Four go-to words for your next conversation


Quick: Training!

What’s your first reaction?


Love it? Hate it? Somewhere in the middle?

All training is not created equal, and training to handle challenging situations can be deep, time intensive, and provoke a new level of growth for you and your team. When that’s the case, the skeptic becomes a supporter and your team grows.

Keeping the momentum going after a successful training program is usually the hardest part. It requires commitment and dedication, buy-in from your critical players, and constant reminders.

Team problem-solving is one of those complicated topics because it often focuses on moving through difficult moments. It’s complicated because teams are complicated – they’re full of people!

Sometimes, the complexity that is so useful in teaching the skills of problem solving gets in the way of the long-term application.

I’ve boiled several aspects of team-focused problem solving methods down to four words:

  • Ask
  • Acknowledge
  • Share
  • Solve


Ask: What information do you have?

Acknowledge: I heard you say this: ________________________

Share: I have this information: ______________________


Your Interests My Interests Shared Interests

This approach, which is common to many systems for team communications, helps me

I also try to remember one primary point of  ! Caution !

Don’t do this: make assumptions about your partner’s inner state.

Example: “You were angry when I told you what I thought about our interview candidate”

Instead, do this:

Ask: “I saw you frown when I said I thought they were well qualified. Were you reacting to my statement or something else?”

Once you start to listen for it, you hear a lot of assumptions about why people are doing things (they don’t like so-and-so, they’re preoccupied with something else, they’re not skilled enough). These assumptions are just that: your assumption, not a fact.

Check yourself but asking how you’d react if someone stated that “fact” about you. You may be surprised to see how often you make these types of assumptions.

Here’s an example of the four questions in action.

The Setup:

Sandy has been given responsibility for managing three divisions that have not been performing well. She’s an up-and-coming worker in her organization but this is new territory for her. She’s had to learn new operations, build relationships, and try to sort through the opinions, facts, and the mountain of data that her division chiefs have brought to her in the past three months. Late on Friday, her boss, Ross, lets her know there’s a gap on the Board meeting agenda and he’d like Sandy to present an update.

Sandy doesn’t feel ready and tells her boss she thinks they’ll have better news next month.

What’s really going on?

Take a look at what Sandy’s NOT saying: I’m concerned that our numbers don’t look good and I won’t have a chance to talk to our managers in all three divisions before the Board meets on Tuesday. One has been out sick, one is on vacation and the other one always bombards me with data and spreadsheets instead of sharing real information. I’m worried that I won’t be prepared to answer questions and the Board will doubt my ability to manage this key transition. I don’t want to let my boss down by doing a bad job.


And what Ross is NOT saying: I’d like to fill the agenda for the meeting next week, and Sandy is always willing to help out. If I can get her to just let them know we’re on it, the Board will probably ask me fewer questions between now and our next full update. I don’t want to have a hole in my agenda next week and I’m upset that Jason’s group bailed on me at the last minute, putting me in this position.


It’s easy to imagine that a short conversation could result in something like this:

  • Sandy asks what about an update to the Board is important to Ross.
  • Ross says he just needs to give them something.
  • Sandy acknowledges that he wants to update them and shares her concerns about communication with her group and how it will look to the Board if she has incomplete information.
  • Ross asks what she could do by Tuesday.
  • Sandy says she has preliminary information about what’s been done so far and she thinks she’ll have data in a week.
  • Ross acknowledges she’s not going to be ready on Tuesday and shares that he primarily needs to fill a hole in the agenda.
  • Sandy’s interests are good data and being professional for the Board.
  • Ross’s interests are good data and keeping the meeting running smoothly.
  • Together they solve the situation by agreeing on a preview-presentation at the meeting with a report to follow.

It’s a better outcome for them both, and avoids a weekend of stewing about uncooperative staff and worrying about an upcoming presentation.

I hope Ask-Acknowledge-Share-Solve works for you.





Do you think “Because” when you should ask “Why?”


I talked to a friend of mine who is in the construction phase of her dream life. Literally. She’s building a farm from the ground up and it’s full of space for start-up farmers, heritage animals, and other yet-to-be-imagined ventures.

She then went on to talk about the challenges of beginning this new venture. Coming from the corporate world, where petty cash is accounted for and everyone gets “the rules,” she was stunned to realize that people would steal tools, that cash would go missing, and that the rules weren’t as black and white as before.

Her father was a general contractor and she was marveling at his ability to come home day after day with love and respect for his family.

“I had no idea what he was dealing with at work, he was just there for us,” she said.

She asked her dad how he did it and he said “it’s not about you. These people have their own lives, they’re not trying to hurt you. They’re trying to take care of their families. They’re trying to get by. Just put your systems in place and don’t take it personally.”

She said it was a turning point. She’s never been so nonjudgmental about the people around her before.

It’s easy to make assumptions.

We think we know why people do or say things in a certain way, but if we ask them, we are often surprised.

Yet we resist.

Someone asked me why I thought a particular individual was asking for information.

  • Was he trying to make this person look bad?
  • Was he being nosy?
  • Was he trying to second guess this person’s decision?

With this story fresh on my mind, a thousand (or at least a few) other, alternate, explanations sprang to mind while they were talking.

We don’t know.

We’re quick to assume it’s about us. Something we said, something we fear, something we did.

In this case, what we did know was easy to state. And we could ask a question  – “Is there something else you’d like to know that I can help you with?”

When we let go of our stories about why we think people are doing things, we’re able to ask the Why question. And often, it turns out, it’s not all about us.

I think this home-grown lesson will stick with me for quite a while.

Why face-to-face is still relevant in a digital world


I had the privilege of speaking at the national American Planning Association conference this past week about creating concurrence from conflict. Planners? They’re the folks in your community who are grappling with complex questions: how should we grow? do we have enough affordable housing? traffic? sustainability and resiliency as the global climate changes?

The buzz was about technology, apps for managing community input, mapping, and social media and yet, when I headed down the stairs to our session, the hallway was overflowing with people who wanted to talk about how to deal with people face-to-face.

In this age of digital interface, personal interactions are still where it’s at.

Digital can be loud, it can be very effective, and it can rouse us from our apathy to take part in the workings of our local government. On the receiving end,  digital makes the world move faster and faster, comments come in on a tidal wave, and well-orchestrated campaigns can entirely shift the tenor of a conversation.

A friend of mine shared an experience she had working in a well-to-do college community:

After two years of putting together a thoughtful plan with a great amount of public input and consensus, a small, well-organized and well-funded group entered the discussion. They funded some slick advertisements, ran them on the local TV channels, and completely changed the tenor of the conversation. Two years of careful consensus-building was voted down in one meeting.

That happens. It’s democracy in action.

Why should we bother with the face-to-face when it might all go down the tubes?

Because we are human beings. We need to connect. When we do, our relationships flourish and our understanding of each others’ perspectives can broaden our own point of view. We learn from each other.

In an informal survey of planners, the top three ways in which they interacted with stakeholders was in formal meetings (public hearings, advisory boards) and in face-to-face meetings.


We have to know how to interact in person. This is not always easy.

It’s hard to meet someone halfway when they’re angry. In fact, you usually have to go more than half way. If you’re a local government employee today, you are probably overworked in an environment with a low level of trust and satisfaction in government. This is a shame because just about everyone I know who works in local government does so by choice. There is a deep satisfaction in going home at night knowing that you’ve spent your day working for the betterment of your community. Whether you repair pot-holes, recycle waste, design streets, or try to help your town figure out how to grow in an enduring way, you’ve bought in to the future.

Yet you’re often met with distrust, demands you can’t meet, and a level of anger and negativity that can be daunting and discouraging.

What to do?

Get to know the people you work for. Sit down with them. Talk it out. Almost without exception, when you can help get past the us-them dynamic to a conversation about what we all have in common, you knit the fabric together, tighter. After all, most of us want the same things from our communities: A safe place to live, meaningful work, education for our children, choices about how we spend our time, and places to interact with each other.

It’s often as easy as asking: can we talk?

You may be surprised by how often the answer is: yes!




Should you love your job?


The words “love” and “job” right there, side by side. An unlikely couple. A job is, well, a job. And love? That’s what we reserve for soul-mates and family members. Except we salt our everyday language with it.  We love our new shoes, we love our car, our pets, our vacation, and our friends’ photos on Facebook (even when we’re really just tired of their endless selfies).

Love it!

But are we supposed to love our jobs?

The answer shouted from the electronic hilltops seems to be love it or quit!

And if you don’t? Well, you’re obviously missing out because it’s easy, there are five steps to get you there, two things you need to know, one program that will show you how. etc. etc. These messages, in total, potentially undermine our happiness at work because they ignore one basic truth: nobody loves their job all-the-way-all-the-time.

We’ve gotten used to the idea that when we love something, it’s easy. Even the profiles and stories about people who have sunk their heart and soul into creating a company from scratch or pursuing a lifelong dream tend to have a gloss of “meant to be” applied over the intense work of getting there.

When we read the story, we already know the ending. We know they’ve made millions and are living the dream in their beachside house full of windows that someone else wipes clean each morning. It seems inevitable.

But it wasn’t. They probably didn’t love every moment of the stress, the risk, the uncertainty along the way. But they kept going. It wasn’t love, it was something else.

No matter what you’re devoting your time to, there’s a level of uncertainty. We don’t know what our choices will yield. We don’t know how our story will turn out.

To look at someone else’s polished-for-print story and wonder why we don’t have the same trajectory is to overlook the life we’re living.

What does it mean to love your job? 

Sometimes, a day goes like this:

Get to work, find six angry emails in your inbox, meeting 1 falls apart, someone quits, there’s a personnel issue that pops up, two key players on your project are fighting, and the contract you thought had been approved and finalized is sitting on someone else’s desk and you can’t start that project which sinks your entire schedule, and you still have all the work you’d been planning to do this week piling up.

Can you have a day like that and still love your job?


If you’re lucky, you have a job where the satisfaction of  doing, learning and growing outweighs the annoyances and friction that are part of any job. Any life, really.

Does the overall satisfaction I get from my job outweigh the minor annoyances?

Are you spending your time on something that matters to you? This is a question that only you can answer. It’s your time and once it’s spent, it’s gone. Are you doing something that makes you feel good about that time? Maybe you love the challenge of the job itself. Maybe the job is the stable way you support your family and maintain some freedom for your personal pursuits when you’re off. Either way, you’re the only one who can judge your satisfaction.

Using someone else’s measure won’t help. So put down that smart phone for a moment and think it over.

What if I really do hate my job?

If you have a job you hate, should you stay? Probably not. When the grinding weight of showing up day after day is wearing you down and sapping your ability to function as a decent human being, you should find something different to do. Your unhappiness is probably having a negative impact on the people around you, not to mention the horrible things it’s doing to you.

But if you’re on the fence, and some days are okay and others aren’t, I think you have a more difficult but potentially more rewarding option: work it out.

Work it out

When your partner is tired of hearing you grumble (or when you’re tired of hearing yourself grumble) it’s time to work it out.

What would boost your satisfaction level at work?

Are there things you can do for yourself, instead of looking to others to fix them?

Are there things you need someone else to open up for you?

  • Ask for a new assignment?
  • Offer to show you’re ready for a new responsibility?

There is a great deal of satisfaction in doing something instead of suffering though it. By taking thoughtful action, you may be able to turn the job your’e currently in into one that satisfies you.

Making it better for yourself? That’s something to love.

Did you make a mistake? Here are three ways to wash down your humble pie.


I started off this week with a big slice of humble pie.


Failure seems to be all the rage right now, with articles abounding – failure is the new essential step toward success abounding. But that abstract reassurance doesn’t really help when that specific wave of realization comes washing over you:

I shouldn’t have done that.

My mistake? I didn’t ask questions before I tried to address a complaint. So, of course, I was missing half (or more) of the picture. The result? Some hurt feelings and time spent trying to understand, undo, and realign our group.

In the grand scheme of things, mistakes happen. We are, after all, only humans trying our best to work together in a complicated and demanding world.

Which means we live in a laboratory of mistakes and their ripple effects – the perfect environment from which to draw three pointers for managing your next mess up.

And it will happen…

1. Own it

This one is easy to say but hard to do. When it feels like everything rides on a decision –I’ll get fired, my co-worker will hate me, my boss won’t consider me for a raise- it’s really hard to look up and say “Yeah, I did that.”

It’s easy to play the blame game – Well, if you had been more clear, I would have done that. But how could I have known?

Blame tends to set off defensiveness which in turn sets of more blame and the next thing you know, you’ve spent half the day emailing something totally out of proportion while the actual issue remains unaddressed. And the actual issue often comes down to realizing that you probably knew something they didn’t and vice versa.

Next time you mess up, take a break before you do anything. Sit for a moment and let yourself acknowledge that you made a mistake.

It’s not the end of the world.

2. Get Some Perspective

Chances are high that there are things you don’t know. Always.

Find someone to talk to. This someone shouldn’t be your work-place-bestie who’s going to indignantly stand up for you and blame everyone else. That kind of support may feel good at first, but it really doesn’t help you manage the situation.

Instead, look for someone who can give you honest feedback or helpful suggestions. A mentor who has your best interests at heart.

If that somebody isn’t around, think back. You’ve seen lots of mistakes happen around you.

How have other people handled them?

What made you cringe?

What made you respect them more?

3. Do Something About It

It’s not enough to own the mistake and reflect on how you might have handled it better. You need to do something about it.

Remember what we learned in elementary school?


This can be really uncomfortable, especially if you have a history with the person or people involved. That’s not uncommon, because it’s those folks who press our buttons who show up time and again in our mistake laboratory, right?

Apologize, in person, if possible.

Don’t hide behind your inbox.

Don’t say “I’m sorry BUT…..” and proceed to tell them how you were actually right. That’s not a real apology.

Here’s the thing that makes an apology real: meaning it.

Sometimes we hesitate to apologize because we think it’ll make us look weak, or incompetent. But if you’ve already messed up, failure to apologize just makes you look arrogant and stubborn. Those aren’t the traits you’re going for, right?

A sincere apology opens the door to understanding.

Hey, I’m not perfect, what can you teach me?

I can’t guarantee that slice of humble pie will taste good, but these three tips might make it go down a little bit easier.

How have you recovered from a mistake?

What didn’t work?

Why you might want to do that really embarrassing, terrifying, or otherwise crazy thing you’ve been avoiding.


This evening, I did something terrifying and embarrassing. It was something I swore I would never do. Especially in public, where people would know. Wasn’t gonna do it. Nope. Not ever.

Then I did.

I sang. Out loud.

I know some of you are thinking “whaaaaa?? What’s the big whooping deal?”

Rewind the tape 30 years (ahem, maybe go back a few more) and you’d see me singing my little heart out about two rows back in the choir. Then, I got some coaching: “Why don’t you just mouth the words, honey?”

I was a pretty obedient kid, so I did. I got the message loud and clear. Until tonight.

If you’re still reading, and Hollywood and the internet have primed you for a late-in-life-rises-to-sing-on-stage ending, I’ll let you know right now that it’s not coming.

But here’s what I did figure out tonight, standing on the cool, grey stones outside, feeling the orange heat of an outdoor fire at my back and the early fall breeze stirring the paper in my hands.

Sometimes, you just have to let that old stuff go. The can’t, not good enough, don’t know how, never should’s. Really, who cares?

Do you even care anymore?

If you want to know how to do something, ask a teacher. We had an excellent instructor talk to us about the mechanics of singing. He reminded us that we all have the machinery, it’s a matter of learning to use it.

That’s a very powerful thought. We can probably each list a number of things we know we’re not good at. But if you’ve never learned how to do something, how can you be expected to do it well? Nobody every took the time to try to teach me to sing. They just told me I couldn’t. And the shame of it is I believed them. For a very long time.

We get second opinions on all kinds of things, we research our endless options on the internet, choosing just the right pair of shoes.

Then an offhand opinion pops up, and we take it as gospel. That makes no sense.

How much time did that tired choir director spend on her comment to me? Probably less than a second. But I’ve considered it truth since then.

Take that list of things you’re not good at and examine it closely. There are probably some things you really can’t do. I’m pretty short – there’s a reason I never made the basketball team. Several, actually, but that’s okay because I don’t really care.

Knowing what you care about is key. It lets you choose.

Once you figure out what you want to do, do it. A lot. We tend to live in the have-it-all-now-you-deserve-it world, but that doesn’t really work well. You have to find your passion then put your heart and soul into it, like this:

(TED talk) BLACK: My journey to yo-yo mastery

Maybe it’s no yo-yo mastery for you, yet once you have an area of focus, you can begin to say no to the distractions. We can’t do it all, or at least we can’t do it all well, in spite of what messages are out there.

One of my least favorite questions is “how do you balance it all?” because of the underlying assumption that we can or even should strive to balance it all. That’s not very humane, nor is it possible, in my opinion. So we have to make choices and when we choose the things we care about, when we build on a foundation of our strengths, we bring our best self forward.

Once you’ve made a choice, make the time.

I’ll be honest, I love to sing and I’ll keep doing it, perhaps to my family’s chagrin, but I’m not going to join a choir or take voice lessons, it’s not at the top of my list. Getting good at the top of the things on my list – some personal, some professional – is where I’ll be spending my time.

People say they can’t find the time to do something.

It’s not a matter of finding it, it’s a matter of making it. Making it yours, for a specific purpose, then respecting that choice enough to keep it.

That’s the hardest part of all, even harder than finding the right note.

A change takes courage.

I am still stunned that I opened my mouth and let the sounds come out. In public. But what shocks me even more is this: Nothing changed.

The world did not stop.

People did not clamp their hands over their ears and run screaming from the patio.

They just sang.

Suddenly, anything is possible.

Some really good singing and further discussion: Claron McFadden: Singing the primal mystery (TED Video)




Is your inability to delegate holding you (and everyone else) back?


You know who you are. You can’t let go. You won’t let anyone else do the work because they never get it right. You’re buried in a pile of obligations, sweating every deadline and working into the wee hours while you wonder why your  no-good co-workers and ineffective staff can’t just step up.

Been there?

Maybe you’re the boss, maybe you’re the employee, and maybe it’s not be as bad as all that, but if you have any perfectionist tendencies (guilty as charged!) you may be having a hard time with the D word. Delegation. And, by extension, maybe your staff is, too.

Delegation opens so many opportunities for things to go well or awry. Delegation is not bossing them into doing it our way. Much of our success at work comes from completing projects in a way that is valued by others. Considering delegation in this light provides some interesting insights.

Does the person you’re handing off to know what you value?

Unless you’re working with someone you have a long established relationship with and you’ve undergone some sort of mind-meld, it’s likely that you need to spend some time explaining the task, the expectations, and how you’ll communicate along the way.

For instance: “I have a project I’d like to assign to you. It’s going to have a tight deadline and some high expectations. Can we find some time today to make sure we have a shared understanding of the milestones and how I will know you’re making progress?”


To: Employee.

From: Uncommunicative supervisor

Date: Tuesday at 6:30 PM


Hey! I really need to you to get the report pulled together for finance by friday. Ok?”


Perfection is the enemy of the good

We’ve all heard this one. And it’s true. It’s so much easier to just do it yourself instead of taking the time to show someone else how to do it, answer questions, and potentially see them fail.

But how much worse is it to stifle your staff because you won’t let them learn?  Remember when you had a supervisor who wouldn’t let you take on the projects you were eager to do?  Don’t be that supervisor.

Employees? This goes both ways. If it’s your first assignment, you want to get it right and you will have questions (you should  have questions!) Don’t hang onto that work until it’s perfect. Missing a deadline because you’re trying to polish something to perfection is not a good choice. How do you approach your boss?


“I know this project is important to you and I didn’t want to work too long in one direction without being sure we were still aligned. Can we check in for 5 minutes?”

And when you have that check in? Be prepared. Have focused questions then listen carefully for new information.

Remember, you’re both working at this together, if you supervisor forgot to tell you something the first time around, don’t roll your eyes and say “I can’t do this work if the direction is going to totally change every time I ask you a question!” (You get my point). They need to know you’re going to be able to work with some independence but you’ll come back to them along the way. The need for check-ins may diminish as you work together more, but even with people I’ve spent a long time working with, the check-in is essential. Things change, schedules shift, priorities rearrange – you will rarely have a complicated project that is assigned and completed exactly the way it was initially described and those are the ones worth learning.

How’re things looking from another point of view?

If you have an employee who has been offered help only to brush it aside…no, no, I got it….and they’re weary, ring-eyed, and intent on doing it themselves, you may be working with a delegation-challenged-perfectionist.

Perhaps an honest conversation about how their reluctance to delegate is impacting others will help them see their situation differently. Appeal to their better self, the one that wants to motivate and encourage others. Acknowledge that they’re drowning in deadlines and assignments and that’s not a sign of success. Ask them to help someone else grow to their level of skills.

Then listen closely. They may be able to point out areas for improvement. Together you might identify people who can help find success.

I have a mentor who regularly asked “who’s your support team?” when I talked about new projects or initiatives. It’s a life-saver of a question, worth internalizing and sharing.

Are you the perfectionist or do you work for one?

How have you met this challenge?



Do you leap over conflict, duck under it, or belly-smack your way through?

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Anyone who has spent some time at the beach knows there are a lot of ways to deal with the waves.

On a calm day, you can just bob along, enjoying the sun and the motion of the water. But once things start to churn, you have to decide how you’re going to deal. The beach is a great analogy for our conflict styles.

  1. Run for the safety of the towel. Maybe you just don’t engage, sit it out and watch from the sidelines while everyone else struggle or surfs.
  2. Leap over the waves. The dolphin divers take the waves with a lot of grace.
  3. Duck! It’s pretty easy to just take a deep break and let the big one wash overhead. You can barely feel it as you settle into the calm beneath.
  4. Bellysmack! whether intentional or not, this one can hurt. A full frontal or side-smack? Doesn’t matter much, you take a beating and sometimes a snort of seawater to boot.

Of course, you can always choose a combination approach, tailoring your reaction to the waves, if you have time.

Regardless, after a few hours of battling it out, you’re probably ready for a break. It’s brutal business. You’ve been knocked off your feet, your knees are scraped up, and you’ve probably been caught by surprise a time or two.

Time to return to the towel, chair, pool, sofa, and reassess.

And this may be the critical part of your strategy.

As you replay the day’s decisions, do you beat yourself up for the waves that caught you by surprise? Or do you visualize the next day’s trip to the beach, with better outcomes?



What do whitewater rafting, the beach, and conflict have in common?

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Nothing, right? One takes place on a river, one at the ocean, and the other could be anywhere, but not while we’re having fun.

I was at the ocean with my children and my daughter was showing me her “techniques” for managing the rather sizable waves. She crossed her arm behind her head, grabbed her nose with her other hand, and yelled “whitewater!”

This was a new one. “That’s what you do if you fall out of the boat,” she explained. She’d been whitewater rafting a couple of weeks earlier and made a logical leap from protecting your head from rocks to protecting your head from the breaking waves. It worked, too.

In a stressful situation, we can easily rely on our learned behaviors instead of reaching out into other experiences to refresh and replenish our tool box.

Moments of conflict, with their intense emotion, can shut us down. This isn’t just something you’re imagining, either. Research shows all sorts of negative effects on our bodies and our ability to make decisions when we’re under stress. A quick online search turns up scholarly articles about our tendency to consider fewer options to solve problems when we’re under stress. And the media is flooded with the ill effects of stress on our health and our interpersonal relationships.

Insight can come in a flash, but the mind has to be able to adapt and see it.

How can we cultivate these types of moments?

We can boil a lot of this down to two main ideas.

Give yourself something to work with ahead of time

Go on vacation – even a saturday afternoon doing something different in a nearby town can help. Take a break from your “usual” and do something different. Drive a different way. Read a different type of book, different newspaper, check out an industry journal that has nothing to do with your field. These activities can expose you to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and give you a flash of connection. Take care of your health.

Prepare yourself to be open in the moment

Before your afternoon of meetings, go for a walk. Breathe. Stand up and stretch, look out a window. Make a point of going to the gym. Make a list of your key thoughts. Dump the “to-do” list you’re carrying around in your head on paper so you don’t have to worry about forgetting it. Whatever it is that can calm you, make you feel more receptive and more open to the situation you’re going into, take a moment to fit that in.

When you’ve been fortunate enough to have one of those flashes of insight or cross-pollination, share it with someone else, or let us know here what you think helped it happen.