My Interview on Hispanic MPR

Hispanic MPR has posted an interview they did with me about my book, Practice Greatness.

This is my second interview about the book, and I am pleased by how well it went. Although I stumbled a bit early on, after about five minutes, I picked up my stride. We dug into some meaty questions, and I think he interviewer, Elena del Valle, did a really nice job.

To listen online or download the iTunes podcast, go to this web page

And please tell me what you think!

What Do You Do When There’s Nothing to Do?

Note: I wrote this in early August

The woman at the registration table thinks I’m going to kidnap someone else’s child. If she knew how hard it is for me to get my own kids to follow me, she wouldn’t be suspicious. However, her job isn’t to read my mind. It’s to protect the kids at summer camp from people doing strange things or, as in my case, asking unusual questions.

Curiosity can get you into trouble.

Bird up high

Denied entry

It all started two days ago. After finishing my work day, I drove to camp to pick up my older son. The man at the registration table looked down at a sheet of paper and said, “Sorry, you’re not on the approved list.” Many parents would get frustrated or angry to hear such news. I was excited. It meant that this camp was strict about the security rules—my kind of camp.

“No problem,” I said. “I’m listed as an emergency contact. Let me show you my driver’s license.” I pulled it out of my wallet and placed it on the table.

“Sorry, we can’t do that. You’re still not on the approved list.”

“No problem,” I said, trying to hide my excitement. Wow, this place is rock solid about security. “So,” I continued, “Where does that leave us?”

“Well, you are indeed listed as an emergency contact. So let me call that number. If you answer, then I’ll know that you are you.”

Huh? I thought to myself. Why is holding the right phone better proof than a driver’s license with the correct name and photograph?  

My excitement had shifted into concern. Maybe this camp isn’t so smart about security after all. Clearly, it was time for me to put these people to the test.

“Look,” I said. “Why don’t you ask my son to pick out his father. I’ll turn my head in the other direction so he has to search hard. If he picks me, then you’ll know you’ve got the right guy.”

No answer. The guy was walking away, presumably in search of a phone. Hard to know if he even heard me.

I picked up my cell and clicked on the ringer. Waited for his call. A minute passed. Nothing. Maybe he realized my identity test is more valid than his. Then he appeared across the room, walking over to my son. As promised, I turned around and looked in the opposite direction. Since I was wearing my signature Fedora, I figured it would be seconds before my son recognized me and shouted with delight, “Dadda!”

A minute passed. No “Dadda!” Finally, the guy showed up with my son in hand. “Here he is!”

I stood for a moment, puzzled. He’s just going to let me walk away with the boy?

Most parents would think nothing of this. But not me. As I drove my son home, I started thinking of ways I could further test the robustness of the camp’s security.

Inside, but suspect

Thanks to my wife, my name is now on the list of approved pickup people. Phew. Unfortunately, my son isn’t interested in leaving. Just because I made it in doesn’t mean he wants to make it out. He’s in a circle with three other kids and a camp counselor playing a game. He’s entranced. No matter what I do, I can’t get his attention. Even when I send his little brother over to hug him, he doesn’t look up.

What do you do when you have nothing else to do? I walk up to people and ask questions.

The woman at the registration table doesn’t seem busy. “Excuse me,” I say, “Can I ask you a question.”

She’s one of those smiley happy people that you want your kid to be around at summer camp. “Absolutely!”

“This may sound like a strange question, but I was just wondering. The other day I had trouble getting in here because my name wasn’t on the list. My wife added it, so today we’re good. But I was wondering: how do you guys know that when I walk out of here, the kid I’m walking out with is my son? I didn’t see anybody check two days ago. What would keep me from walking out with someone else?”

“We watch,” she replies.

Nobody was watching two days ago, I think to myself. And didn’t she hear me just say this?

“So you’re watching closely to see that people are with someone who looks like their kid. How many kids come to this camp every day? A hundred?”

“We get three hundred kids every day.”

“That’s a lot of people to watch. Have you ever considered making sure that kids leave with the right person? It’s not just about being the right person walking in.”

From the look on her face, it’s clear that I’ve crossed a line. Although I think I’m asking helpful hypothetical questions, she is started to get creeped out.

And confused.

“We can’t let you in without making sure you’re on the list. We just can’t do that.”

“I’m sorry, I haven’t been very clear. I’m totally for checking people in. How about checking them out? It’s just like Google two-step verification.”

I feel so proud of myself for offering an analogy that will clear things up. Instead, it only makes her more confused—and suspicious.

She pulls over a coworker and whispers something in her ear. The coworker looks at me with that look—you know, the one you give someone who is hiding something from you. It’s not a look of admiration.

Great. I think to myself. First I couldn’t get in the door. Now I’m inside and I’m a suspect.

I finally shut my mouth. Good call. I do need to get out of here and make dinner for my sons.

Three lessons for leadership

  1. Pay attention to what you do when there is nothing to do. Do you ask strange questions to people you don’t know? Probably not. That’s my weirdness. Yours may be different. Do you obsessively check email on your smart phone? If so, what’s behind that? Do you impatiently push people to move ahead? That’s a popular one. Do you think about all the things you just screwed up—or the stupid actions of others? That fills the time. Do you relax because finally you have a moment to yourself away from all of those irritating people? Or do you feel so uncomfortable with standing still that you reach out to someone—anyone—to connect with? Do you pick up a book? Or look for something to eat?
  2. Notice the impact of these actions on others. If there are people around, you are having an impact on them. What’s the impact? Are you creating more trust, joy, and freedom in the world? Or, like me with the registration table woman, are you creating less?
  3. Expand your repertoire. The people I know who are both successful and mature have the same bad habits they’ve always had. Just like the rest of us. What’s different is that these behaviors are less habitual and less common. That’s because they’ve developed a broad repertoire of responses to the same situation. While waiting for their child to leave summer camp, they don’t always ask bizarre questions to the person at the registration table. Sometimes they play games with their other child. Other times they quietly watch what’s happening in the room. Still other times they strike up a friendly conversation with a camp counselor. Same situation, but five or ten different possible responses.

What will you do the next time there’s nothing to do?

Trust Your Gut. Eat the Other Brownie

Sometimes it pays to trust your gut.

For example, many years ago I was at a Halloween party with friends, enjoying myself, when I came across two plates of brownies. One plate was labeled, “If you have nothing to do tomorrow.” The other said, “If you have something to do tomorrow.” In a festive spirit, I reached for a brownie on the first plate. It tasted good—rich and chewy, just the way I liked it.


It was a small brownie, so I instinctively reached for another. And another. And another. After all, I thought, how much rum could they put in a little brownie?

After consuming five or six pieces, I stopped for a moment. “Why,” I said out loud, “are these pieces so darn small? It doesn’t make any sense.”

A guy next to me heard the question. “You’ll find out soon enough,” he said with a grin.

The decision

In my gut, something didn’t seem quite right. Since when did people make such a big deal about rum? My brain couldn’t make sense of what my belly intuited. So I ignored my body and grabbed a few more pieces of brownie.

Everything went great for the next half hour. Dancing to Earth Wind & Fire, then Kool & The Gang. A bit of Parliament/Funkadelic. Then a few classics from John Denver, who had recently died.

This joyful moment came to a halt when a friend of mine stormed onto the dance floor. Her eyes filled with terror, she pulled on my arm. “Amiel,” she said. “Those brownies were filled with pot. My head is pounding!”

Although always an emotional person, now she was hysterical.

Ah, poor woman, I thought with no small measure of condescension.

Although surprised to hear that the mystery ingredient was marijuana, not rum, I wasn’t worried. I had eaten twice as much as her and weighed less than her, yet felt completely fine.

So I gallantly walked her over to the staircase and said, “Here, let’s sit down. I’ll take care of you.”

By now, my friend was in a state of full paranoia. She spoke quickly and urgently. “I’m going to die. I’m going to die!”

Still playing the gallant gentleman, I said “Don’t worry. Nobody dies from marijuana. It’s one of the safest drugs.”

I put my arms around her shoulders. “You’ll be fine,” I assured. “You’ll be absolutely fine.”

The surprising result

We sat there quietly for several minutes.

Then, suddenly, as if out of nowhere, my head began to pound. Louder and louder, pressure growing every second. My heart rate picked up speed. It felt like my brain was going to explode any minute. By now, Mr. Comfort the Afflicted was nowhere to be seen. In his place: Mr. Terrified. Compounding the fear from the physical sensations was fear of the unknown. Up to that point, I had not tried marijuana of any kind (nor have I since), so I had no way to gauge whether this was a typical high or a path to the morgue. There is a first for everything, I thought to myself. Before long, I entered into a full-throttled freak-out episode that lasted over an hour.

Yes, that was a very long night.

Six lessons

Needless to say, I survived, but not before learning six powerful lessons about judgment and the gut:

  1. The gut is smart. It picks up signals and provides guidance that the brain cannot. In fact, we now know that the stomach and gut contain 100 million neurons. That’s why scientists call it the “second brain.”
  2. Some people respond to their gut more than others. From my study of the Enneagram, I’ve learned that about one third of the population centers their intelligence in the gut. Although they still use their minds (who doesn’t?), their daily actions depend more heavily on the gut sensations than do others. And their sense of identity—who they take themselves to be—is based in the gut.
  3. Many of us are not gut-centered. My center of intelligence is in my mind. Sure, I have a body, but it’s not what has historically guided my daily actions. Even in high school when I played varsity soccer and nearly won the 800 at the state track meet, people thought of me as “heady” and “a brain.” Today, as during the brownie experience, my gut comes in second. To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, my gut gets no respect.
  4. If you’re not gut-centered, it’s extra important to listen to your gut. We all have our own versions of the brownie story. Times when our gut had an important message to share but we ignored it. Listening to the gut in such situations is even more important when we don’t center our intelligence in the gut.
  5. Listening to your gut takes daily practice. At the time of the brownie experience, I was aware of the advice to “trust your gut” but didn’t realize that this took practice. As a result, up until then, I never consciously focused on trusting my gut. It was a nice idea but not something to actually do—much less on a regular basis. Now I know better. Today, the opportunity to practice arises throughout the day. How do I respond to a particular email? Do I eat that chocolate croissant sold across the street or stick to my Paleo diet? When I’m about to express anger toward someone and my gut says, “Not so fast, buddy!” what do I do.
  6. Practice pays off for big decisions. In 2002, I was accepted into a PhD program. I would have had a chance to study with some of the top researchers and practitioners in my field—and live in a city where the sun always shines. However, my gut told me, “Don’t do it.” Due to all of the practicing I had been doing in the past several years, I listened to it. In retrospect, it was an excellent decision.

Join the Conversation

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

Question: When was a time that you trusted your gut and it made a big positive difference in your life?


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.