Is there really such a thing as a “negative” emotion?


Conflict and anger travel hand-in-hand. Anger is probably one of the most difficult emotions to deal with, especially in a work setting where it’s not socially okay to blow-off, swear, yell, and act out. Yet, we’re human. We get angry. Learning to recognize and manage this emotion is key to moving through a lot of tough situations.

Sometimes, anger is easy to recognize. Our heart races, we can’t hear what anyone’s saying over the blood pounding in our ears. We tremble, turn red, can’t think clearly.

Other times, we turn it inward. I’m so stupid…embarassed…run!

Either way, it’s scary and can begin a difficult swirl of emotions, actions and consequences. Who hasn’t lashed out and said something they regretted in a moment of anger?

What to do?

First, recognize that anger has a place.

Anger is telling you something. It’s just hard to hear sometimes.

Second, step away from the anger.

Seriously. That rushing sound? That inability to recall details after the angry-episode? It’s because of the anger. Things become “right” or “wrong” – we lose the ability to think through a situation, our judgement is quick and harsh. We’re just not at our best. This is great when you’re fighting a panther in the jungle. Not so great when you’re dealing with a colleague or loved one.

Take a deep breath.

Excuse yourself for a moment.

That situation? it’ll still be there when you calm down.

Third, ask yourself why you’re angry.

What’s going on here?

Are you angry about the surface event? Or a pattern of events? Give yourself some time to sort out your emotions.

Fourth, come back.

This can be the hardest part of all. It’s easy to ignore, move on, and just get over it already.

It’s harder to come back to a person and say, “I got angry when we were talking, but I’d like to try having that conversation again.”

Fifth, don’t take yourself too seriously.

In a culture of constant self-improvement and competition, it can be hard to let go of something as powerful as our anger.

You’re going to go there. And sometimes that’s exactly the right place to be. That’s fine.

It’s where you go afterwards that matters even more.

For some more interesting reading:


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.

5 Ways to Receive Bad News Better


I recently shared five ways to deliver bad news better, which got me thinking about receiving bad news.

We’re never just the person dolling out bad news (if we are, we might need to do some soul-searching with some close friends) and hearing something we don’t want to hear can be painful. But it can also be an opportunity to grow.

If you’re like me, you can probably think of a few  things you’d rather be doing instead of learning what’s not going right, but if you’re lucky, and people share the good, the bad, and the ugly with you, you may be able to mine some gold from those murky moments.

How to grow with grace?

1. Don’t try to be perfect, don’t pretend to be perfect, in fact, forget all about perfect.

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, baby, practice.”

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons. The thing is, I’m tone deaf and not musically inclined. A lot of practice made me better, but it never got me to Carnegie Hall.  Eventually, I stopped worrying about playing the piano and moved on to other things. But that phrase bugged me. A lot. The implication being that if you just work hard enough at something, you’ll get there. In my perfectionist mind, I hadn’t gotten there. That meant I was on the failing end and it was my fault.

The quest for perfection is something we admire and laude, but taken as an absolute it can prevent us from trying, learning, and seeing what’s not working. Criticism can bring up our defenses and a lighting-fast urge to “fix it” and get back on the perfectionist path can prevent us from taking the time to be open to what we’re hearing.

I’ve read a couple of books about Frederick Law Olmsted recently, and they both describe a young man in search of his path. Landscape architecture wasn’t a profession yet, and the man who eventually designed Central Park and so many other magnificent spaces tried his hand at surveying, being a sailor, running a gold mine, and farming (to name a few). When something didn’t work out, he tried something else. Over time, he developed his path and his profession in a way that suited his interests. I can only imagine that there must have been times when it would have been easier to try harder and stay with something he’s started.

Instead, he took what he needed from those experiences and moved forward; his ability to change course with integrity was a character trait noted by his friends.

If we’re not blinded by the search for perfection, we can be open to the sparkle of truth when something isn’t going as planned.

2. Give it a little time

Receiving bad news is not easy. No matter how much equilibrium we may be experiencing, it can knock us off balance. If we’re not ready to hear it, that’s okay. Sometimes the best way to receive bad news is over time. A day later….a week later…..sometimes it takes us a long time to see into our dark spots.

But what to do in the moment if you feel that rush of anger or adrenaline kick in?

Have this phrase handy: “I’m going to need some time to think about this.”

What if what’s really going through your head is “You have no idea what you’re saying, there are a million things wrong with your assessment and you’re wrong, wrong, wrong!”

You could try to set the record straight.

If there are inaccurate facts or missing pieces of information and the conversation is time-sensitive, you could try to share them on the spot. But if you’re emotional, you may not be able to hear what’s being said and you may not share your information clearly.

What about, “I think I can offer some clarification, can you give me a minute/hour/day/week?

3. Don’t let it get to you

I don’t mean ignore what’s being said, I really mean don’t obsess over it. When we ruminate, we can’t let it go. We have imaginary conversations in our head, we try out different versions, we test a response we wish we’d given. That’s a lot of brain power spent on being in a rut.

Does what you heard feel unfair? If so, ask yourself why. We react strongly to unfairness; we also react to the things that we know are our weaknesses. They rub us the wrong way and we go back to them like a spot we can’t reach, trying to resolve them.

If there’s  crumb of truth in what you’ve been told, you may be defensive, or you may eventually come to consider it closely and see it in a new light. Sometimes we’re just not ready to hear what someone else is saying. That’s okay. If the same thing comes up time after time, we’re likely to notice it and eventually come to it with an open mind.

Running up and down a rut, replaying a conversation, and imagining how we could show the other person how wrong they are are diversions that prevent us from relaxing into an open mind.

4. Let yourself change

We all change. An interesting study discussed in the New York Times about the “end of history” illusion shows that we are much better at acknowledging how we’ve changed from our past selves to today yet we are not able to imagine how we will be different in the future. Try it: have you changed from who you were 5 or 10 years ago? Now look forward: how different do you think you’ll be in 10 years? For most of us, it’s hard to imagine we’ll change as radically in the future as we have in the past.

It’s okay to change your opinion, to adapt to new information, and to seek out new situations and experiences.

You will change.

5. Know what to ignore

These suggestions assume that the giver of bad news is well intentioned. There will be times when someone says something that isn’t true, isn’t well intended, or is downright hurtful.

Not everyone is here to help us grow, and it’s okay to toss those in the mental rejection file.

If you’re interested in the other side of the conversation, check here.

5 ways to deliver bad news better


We like to think of ourselves as decent people.

Nice. Professional. Fair.

Sometimes, we have to deliver bad news to someone, which can set off internal anxiety and ratchet up our emotional state. “Nice” and “Fair” no longer feel like they’re part of the game, making our situation more challenging.

The good news is that you can deliver bad news better.

1. Hone your message

Preparation for the conversation is essential. I once read that we should spend twice as long preparing for a meeting as we spend actually holding the meeting. While that seems ideal (yet impractical, perhaps?) for many situations, bad-news meetings may be the best time to apply that mindset. Ask yourself what you really need to talk about. Remember that the person on the receiving end is probably going to jump to an elevated emotional state of their own. You’ve had time to prepare, but maybe they haven’t. Choosing your topic and making sure you have researched the facts is important. Don’t overwhelm the conversation, don’t pile on the problems. Choose your message, practice it so you can deliver it without rambling, and avoid the urge to add “one more thing”.

What if you actually do have a lot of things to cover? Take, for instance, the situation where you thought you had one problem and as you looked into it, the problems snowballed and now you’ve got a list of 10 things to cover.

Should you begin by running through the list? That depends. Looking closely, you may be able to prioritize and identify the primary issue or the most time-sensitive one. You may want to start there, let them know upfront that you have multiple concerns but you’d like to begin with your strongest one and return to the others at a later time. Then see #3 below for follow-up

2. Maintain your focus

Remember when you were a kid and you knew you were in trouble? What was your best defense? Distraction!

“But, Lisa didn’t do the chores you asked her to do” (focus on someone else)

“But I did make my lunch yesterday and I fed the dog” (divert to other issues)

Since a lot of our defense mechanisms were developed early on, they can emerge strong when we’re stressed. If the person you’re talking with heads down another path, you will want to bring them back to the topic at hand.

“We can talk about that other project at another time, let’s stay focused on your project for now.”

“I haven’t had time to think about this new issue you’re raising, let’s set a follow-up time for that.”

It’s helpful to spend a few minutes of your preparation time thinking about how the person you’ll be speaking with has reacted in the past. Can you anticipate any of these behaviors? If so, have a few phrases ready to help bring them back into your conversation. When you’re feeling anxious, this will help you bring things back to calm, which is good for everyone involved.

Be true to your word during the conversation. If they are bringing up legitimate concerns and you offer to talk about them at another time, include them in #3.

Platitudes will diminish trust even if they seem to diffuse the situation in the moment.

3. Have a plan for resolution, but hold it lightly

I remember getting into some kind of trouble when I was a kid and being asked “What do you think your punishment should be?” This was such a startling question to seven-year-old me and I remember thinking “Isn’t that your job?”

As adults, we can, and should, have some responsibility for resolving the situation we’re in. Of course, there may be situations where policies, laws, and other governing direction has already been set, but many of our interactions are less prescriptive and what we’re looking for is an approach that brings us to a shared understanding of what happens next.

If you’re prepared, you may have some suggested corrective actions. This is useful, but don’t forget to be receptive to new information during your conversation and work that into a plan of action.

The best possible outcome is an agreement on action that has buy-in from both parties involved.

4. Agree on follow-up with clarity.

This one’s simple. What are you each going to do? By when? And how will you know it’s done.

Too often, we leave meetings or conversations in a rush with a general sense of what will happen only to later discover that we didn’t leave with the same tasks in mind.

  • Write it down.
  • Repeat it back.
  • Exchange notes after the meeting.
  • Set a follow up date and time

Having clarity, especially after an emotional discussion, is key. When we’re angry, upset, or otherwise distracted by our emotions, we’re not thinking at our clearest. Having something in writing and an ability to check back for clarity can help set things back on track.

5. Let it go

We all make mistakes. Every single one of us.

You never really know what else is going on in someone’s life and how your issue fits into their constellation of events. They may be struggling with something in their personal life, they may be excited about a positive change and focused elsewhere. They may have a different style of relating or communicating that’s making it hard for the two of you to connect.

You may have other pressures and situations that are impacting your view of the situation. Stress about another part of your job, anxiety about your career, personal demands, they can all influence our actions in ways we don’t see clearly in the moment.

You don’t have to like everyone you meet or interact with, but remembering that they each have some humanity and respecting that can help you move away from the emotional reactions you’re having and focus on the discussion at hand.

When it’s done, if you have a clear plan of action, you can focus on that and let the rest go.

Do you work on a Maker’s Schedule? Or a Manager’s Schedule? Should you switch?

wpid-20150816_153645.pngI was going to only write about Genius Hour today, but in poking around, I came across a link to this article from July, 2009 by Paul Graham about the Maker’s Schedule vs. the Manager’s Schedule and my first thought was: Genius! These two are related.

First, Genius Hour. It’s is a pretty simple idea. Torn from the Google playbook, and seemingly adopted in education (I’m hoping my kids will come home with Genius reports this year), it’s all about designating a piece of time for the pursuit of your passions.

Classroom or office, the idea is If you give people time to pursue what they’re interested in, they’ll develop their best ideas, the ones they care enough about to implement. We all need time for creative refreshment (vacation, anyone?) and focus. Voila: Genius Hour. Daniel Pink shares a great story about how a Credit Union manager made time for her front line staff to have an hour a week for Genius Hour. Pink also emphasizes the importance of not just being creative but having the power to implement the results when you’re given a genius idea.

And that is what brought me to the Maker’s Schedule vs. the Manager’s Schedule.

In a nutshell, Makers (in Graham’s case, coders) need time to produce. We all know this feeling. You’re writing something, running numbers, preparing a budget, doing anything that requires more than a 30 second attention span and your reminder bings: time for a meeting! That’s when the Manager’s schedule (1 hour increments for meetings) is colliding with what your Maker needs (uninterrupted time to think-and-do).

For most of us, our jobs are not clearly divided. We’re both Managers and Makers. We’re in meetings, our time is chunked up, but we’re still expected to produce. We don’t give ourselves time to produce well, which leads to rushed work, stressed employees, and missed opportunities. Meanwhile, we’re in meetings, we’re wondering how we’ll ever get around to doing X.

Can the calendar bring some control to this conundrum?

I’ve experienced a designated a block of time each week for staff meetings agency-wide. That means nobody is scheduling “can’t miss” meetings over standing team meetings, which reduces scheduling stress. It’s predictable, simple, and everyone does it, so it has an impact.

Bringing these thoughts together, what practical action can we take?

  • If you manage your own schedule, you might designate a regular Genius Hour and a Maker time (half a day? A few hours?) on your calendar.
  • If you manage others’ schedules, can you help them do the same?
  • Respect the scheduled time – yours and others’.

Has this given you any genius ideas? Or have you seen these efforts in action? If so, please leave your story here.

This may be the best question you can ask


When I was traveling a few weeks ago, my husband and I were flying different airlines. When I got to baggage claim, I realized his flight wasn’t coming to my terminal. I asked the woman at the information desk where to find his airline. She told me it arrived at a terminal three miles away.

Flustered, I was about to head back up the escalators to find the shuttle when she continued, “May I ask why?”

I gave her my details.

She said, “This is just a suggestion, but since you’re renting a car, you might want to each take the shuttle to the rental place and meet there. It’ll save you a trip.”

She could have just answered my question and let me barrel off. Instead, she took the time to ask for information and to offer some clear thinking when I was frazzled from the flight.

That was a good question.

There’s a lot of discussion and research available about how to move from positions (I have to do this) to interests (what am I really after – might I get there in a way that gets you there too?).

Asking “Why?” may be your best move.

When we’re considering regulations, we might tend towards “I need this type of documentation.”

Why? Maybe because we’re after a piece of data. Or maybe we’re trying to be sure something that happened once doesn’t happen again, but we’ve put an overly complicated system to place to guard us from that possibility.

Asking “why?” makes you consider your underlying interests and your reasoning.

We had a process in place that had been unquestioned for years, until someone called me about it. “Why do you do this thing first, then the other? Why can’t they happen at the same time?”

Good question.

I asked and it turned out that our system was set up when two functions were in separate locations and one side was routinely circumvented. So the other side said “you have to get their approval first, then ours.”

Now that everyone is on the same software, both functions are tracked in the same system. There was no longer a need for the sequencing, but the process hadn’t changed.

Until someone asked “why?”

It took us 3 minutes to make that change.

That was a great question.

Why you shouldn’t wait for the right moment to act


Yesterday, I had to force myself to shut my door, sit down at my desk, and finish a bunch of things that I don’t relish doing. They weren’t particularly hard tasks, or complicated. I just don’t like to do them.

Those are the things that tend to drift quietly to the bottom of my task list, especially when there are big projects I can more eagerly turn to.

I occasionally think about a cartoon by Emily Flake in the New Yorker showing a teenage girl sitting on her bedroom floor surrounded by instruments, art supplies, and other hobbies. Her mother says something to the effect of maybe if you focus your energy it’ll come out with more force. The same is true for our work energy. And I would add, don’t wait until you feel like doing it.

In the crush of ever-increasing demands at work and home, we struggle to prioritize and make room for what really matters while keeping the rest of the balls in the air. Mindfulness, time-management, apps – they all promise greater efficiency and better control over the chaos of our modern existence.

A few days ago, I was talking to a colleague over lunch about the transition from managing single projects to managing many projects and people who manage projects. It can be overwhelming and the usual time-management techniques are useful, but not quite enough. So what works?

1. Prioritize

If you have a clear sense of your mission – for the day or for the year – you can use it as a measure for whether something belongs on your to-do list.

  • Is it directly relevant to your mission?
  • When will you do it?
  • How long will it take?

I have found that putting a few things on your list for first thing in the morning and sticking to that gives you a mental boost for the rest of the day. Not to mention, you can cross them off the list!

2. Plan for interruptions

This is especially important when you’re managing other people. They need your time and input. If you can, it helps to block periods of time when you’ll be available to them. This won’t completely eliminate interruptions, but knowing when you’re likely to be available helps others respect the times you’re not.

  • Are there times when you’re likely to be in your office with the door open?
  • If you manage people in other locations, do you make a point of being there at certain times of the day?
  • Do you respond to email all day (and night?) or do people know they’re most likely to hear from your at certain times of the day?
  • If there’s a big project or a team that requires more time than usual, do you have a standing time for questions? Do you respect that time on your calendar?

3. Say No

This is hard. How many of us really believe someone who begins a request with “it’s okay if you don’t have time but….” Yet we admire the people around us who are able to say “I don’t have time right now,” or who let us know that if they take that task on they’ll have to let something else go.

In a world of overachievers and super-women, it can be hard to say no, but it’s a muscle worth developing.

If you have a hard time delegating, or tend to take everything on yourself, you may want to recognize that tendency and address it.

4. Act now

Don’t wait until you feel like filling out end of the year budget reports, paperwork for evaluations, filing a project, or whatever task is your least favorite. You probably won’t ever feel like doing it, you’ll just hit that point of panic when the angst of your long-neglected work outweighs the ugh factor of doing it.

Is it on your list for today?

Then just do it.

And it doesn’t hurt to have something you enjoy on the list just behind it!

How good are you at spotting a choice?

Most choices are easy to spot, like elephants. They’re sometimes just as difficult to redirect, but we certainly know they’re there.

The choices we don’t see, the snipes, lurk where we feel stuck. So elusive we may not even believe they exist.

Imagine this.

Every time you talk with your best friend, she runs through her litany of complaints: They don’t appreciate her at work, her husband doesn’t listen to her, and her kids are driving her crazy. You listen, you offer a suggestion or two, but nothing changes. The same story every time.

Do you believe she has no choice?

Of course not. You grumble about how she needs to get a new job, do something about that husband, and read that book you keep telling her about – the one that helped you with your kids. She’s not stuck, she’s just not doing anything about her situation, right?

Now, jot down the answer to this question:

Where are you stuck?

  • Work isn’t challenging me but there’s no place else for me to go?
  • I’d like to exercise more but between work and the kids I have no time?
  • I want to try something new, but I’m too old to switch tracks now?

See that place where you have no choice? Congratulations, you trapped your snipe.

You really know you got one when the first thing that goes through your mind is something like, “Yeah, but I really don’t have a choice because…..”

We always have choices. Choosing not to do something, for instance. Sometimes we don’t want to see them because they’re hard choices.

Several years ago, I talked with someone who, years earlier, had set aside the beginnings of a promising creative career that was filled with uncertainty to work in a secure job that provided well for his family. I expected him to express regret, a longing for that path not taken. Instead, he said something that’s stuck with me.

“There’s a deep satisfaction in providing well for your family.”

He’d moved beyond regret because he owned that choice.

We tend to value the bold choice, the one that prefaces a rags-to-riches story. It often involves a company started in the garage, inspiration, good fortune, and a well-deserving protagonist.

We also tend to see these stories as having pivotal moments in which the main character makes the all-determining choice. They’re structured like movies or novels. Real life is a little less clear.

A friend drove this second point home for me a few weeks ago, asking, “Do you realize you tend to describe choices as polar opposites?”

Looking around, I see this model everywhere now. Reports, discussions, stories – we describe choices as black-and-white. Either-or. Pros-and-cons. Win-lose. This blocks out our ability to discern all the possibilities lingering in the middle.

With this question, she introduced me to the concept of polarity in decision-making.

If we see either-or choices, we tend to “choose” one to the detriment of the other end of the pole, which gets us out of balance.

For instance, if you focus solely on cost-cutting, and your customer service suffers, you’ll lose customers. If you focus only on customer service and your costs go way up, you’ll lose customers. It’s not an all-or-nothing scenario – it’s about balanced choices.

The promising creative path my friend didn’t follow didn’t entirely go away. He found a way to incorporate parts of it into his daily work, taking on projects on the side, and keeping his skills and abilities alive for many years. When he reached a point of feeling that the family obligations had been met, he was able to choose anew, and refocus on the creative calling. If he’d seen it as all-or-nothing, stopped everything, he wouldn’t have built up the skills and talents he did during those years of choosing to support his family first.

Imagine how this applies to the stuck situation you jotted down earlier. Are there choices lurking in the underbrush that you didn’t see before?

There’s a great feeling of liberation in embracing the ability to make a choice. Even if you know you’re making the easy choice, or not making a hard choice, at least you’ve put yourself back in the driver’s seat.

Better to ride an elephant than a snipe.

read more about polarity

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!