and inadequate financial compensation for work done. I have tried all the good old tricks like denial, or putting on a brave face hoping that things will resolve themselves if I wait long enough, to finally come to the realization that I need to take the bull by the horns so to speak and confront this client.

I think that most people become procrastinators when it comes to having an emotionally charged conversation about a difficult topic, but in my case, I practically run away from it. I have this type of personality that craves harmony and I am willing to twist myself emotionally into a pretzel to suppress my feelings and keep the peace. But that only lasts so long and, much like a presto pot, the steam has to come out at some point or else the whole thing explodes. Not the best way to manage relationships I must agree.

Ironically, I taught a class on "How to Have Difficult Conversations" this week to a group of senior executives. I think that I need to practice what I preach.

Judy Ringer wrote an article entitled We Have to Talk: A Step-by-Step Checklist for Difficult Conversations that I found very useful.

Ringer wisely suggests that the very first step to prepare for a difficult conversation is to work on you.

Step 1: What is your purpose for having the conversation? What do you want to accomplish? What would success look like?

Be honest with yourself. Do you have a win-win or a win-lose mindset? Do you want to give that irritating person a piece of your mind so you can feel better or do you actually want to come to a positive resolution? Think of a parent sitting his teenager down to have a talk because things have gotten a bit out of hand. The parent tells himself that it is for the good of the child and ends up preaching and even chastising his teen's behavior in the hopes that he or she will do the right thing the next time. That is not a conversation, it is a monologue. It is a one-way conversation where the parent says you will listen to me because I am right about this.

Another approach would be to ask yourself how can I guide a two-way conversation between my teenager and I that would result in both of us feeling understood, respected and more positive about our relationship?

Step 2: What are the assumptions you are making about this person's intentions? You might be feeling undermined, ignored, ridiculed, or disrespected but do you know for sure that is what they intended? Remember that impact does not necessarily equal intent.

The other day I handed my husband a post card of a house listing that we had received in the mail from a Real Estate Agent. I exclaimed "this will be my house one day!" It was a large old fashion house surrounded by acres of wooded land. My husband immediately got onto the computer and researched the listing. "Sylvie" he said, "this is much too expensive and too far from where we live. You can't be serious?" His words were like a pin bursting the little happy balloon that I had allowed to float around in my mind.

I was not actually serious about buying this house but I liked playing with the idea. I am a perpetual dreamer. My husband, on the other hand, is a no-nonsense black and white kind of guy. I felt deflated and a bit angry at his reaction. It was as if he wanted to rain on my parade on purpose. But that was not his intention. Being a researcher, he went into research mode to evaluate the feasibility of my dream and to see if we could practically make it happen. He came to the same conclusion that I had - we could not afford that house. His way of helping was to give me objective data to make a decision while all I wanted was to pretend that it was possible just for the fun of it for a little while longer.

Step 3: What hot buttons are being pushed? Are your emotions all related to this specific situation or is there some history here that muddies your senses and thwarts your perception?

I have a friend that I adore who has boundless energy and hundreds of projects on the go. She is almost always over-committed socially and professionally. For a period of time (until I finally had a difficult conversation with her) she would make dates with me to chat on the phone or have a coffee and cancelled at the last minute, sometimes not even giving me a heads up if she could not make it and leave me waiting. After a while I started feeling quite resentful and hurt. I pretended like everything was OK between us but it wasn't. I started weaving a story in my head that she did not want to be my friend anymore but did know how to tell me. The more I thought about it, the more it became like a soap opera type of story in my mind.

The truth is that I have some childhood experiences about friendships (or lack thereof) that colored my feelings in this situation. As a child, I loved school. I read voraciously and loved doing school projects. I guess you could call me a nerd and nerds are not popular kids at school. I was also very overweight and I remember (still painfully) how it felt to be left standing alone against the wall at gym class because no one wanted me on their team.

If I was perfectly honest, some of those old emotional wounds were being triggered in this situation and I needed to be aware of that when I had the difficult conversation with my friend.

Step 4: How is your attitude towards this conversation influencing your perception of it? Your thoughts create reality. If you think that this conversation will be confrontational and painful, chances are it will be. On the other hand, if you can imagine that some good will come out of the conversation then your attitude and behavior will change accordingly.

For example, I knew that having a conversation with my friend about how hurt I felt about all the missed appointments would be difficult, but I felt it was important to tell her if we were going to continue to be friends. I had enough trust in her and our friendship to believe that the conversation would have a positive impact on our relationship in the long term.

Step 5: What about the person with whom you are having the difficulty? If you could step into their shoes for a moment to see the problem from their perspective what would you see and feel? Are they even aware that there is a problem?

Rather than seeing this person as an opponent, see him or her as a partner.

I had a boss once who was the exact opposite of me in Personality Type. I am a creative big-picture thinker and she was a down-to-earth meticulous kind of person. She insisted on reviewing all my work and made many changes (that I considered picky and inconsequential). I felt micro-managed and resented her need to know everything at all times. I felt like she did not trust my abilities to do a professional job. I tried to adapt to her style of management but I grew more and more indignant. One day, I gathered my courage and broached the subject. We were both leading a ground-breaking approach to change-management and we knew that there was much to gain from its success. That is the card I played - our strong commitment to the principles and purpose of the change project. In order for the project to succeed, we had to find a way to work together that would capitalize on both our strengths and skills. Detailed routine paperwork did not bring the best out of me. I needed some leeway to create and implement a way forward that would best serve the organization.

Step 6: Identify what are your needs and fears? Are there any common concerns? Could there be?

In this situation with my boss, we had a common concern. We wanted to demonstrate that our novel approach to change management would yield strong commitment to change at every level of the organization. In order to feel like she was on the right track to deliver on this promise, my boss felt like she had to control every aspect of the work. I, on the contrary, felt that we needed to allow ourselves to experiment, to innovate, to take calculated risks and learn from our mistakes and most the process.

Step 7: How have you contributed to the problem? How have they?

That is probably the most difficult and the most important question. When there is a communication break-down, both parties have a responsibility. We each need to own up to our mistakes.

What role did you play in this difficult situation? What would you do differently if you could turn back the clock? Acknowledge this to the other person.

When I spoke to my friend about how hurt I had been when she kept cancelling our appointments, I also admitted that I should have spoken up a lot sooner than I did. Because I was afraid of her reaction, I perpetuated the problem by pretending that everything was fine between us. It was not. And she did not know because I did not tell her.

Judy Ringer concludes her article by saying that "a successful outcome will depend on two things: how you are and what you say. How you are (centered, supportive, curious, problem-solving) will greatly influence what you say."

Having written this article, I feel better prepared for having a difficult conversation with my client and my family will attest that my mood has vastly improved over yesterday. It's pretty amazing what a little time out to reflect and prepare will do to your moral!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Notice what is Right With Your World

What would happen if you gave your over-exercised problem spotting and problem solving muscle a little break? Instead, use your gratitude binoculars to spot what is working well. You may not realize it right now, submerged in the dark thoughts of the "if only" or the "poor me" or your life, but there are many sun rays to brighten your day. Acknowledge all the things in your life that are going smoothly and even, dare I say it, spectacularly! It is just a matter of looking at your life with a different attitude. Love what is in your life. All of it. And if it is not there, love what can be. Love the possibilities. Feel them intensely as if your future was already here.

If you are anything like me, this will take some practice. (Lot's of practice in my case!) You have to retrain your brain and your heart, day to day, minute to minute. You need to go out in the world seeking the bright spots and intensifying the light they shed so that joy permeates your being. And, you have to catch yourself thinking dark thoughts, the "awfulizing" and all the drama that comes with it. Notice when the negative voice in your head pipes up, and say "thank you for sharing but I am choosing a different thought right now, one that will bring me more happiness." Rayona Sharpnack, a professional coach, with whom I took a one week intensive training course said something that always stuck with me "Your mind is a dangerous neighbourhood, don't go there alone." Your heart and your intuition (which taps into your higher self) are much more reliable sources of wisdom. Just trust what you know with a capital "K". As Oprah would say, "What do you know for sure?"

What I know for sure is that we are meant to be happy and fulfilled. Maybe we have everything we need to be happy already but we just don't see it... On this 10th day of the 10th month of 2010, I invite you to "trade up" your worn old eyeglasses and choose a more high tech pair that can radar in the good things of life. Catch people doing things right. More importantly, catch yourself doing things right. You will be surprised at how much there is to be grateful for!

How about it? Can you resolve to consciously and systematically notice the good things in your life for the next week? Too hard? Start with just one day then. How about today? It is Thanksgiving after all!

May you be happy on this Thanksgiving Day. I leave you with this poem by John O'Donahue.

May you listen to your longing to be free.
May the frames of your belonging be large enough for the dreams of your soul.
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart
...something good is going to happen to you.
May you find harmony between your soul and your life.
May the mansion of your soul never become a haunted place.
May you know the eternal longing that lies at the heart of time.
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.
May you never place walls between the light and yourself.
May you be set free from the prisons of guilt, fear, disappointment and despair.
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you,
mind you, and embrace you in belonging.
- John O'Donahue

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Rules for happiness

Happiness is a state of being that has been elusive to me all my life. I don't know why. I am not wired properly perhaps?

I have so much to be grateful for in my life. Intellectually I know that. But my heart does not feel the happiness. Instead, of appreciating what is, I focus on what is missing in my life. I can't help it seems.

Lately, I have been trying to remedy this. There is hope for people like me. In an article in Time Magazine entitled The New Science of Happiness (2004) by Claudia Wallis the work of Martin Seligman on Positive Psychology is showcased. According to Seligman, we can raise our level of happiness. Happiness can be learned.

This involves working on the three components of happiness— getting more pleasure out of life (which can be done by savoring sensory experiences, although, he warns, “you’re never going to make a curmudgeon into a giggly person”), becoming more engaged in what you do and finding ways of making your life feel more meaningful.

Gratitude exercises can do more than lift one’s mood. I have kept a Gratitude Journal for over seven years. Every night before bed I pulled out my journal and wrote down five things I was grateful for in my day. I went to sleep thinking happy. As I look back on my journals now I notice that it is the small things that make me happy: the fresh cup of coffee in the morning, the compliment I got on a job well done, the hug from my husband when I get home from work, spending quality time with my daughters or the leaves changing colors in fall. I stopped writing in my journal a year or so ago when it began to feel like just another task on my "To do" list. Instead, I have gotten into the habit of doing a gratitude prayer just before I go to bed, rhyming off in my head all the things that made me happy during the day. (These days I can easily list over 10 things - it used to be hard to find five!)

Another happiness booster, say positive psychologists, is performing acts of altruism or kindness—visiting a nursing home, helping a friend’s child with homework, mowing a neighbour’s lawn, writing a letter to a grandparent.

I had dinner with my dear friend Bob this week. He was in town for a week-long meeting. He lives in Halifax and I live in Ottawa. We don't see each other much but we keep in touch by email and phone. This summer, when my family and I travelled to Cape Breton, we made a detour to Halifax to visit with my friend Bob and his wife Jill. We had a great evening together feasting on seafood at a local restaurant and enjoying the acts in the Buskers Festival in the port of Halifax. When I got back home I printed off some of the pictures I took during that evening and mailed them to Bob with a heartfelt note of thanks on a handmade card. Bob said that it was so nice to receive this card with mementoes of our evening together. He and his wife Jill were reflecting on how it used to be good manners to send a Thank You note to hosts after a dinner and that this tradition is being lost. They really appreciated the thoughtfulness.

The single most effective way to turbo-charge your joy, according to Seligman, is to make a “gratitude visit.” That means writing a testimonial thanking a teacher, pastor or grandparent—anyone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude—and then visiting that person to read him or her the letter of appreciation. “The remarkable thing,” says Seligman, “is that people who do this just once are measurably happier and less depressed a month later. But it’s gone by three months.”

Karen was my boss at the Health Department. She was leading an innovative health promotion initiative and hired me on the spot to be a Special Events Coordinator. I had no previous job experience in that field but she saw my potential right away. I am a creative and energetic person and I had a ball coming up with novel ways of promoting heart health in our community. Our pilot project was a huge success and maybe my most rewarding job as a public servant. Twenty years later Karen and I are still friends. A couple of years ago, I announced to Karen my intention of leaving my job with the federal government to start my own business. I seized that moment to thank her for helping me believe in myself. I told her that I had learned so much from her. She was a visionary leader with a can do attitude. She made her staff feel like they part of her family. We were so proud of what we accomplished together. Karen became a bit emotional when I told her this. I felt so good about giving something back to her.

Less powerful but more lasting, says Seligman, is an exercise he calls three blessings—taking time each day to write down a trio of things that went well and why. “People are less depressed and happier three months later and six months later.” according to Seligman's research.

So you see happiness can be learned.

Rubin Gretchen's book entitled The Happiness Project inspired me one beautiful summer day this July sitting on the deck of my mother`s cottage to write my own list of what makes me happy.

I listed every letter of the alphabet on the left margin of a page and found at least one word for each letter that represented something that makes me happy. Some letters were a challenge like X and Z but surprisingly, I easily came up with words for each letter and in some cases, many many words.

"A": art, angels, antiques, Australia
"B": biking, Buddhism, warm baths
"C": chocolate, candles, canoeing, fresh ground coffee

Gretchen Rubin developed a list of Twelve Commandments for her year-long experiment on happiness.

Some of her commandments are:
  • Let it go
  • Act the way I want to feel
  • Do it now
  • Lighten up
I decided that in the interest of learning to be happy, I would develop my own set of rules for happiness (15 rules so far and counting)
  • Be me (be Sylvie!)
  • Dance and sing
  • Ask myself: "Do I really want this?" and make a conscious choice
  • Move my body
  • Spend time in nature
  • Say "thank you" often
  • Give LOVE freely
  • My body is my temple: eat and drink accordingly
  • Breathe deeply
  • Get rid of clutter: mental and physical
  • See the world through a child's eyes
  • I am not alone...
  • Live life to the fullest
  • Don't sweat the small stuff
  • Imagine and create
One of the things that kept coming up on my lists of happiness was dancing. So I wondered, if I love dancing so much, how come I am content waiting for the next wedding or conference formal dinner to have a chance to dance? How could I make dancing a bigger part of my life? I could sign up for flamenco or tango classes but that would just add to my already jam packed schedule. Then it dawned on me. The fitness club where I teach yoga has Zumba classes twice a week that I do not have to pay or sign up for since I am an instructor there! I can just go when I have the time and the urge. Zumba is a mix of Latin inspired high energy dances. The first Zumba class I did I had a smile on my face the whole time. I loved it. Getting a real workout and having fun at the same time. It sure beats running my usual route in the neighbourhood to tally up the kilometres in preparation for my next race!

This week, I challenge you to think about happiness and more specifically to make your own "A to Z" list of what makes you happy.

Please share it with me and my readers. Maybe I will be inspired (or reminded) to add something else to my growing list of happy things.