Make life bigger than “Yes” versus “No”

Many people want you to stop saying “Yes” to everything. It’s overloading your life, sapping your energy, and keeping you from doing the meaningful stuff. Jeff Goins calls this “the small but soul-crushing word you use every day.

Their solution? Say “No.”

This recommendation isn’t wrong, just incomplete. What it leaves out are two other legitimate responses to requests. By incorporating these into your repertoire, you not only free yourself from overscheduling. You also live a bigger life.

Yes vs No

But first…

The virtues of saying “No”

Let’s give “No” its due. If you’re the kind of person who agrees to everything, making more frequent use of “No” helps you:

  • Avoid overcommitting yourself. This one is pretty obvious.
  • Focus on what matters most. Having less on your plate gives you time to consider what is truly important to you—and then focus on it.
  • Preserve your dignity. Declining a request can be an act of integrity. It’s not just that you feel better. You actually become a person who has the right and capacity to choose.
  • Increase your credibility. People will trust your “Yeses” more when they hear you say “No.” They’ll know you took the time to assess your skill, interest, and availability in bringing about what was asked.

In short, it often pays to say yes to “No.”

But not all of the time.

One alternative to “Yes” versus “No”

You’re in the middle of a meeting and someone hands you a note. (Yeah, I know. It would really be a text message or tweet. But humor me here.) The note says, “Luke insists on borrowing your light saber next Thursday. What should I tell him?” You’re immersed in the conversation, and this is a big commitment, so you write back, “Tell him I’ll let him know tomorrow morning.”

Alright, dear readers, is this a “Yes” or a “No?”

It’s neither. You’re saying I’ll get back to you with an answer. Some people call this “buying time” or “stall tactics.” I call it a Promise to Reply Later. The difference is more than semantics. When you promise to reply later, you are not avoiding commitment. You are making a commitment. And people can feel this. You can feel this.

Let’s set aside my Luke/light saber example for a moment and consider a more everyday business example. You run a manufacturing organization. Your peer, Amy, interfaces between you and the sales organization. She asks you if you can produce 50,000 units by the end of November. She is under a lot of pressure from the sales folks and wants your answer now—or so it seems. In the past, you might have said “Yes” to keep her happy, show that you’re in charge, or avoid your boss’s wrath.

But this time is different. You’re ready to practice a new response. You say, “Amy, this is a serious commitment, and I know you’ve got sales breathing down your neck. I want to give you a firm commitment of what I can produce and when I can produce it. To do this, I need 48 hours, and then I promise to give you an answer. Will this work for you?”

Amy might be disappointed by not having an immediate response, but will she view you as unconcerned about her interests, weak, or flaky? Not likely. Because you’ve acknowledged her situation and made a sincere commitment. Not to manufacture X amount, but to get back to her by a specific time.

It may seem a small thing, but you’ve simultaneously increased your degrees of freedom and shown up in a powerful way. You have made your life bigger than it was a moment ago.

What are some other times you may choose to promise to reply later?

Useful times to promise to reply later

  • Your attention is on something else. You don’t have a moment to think.
  • You are tired, cranky, wired, on a new medication, or otherwise not in the best physical condition to make a grounded response.
  • You aren’t clear on what’s been requested and may need to get clarification before responding.
  • Your ability to fulfill the promise depends on other people helping you. It would be wise to get their commitment before giving yours.
  • You have a habit of immediately saying “Yes” and want to pause to respond more mindfully.
  • You have a habit of immediately saying “No” and want to pause to respond more mindfully.
  • Your relationship with the other person is sticky or complicated, so you need time to place this request in the context of the relationship.
  • You just need more time.

Now, let’s say you’re in one of these situations. You’re not ready to say “Yes” or “No.” But you also don’t want to be one of those people who delay responding out of flakiness. You want to stand in integrity. How can you ensure you are doing this?

A few tips

  • Commit to getting back to the other person by a particular day or time. You are not blowing off the person. You are making a commitment to them. Not “I’ll let you know” or “I’ll think about it.” Those are too vague. What you say instead is “I’ll let you know by Wednesday evening.” Or, better yet, “I’ll let you know by Wednesday at 7pm.”
  • When you say this, you need to mean it. You have to be willing to stand by your commitment. Sincerity matters.
  • Follow through. Whatever you need to do to decide how you will respond, you do it. And then respond by the promised time. Of course, when Wednesday at 7pm comes around, you may realize Gee I’m still not sure how to respond to this request. These things happen. What’s important is that you communicate this to the other person. Worried that they’ll think you’re flaky for doing this? That’s possible, but the really flaky behaviors are agreeing to a promise you know you cannot keep or not responding by the promised time.

So the next time you’re not sure whether to say “Yes” or “No,” consider promising to reply later.

In my next post, I’ll introduce a fourth legitimate response to a request: the counteroffer.

Join the Conversation

I love hearing your comments and questions about these blog posts. Here is today’s question:

Question: When was the last time you promised to reply later? 

$10K Phrases: “Help Me Understand”

One of my favorite $10,000 phrases is “help me understand.” In this post, I describe why this phrase produces powerful leadership conversations, when to use it, and how to incorporate it into your day-to-day communication.

Crystal clarity

Why say “help me understand”

This phrase has three important purposes:

  1. Improve clarity. If you’re confused about what someone said or did—or the rationale behind it—you may be tempted to stay silent (to avoid conflict, convey strength, etc.) or challenge them (to prove they’re wrong, display your smarts, etc.). The problem with silence is that it doesn’t relieve your confusion. The problem with challenge is that it’s premature: how can you challenge something you don’t understand? A third alternative is to seek clarification. This is precisely the point of saying “help me understand.”
  2. Convey positive intent. “Help me understand” focuses on you and what you want to learn. This conveys to the other person that you care about them and want to put yourself in their shoes. The word “help” positions the other person as powerful and resourceful, rather than confusing. Notice how different this is from saying “What you said doesn’t make sense to me” (which is critique loosely disguised as curiosity) or “Why do you think that?” (which can appear like an accusation unless it’s delivered in the gentlest of tones). Whereas these phrases are likely to evoke defensiveness, “help me understand” supports other’s assessment of you as someone who is caring and respectful.
  3. Save your lips. Many people bite their lips when they hear something they don’t like or understand. They do this to avoid saying something they would later regret. Although this can work in the short run, over time it damages lips. The phrase “Help me understand” carries no such risk.

When to say “help me understand”

  1. When you are confused about what someone said or did. You want to better understand the facts.
  2. When you are confused about why they said or did it, what it means to them, or what implications it has. Your target is not facts but what these facts mean to the other person. This helps you size up the situation and understand what makes that person tick. The result: smarter choices about how to respond.
  3. When your first instinct is to criticize someone’s ideas, actions, or motives. In this situation, saying “help me understand” protects you from sticking your foot in your mouth and/or throwing a dart into the other person’s side.
  4. When you realize it’s time to improve a relationship that is pivotal to your success or happiness. This phrase is one of the best ways to begin the process of mending a broken relationship. (For more on this topic, check out my Fast Company article here).
  5. When you want to cultivate the quality of curiosity. Here the goal isn’t a specific outcome but a better developed person: you. The point of saying “help me understand” is to integrate curiosity into your MO. Some people think that saying “help me understand” requires curiosity. Perhaps. But I suggest that every time you say this phrase with sincerity, you become a more curious person. Curiosity is not just a cause. It is also an effect.


How to say “help me understand”

One of the beauties of this phrase is its simplicity. It has three words and five syllables. Nothing ambiguous. Nothing threatening.

You can say it as a statement: “Please help me understand the thinking behind your decision.”

Or a question” “Could you help me understand what happened right before the conference started?”

The hard part isn’t saying this phrase. It’s remembering to say it. (The opportunities are endless—if you’re paying attention). And practicing it deliberately both on the job and on a conversational “practice field.” If you want to get better, use this phrase at every meeting, on the phone, in your emails, at the family dinner table, and when hanging out with friends. The more you practice it, the more embedded it will become in your way of being. For more on how to deliberately practice like high performers, check out Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, or this book by yours truly.

Please use the space below to share your comments

  • How does it feel when people say “help me understand to you?”
  • In what situations do you find yourself saying this phrase
  • Are there any variations of this phrase that you’ve found to be equally effective?

Or ask a question. I promise to respond within 24 hours—if not sooner.

3 Downsides of Emotional Intelligence

Over the past decade “emotional intelligence” has become a big buzz word. Managers thrive when they have it. Marriages end when they don’t. And if you aren’t in touch with your cat’s emotions, you don’t deserve to call yourself a cat person.

That’s all fine and good.

But what about the downsides of emotional intelligence? Isn’t it time these got some attention?

I think so. And here are the big three:

1. The Downside of Compassion

Compassion asks a lot of us. People confuse it with sympathy or empathy, but they’re very different. Sympathy means being concerned about someone else. Empathy involves this and feeling their emotions. Yes, I know, that’s a lot to ask, but compassion provides an even greater challenge. When you feel compassion, you are concerned about someone and you feel their emotions and you want to do something about it. The origin is Latin: to “suffer with.”

The big problem with compassion is that it interferes with a behavior that people depend on for success and happiness. Comedian John Oliver, best known for his role on The Daily Show, says it best:

As a comedian, you should not be in rooms where people you’ve made fun of also are, because you will realize at the end of the day that they’re just people. You can’t risk having that kind of compassion infect your mission to attack.

—John Oliver on Fresh Air, June 19, 2014

2. The Downside of Regulating Your Emotions

Emotional self-regulation is a fancy way of saying “don’t blow up” when you’re angry. This is generally a good practice. Although some people need to learn to express their emotions more, most of us have mini-volcanoes inside of us ready to erupt. Regulating these is wise.

Except for one problem. When you want to explode and don’t, then you miss an opportunity to harm another person. This means you can’t go back and apologize. And they cannot forgive you. We all know the power of apologies and forgiveness to enhance relationships. Do we really want to put a damper on them?

3. The Downside of Self-awareness

One of my pet phrases goes like this: “Become a great student of your experience.” Translation: pay attention to what you’re thinking, feeling, and doing during the day. If I had a dollar for every time I said this, I’d be rich—nearly as rich as the people who have followed my advice.

However, self-awareness isn’t all peaches and cream. In fact, it poses a major threat to our economic well being. People with self-awareness tend to get into fewer car accidents, eat healthier food, exercise more effectively, commit fewer violent crimes and, as previously noted, get fewer divorces. It’s lucky that there are so few people like this. Otherwise, what would lawyers, doctors, and nurses do for a living? And how would hospitals pay their bills?

Let’s give emotional intelligence it’s due. But let’s not forgot that it has real costs.

Luck matters

Luck matters. We hate to admit it, but it does.

Let’s start with DNA. Your genes are responsible for 50 percent of your happiness. It’s called the “genetic set point.” Don’t buy this? Talk with twins who’ve been apart for forty years. Or take a look at the research. The conclusion is clear: half of your happiness is determined at your birth. You can pick your jeans but not your genes.
Green hat
Now consider demographics. How much wealth you are born into. The color of your skin. The place where you grow up. You don’t control these either.

Luck matters.

Yet we convince ourselves it does not.

If life’s been hard and success elusive, many people want to blame you. You don’t work hard enough. You’ve made bad choices. You’re not taking responsibility. And, guess what. There may be something to these charges. You do have flaws. You do screw up. Yet tell that to the college professor who has the same degrees, title, and income as his close colleague yet can’t provide as well for his kids and has less financial cushion. The big difference? Whereas his colleague’s parents gained wealth on their home by buying low and selling high, his parents missed out because banks redlined their neighborhood. (Too many Black residents.) So now he sends a much higher portion of his income to his parents to cover their medical bills.

Same intelligence. Same effort. Different outcome.

Luck matters.

And not just bad luck.

Let’s say you’ve made it big. Impressive job. Growing business. Nice house. Or perhaps, instead, you’re solopreneuring and live in a mini house, because you decided to simplify. You made the choices that got you here, right? You seized opportunities and took smart risks. Or you simply put in longer hours than others. Luck had nothing to do with this.

Except that it did. Your parents are white, so they got the loan that helped them buy the house that is responsible for half of their wealth appreciation. And you got healthy genes, so you spent your childhood playing sports or going to dance camp rather than getting surgeries to correct for chromosomal abnormalities. It’s like that famous quip about one of our recent Presidents: “He was born on third base but thinks he hit a triple.”

Luck matters.

But, wait, you didn’t grow up wealthy. And, you were sick a lot as a kid. But now you’re a success. Clearly, this is a case of overcoming obstacles and making the most of your talents, not luck, right?

Maybe. But it’s one thing to work hard and make smart choices and another to attribute all of your success to these actions. In reality, you got breaks others didn’t—the mentor who took an interest in you, getting into the right company at the right time, or the siblings who sacrificed so you could move ahead. You seized these opportunities, but you didn’t create them.

Luck matters.

It’s time for us all to come clean about this. Not just to call BS on our fables of success and happiness, but for three powerful reasons:

  1. Gratitude. Acknowledging the role of luck is an act of gratitude. People who are grateful are happier than those who are not. So if you want to be happy, fess up to the primacy of luck.
  2. Humility. People who know they’re not the sole architects of their lives tend to be more open to their own fallibility. They admit mistakes, seek opportunities to learn, and spend less time being arrogant know-it-alls.
  3. Focus. When you realize the power of luck, you pay more attention to it. You see positive breaks that others miss. And when bad things happen, you don’t obsess about what went wrong, but focus on your creative response.
Let’s get real. Luck matters.

#WDS2014: Loving Nerds, Igniting Practice, and Growing a New Mind

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

It is called the World Domination Summit—or WDS for short—and billed as a three-day gathering for remarkable people living in a conventional world.   I signed up to lure my brother to Portland for a visit—and because three Millennials called it “epic” and two Boomers said it was “refreshingly positive.” I showed up to see what all the fuss was about—and meet people I could hire to help me share my ideas more broadly. And I left—take a deep breath, because here’s the heretical part—neither wiser nor more inspired but with a deeper commitment to what I’ve been intending to do for years.

WDS openingparty

This post is not a recap of the experience—for initial summaries check out here, here, and here—but my reflections on its meaning for me, a 44-year-old leadership coach who doubles as a father, husband, and Paleo Jewish mystic empiricist.

At Home with Writers and Nerds

It would be a stretch to say that that WDS is “my home.” Although I liked everyone I met and was intrigued by their stories, I would not say that these are “my people.” Consider:

  • The center of gravity of WDS is the Millennial Generation. I haven’t seen demographic stats, but I bet the median age hovers around 32. I’m 44, and I work mostly with Boomers. In fact, one of my closest colleagues has a boyfriend whose 90th birthday is coming up soon.
  • This group seemed hip to the latest trends. In my mind, a new band is anyone whose first album appeared after Hall & Oates peaked.
  • Many people I met were early in their journey of living unconventionally. In the words of one, “My life changed after I read The Art of Non-Conformity [a fine book by WDS founder Chris Guillebeau].” It’s been 22 years since I gave conventional life the boot by dropping out of medical school and 15 years since I started meditating on trains and in cafes.
  • The prototypical WDS narrative goes like this: “I was in a successful corporate career, then got bored/sick/restless/devoid of meaning, so I started my own thing, and I’m much happier.” My business works primarily with managers in large companies and public agencies. I challenge them to change themselves before they change their situation because (1) Otherwise, they’ll simply bring old habits and ways of being to new situations, and (2) Research shows that our situation in life (job, spouse, city) accounts for only 10 percent of our happiness.
  • Lots of folks spoke glowingly about how inspired they were by their first WDS. I can be inspired, but it takes a special experience. Plus, it’s been ten years since I realized that “ahas” amount to little without ongoing deliberate practice.

And yet, in at least two ways, I felt great affinity with other WDS peeps:

  • The Writers. It seemed like everyone had a blog or was planning to start one. Many had published books, some of them quite good. Sheepish admission: although I’m a voracious reader and newly published author, I’ve never really hung out with writers before. Consultants, yes. Executive coaches, for sure. But writers? Not so much. Now I know better. Example: David Delp. We had a great chat at a meetup. Then I looked at his blog and realized: wow, that man has depth and humor and knows how to express it.
  • The Nerds. Ti-shirts and buttons proclaiming the virtues of being a Nerd have been around for years. Yawn. Never paid them much attention. Yet when I saw one at WDS, something clicked for me. I always associated being a Nerd with science and math. And I coach a lot of engineers who’ve been promoted past their natural comfort level with people. Yet, here, Nerds were writers, artists, and solopreneurs. Geeks in creativity. That’s a new one. It’s still sinking in, but it’s giving me new reason to reinterpret all the teasing I got in high school for getting good grades (and having a massive head of hair).

So there you have it. At home with the writers and the nerds.


Igniting Deliberate Practice

The test of a good conference, seminar, or workshop isn’t whether you leave inspired. After all, the half-life of inspiration is about ninety minutes. Nor can you tell a good conference by how many people you meet, or even how many deep connections you make. These metrics are important, but they don’t automatically translate into anything. IMHO, the true test of a good conference is how well it ignites you to deliberately practice a pivotal skill.

  • Deliberate practice. In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin popularized this term to describe how elite performers in sports, the performing arts, and other fields rise to the top. Deliberate practice means repeating an action over and over again with the intent to improve, getting feedback from a skilled coach or mentor, and persevering through boredom and hard work. Think about those piano lessons you took in elementary school—or hitting the tennis ball against the wall.
  • Ignition. Starting anything new is challenging. Sustaining it when old habits pop up—even harder. What differentiates people who turn new practices into lived habits? They have a primal desire to do or be something—and this desire is so strong that it that compels them to act. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle calls this impulse “ignition”:

Ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening…[that] works through lightning flashes of image and emotion, evolution-built neural programs that tap into the mind’s vast reserves of energy and attention. [It’s about] the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be.

What are you more committed to deliberately practicing today than you were last week? Yesterday, while hiking on Mt. Hood, my brother and I asked each other this question. My answers:

  • Meditation. For a year, I’ve been experimenting with a new approach. Instead of sitting for 20-30 minutes once a day, I sit for 3-5 minutes 5-7 times a day. It’s hard to do, but the results are good: more consistent ease and clarity throughout the day. And the “0 to 60 time” (how long it takes to get into a peaceful meditative buzz) goes from minutes to seconds. It’s time to do this practice even more consistently.
  • Blogging. My brother challenged me to blog twice a week every week. So here we go…
  • Twitter. I’m going to make this my primary social media platform. (Hint, hint…please tweet this post)
  • Strength training. Lifting weights 3-5 times a week makes a huge difference for my mood. It’s also good for T—like many men my age, I have low testosterone. Yet I’ve been incredibly inconsistent. So I’m recommitting to 4 times a week.
  • Ice Ago Paleo. At the WDS Blogging Academy, Chris Garrett encouraged us to embrace our geekiness. Well, I follow a Paleo Diet, except I sometimes eat ice cream. So I’m Ice Age Paleo. My new commitment is to continue with the Paleo while reducing the frequency of the glacial drift.

Growing a New Mind

People at WDS like the word “epic.” Here’s what I have to say about that. The truly epic thing about being a human being—instead of a gorilla, snake, or ant—is that growing up doesn’t end at adulthood. Even when our bodies reach their maximum height, our minds have the capacity to grow—not just once, but multiple times. Depending on which research you read, there are from three to ten stages through which our minds can grow after we’re physically mature. Each stage allows us to make sense of the world in new ways and handle more complexity than the previous stage. Some people call this “vertical development” because it’s not just changing what you see; it’s changing the person who is doing the seeing. If you’re interested, it’s worth studying—and a good place to start is Changing on the Job by Jennifer Garvey Berger. But for most of us, three stages matter most, and the first starts before adulthood.

  • Self-sovereign mind. The only perspective you can take is your own. Everyone else’s view is a mystery. When other people see things differently, it’s not much of an internal conflict. Forget “We Are the World.” Life starts and ends with “I Am the World.” Or as Rodney Dangerfield said in the movie Back to School, the route to success in life is “looking out for number one without stepping in number two.”
  • Socialized mind. You now can see the world through other people’s perspectives. Life is not just about what you want. This is progress! However, there’s a catch: you can become embedded in others’ perspectives. Your parents hate the idea of you becoming a writer, so you study architecture. All the adults you grew up around are homophobic, so it takes forever for you to come out of the closet. (Or, in the case of one friend of mine, your mother encourages you to be gay, so you have to apologize to her that you’re straight.) Or you get married and discover your partner has very different ideas about how to raise kids than the ones you were taught. You cannot simultaneously hold both perspectives, so you feel a deep inner conflict.
  • Self-authorized mind. Finally, you can see multiple perspectives while maintaining your own. When you had a socialized mind, other people’s perspectives held you. Now, you hold these perspectives. It’s just like that metaphor from the negotiations book Getting to Yes. Rather than just being an actor on the stage, you “go to the balcony” and can see the action on the stage. Your ability to grok others’ views without sacrificing your own is, yes, you guessed it, epic. It’s also an achievement that takes years to develop.

The true zeitgeist of WDS? An invitation to leave the socialized mind behind and step forward boldly into the self-authorized mind. It’s a powerful invitation, one well-timed with where many participants are in their lives. This, in my view, is the main reason why people fall in love with the gathering. It’s not the speakers, meetups, high-fives, or hot air balloons.  What they—we—are really falling in love with is the version of ourselves that is eager to burst forth.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that growing beyond the socialized mind isn’t easy. It takes years. And a lot of—yes, I’m going to say it—pain. When we grow beyond the socialized mind, that version of ourselves dies. And death ain’t no party. In fact, although people claim that they fear public speaking more than death, that’s a bunch of crap. We fear death a hundred times more. We just deny the reality of death so skillfully that we forget how frightening it really is. (See The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker).

Here’s where I think WDS could do better. Acknowledge that living an unconventional (or, I would say, post conventional) life involves more than leaving your company, creating a great platform, building your mailing list, or recruiting an awesome tribe. It requires a profound inner reorientation of who you are and how well you can master life’s complexities. Even while relishing the freedom and joy of creativity, we also learn to honor and grieve what we are leaving behind. Finally, growing our minds involves—yes, you guessed it—loads of deliberate practice. Think Great Namaste every day for two years.

Mary Oliver, again:

What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

And, I would add, who will you become?