The Real Reason Your “Shoes Don’t Fit”

Ray’s feet hurt like hell, and he didn’t know why.

“My right foot has gotten scraped so much, it’s starting to bleed,” he told me with a painful grimace on his face. I looked down at his running shoes. I didn’t see any blood stains.  Before I could ask Ray a question, his girlfriend stepped forward and said, “I feel so bad to see how much pain Ray is in. Can you help him?”

The managers I coach don’t often talk about their feet. If the topic comes up, I’m the one to initiate, and it’s not to make their feet feel better, but to point out that they’re not flat on the ground. “If you want better executive presence,” I say. “You have to be grounded and centered. How can you do that if you’re feet aren’t on the ground?”

Ray, however, wasn’t a coaching client. He was a customer at Nordstrom. And, instead of his coach, I was a temporary summer employee in the men’s shoe department. What happened next in this incident from many years ago is a good illustration of how important it is to understand why you are having a problem before you try to fix it.

Running shoes

The first thing you do at Nordstrom after greeting the customer and finding out what they’re looking for is measure their feet. Ray had very small feet—at least lengthwise. He measured out at size 8.

I looked down at his shoes. They looked much bigger than size 8. “Ray, what size shoes are you wearing?”

Ray wasn’t certain. “10 or 10 1/2, I think,” he muttered under his breath. I could see that the pain he was experiencing in his feet overshadowed other concerns, like the exact size of his shoes.

I picked up the right shoe and looked inside. It was a size 11 1/2. I pointed this out to Ray.

“Yeah, I know. That’s the problem. I can’t fit into any smaller sizes. So I keep buying bigger and bigger shoes, but nothing works.” His frustration was palpable. Ray was a big stocky guy. For a moment I thought he was going to shed a tear.

I was puzzled. Why does someone with size 8 feet feet wear size 11 1/2 running shoes? And why is this tough-looking guy about to start crying—in the shoe department, of all places?

When people encounter anomalies, it is tempting to ignore them, wish them away, or justify them using reasoning that is anything but reasonable. Part of me wanted to take one of these routes. However, I was being paid to listen to Ray and help him find a solution to his problem. More importantly, for the first time in my brief stint at Nordstrom, here was someone showing up not as a demanding consumer but as a vulnerable human being. I wanted to help.

“Ray,” I said. “Here’s what I’m trying to figure out. You have size 8 feet but you’re wearing size 11 1/2 shoes. Do you have an idea of why that’s happening?”

Ray shrugged his shoulders. His girlfriend did the same.

I looked down at his feet again. This time, I noticed something new. They were wide. Not just slightly wide, but super wide.


“Did you know you have really wide feet?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Kind of…Yes, I guess so.”

“Well here’s the thing,” I said. “Your feet are very wide for their size. In fact, they’re wide for almost any size. That’s why your running shoes have been causing you so much pain. You’ve been trying to make things better by buying longer shoes. But length isn’t the issue. It’s width. And this brand of running shoes only comes in one width.”

Ray’s eyes opened wide. He wasn’t smiling. It was more like wonder. A new world was opening up for him, one that held the possibility of relief from his suffering.

“So if you want to get shoes that fit, a larger size in this brand won’t help. What we can do is get you into a different brand that comes in multiple widths and find the widest possible size we can. How about that?”

Ray was game.

Ten minutes later he was at the cash register with a smile on his face and a credit card in his hand.

It was my smallest sale of the day—perhaps of my entire month at Nordstrom—but also my favorite. What a good feeling it is to help someone improve their life through a simple but powerful reframing of their situation.

Sizing Up Your Situation Accurately

Ray was suffering because of his feet. Your situation at work or in the rest of your life may be different, but a few common principles apply:

  1. First size things up. If you’re having difficulty with something, like an employee, a tough customer, a knotty business decision, or your two teenage kids, don’t leap to a solution. First ask yourself: what exactly is going on here? What could be causing this situation?
  2. Ask others for assessments, not solutions. As with Ray, your initial take on the situation may be way off. So get others involved. But don’t ask them, “What do you think we should do?” Instead, say, “I’m trying to understand what’s going on here. What’s your take on where we are and how we got here?”
  3. Listen for new ideas. Many of us think we’re listening to others, but actually we’re just paying attention to the portions of others’ ideas that match our own. We screen out alternative perspectives, particularly those that call into question our own. In the words of systems theorist Daniel Kim, humility is being open to data that disconfirms our own ideas. Curiosity is actively seeking out such disconfirming data. I suggest you start with humility for six to twelve months, then move on to curiosity.
  4. Try it on. Developing yourself happens by trying on new ideas, practices, and ways of interacting in the same way you try on clothing. Do you ever try on a new shirt or blouse assuming it’s going to fit? Of course, not! So apply the same principle to your leadership challenges. Don’t assume going in that your idea is correct—or that someone else’s idea is correct. Instead, try it on and see if it fits. The fancy term for this philosophical tradition is pragmatism. It’s as American as apple pie, and the basic idea is this: do what works.
  5. Do make sure your shoes are comfortable. Now I’m talking literally about your shoes. For many years, I’ve been telling people that the three most important purchases a person makes are their shoes, their chairs, and their mattress. These are the things that physically connect us to the ground throughout the day. If they are well-made and comfortable, we are more likely to be relaxed. So before you hire me to be your leadership coach, make sure you have invested in comfortable shoes. (By the way, when my wife and I had a new bathroom built for our home a few years ago, I added a fourth item to my list of key purchases: toilet seats).

Life is full of painful challenges. As we seek to find freedom, joy, and meaning amidst these challenges, it helps to first ask “Why?” before we move into “What’s Next?”

Teaching Doctors How to Say “I’m Sorry”

Seven years ago, on a hill overlooking Portland, I taught fifteen medical students how to apologize. It wasn’t part of their curriculum. It wasn’t why I was invited to speak.

But life is about seizing opportunities. In this case, the opportunity was to transform the grief of losing a child into a teachable moment. Not by lecturing. Not even by telling a story. But by cajoling future doctors to say out loud the words I wished I had heard six months before.

What followed was a test case for the notion that you are what you say—and that what you say matters—a lot.


The invitation came from an OB/GYN known in the community for being compassionate with patients, particularly those with difficult pregnancies. He wasn’t our physician, but he heard about us through the grapevine. And we knew him by reputation.

My initial response was to decline. The loss was still recent—after death, six months can feel like six minutes—and I felt raw. Telling the story in detail wasn’t the problem. I knew it cold. And I was perfectly comfortable with shedding tears—crying, which rarely comes easily to me, had become my best form of relief. Each tear made my body less tense and more able to handle life. What concerned me is that I would go on an angry rampage. Our doctor, a respected neonatal specialist, had made a sloppy error and then lied to cover it up. The error may or may not have caused our daughter’s death, but it had definitely turned a tragic situation into a full-blown trauma. (The detailed story, which I won’t share here, makes this clear). I had just brought the error to the hospital’s quality council and been rebuffed. It was CYA all the way, and it left me more hurt and angry.

The whole experience, which would require a book to tell in detail, left me pissed off at our doctor, resentful toward the hospital, and disappointed with the health care system in general. This mood placed me at risk of exploding in front of the students, or at least speaking with an edge that would make it harder for them to listen to me.

My instinct, therefore, was to say “No thank you.” Instead, it came out as “Let me think about this a bit.” (I’ve learned through the years to temper my tendency to immediately say “no” to requests by buying myself some time).

Taking a few minutes to consider the situation turned out to be a wise choice. There was no denying that I was angry and that part of me sought revenge. Clearly, blowing up in front of the students would be stupid and wasn’t an Amiel thing to do. However, I realized that deciding what I didn’t want wasn’t the same thing as deciding what I did want. So I asked myself, What is it you really want to have happen here?

The answer came quickly. It wasn’t to help these students avoid making errors. After all, most errors are due to poor systems and processes. Nor was my goal to teach them that lying and covering up are wrong. Morality takes years to develop, and I had an hour. Instead, what I wanted was simpler.

I wanted to teach these future doctors how to say, “I’m sorry.”

Our doctor had not said this. Nor had any of the members of the hospital’s quality council. Nobody apologized. In fact, what they did was more egregious than not apologizing. They gave us the runaround.

So here was the opportunity: to teach the medical students to say what my wife and I had not yet heard: “I’m sorry.”

Here’s how it went: For the first forty minutes, I told our story and took their questions. I cried, as did some of the students. As for my anger, I expressed it in the cleanest way I knew how—by saying, “I felt angry at our doctor” and “I’m still angry now.” This felt clean because it was me taking responsibility for my anger, not trying to blame someone else for it.

Once it was clear that I had connected with them, I pivoted to the activity that had drawn me to show up.

“Now, I have a request for you. I can see that all of you have really taken in this story. And I imagine that at least some of you wish you could do something now. Well, you can’t take away my emotions, because they’re what they are, and I’m the one who generates them. But you can humor a grieving father by doing something you probably have never been asked before. Actually, that’s an assumption. Let me get a show of hands. How many of you have ever been taught to say ‘I’m sorry.'”

A few hands shot up. “Who taught you this?” The response was unanimous, “My parents.”

“OK,” I continued. “Let me have another show of hands. How many of you have been taught in your medical education to say, ‘I’m sorry.'”

No hands this time.

“That’s what I thought. No wonder many doctors don’t apologize. Nobody tells them it’s important, much less teaches them how. Well, that’s what I’m going to do. It will help you, and it will also help me. Are you up for this?”

A line of heads nodded up and down.

“OK, here goes.”

Practicing How To Apologize

I proceeded to walk them through a structured process of apologizing. First, I had them repeat after me, slowly and out loud, “I’m sorry.” Not once but five times, and in unison. After each iteration, I asked them to pause, take a few breaths, and notice what they were feeling. “Yeah, I know this is kind of weird. But I really appreciate it. And you’re all still alive, right? Saying that you’re sorry hasn’t killed you, has it? And your brain is still intact, right? OK, let’s keep going.”

Part two was more challenging. I had them say out loud, again at a slow pace, “I made a mistake, and I’m sorry.” The idea here was to not just apologize, but to explicitly claim responsibility by declaring that they had made a mistake.

This was a bit harder for the group. It took longer for everyone to start, and a few people stumbled over the words. (Yeah, I know, how hard is it to repeat a few simple words? Apparently, pretty hard when the words go against everything you’ve been taught). But they did it. So I had them repeat these phrases seven more times. Why seven? No reason—I just felt like it.

When they finished, I again pointed out that everyone was still alive and breathing. “Everyone’s eyes are open. Your brains still seemed to be working. In fact, some of you look more alert than when you walked in the room.” That prompted a few chuckles.

Practice complete.

I closed by expressing my gratitude to the class for being willing to do this unusual exercise with me. And I made one final request: “My hope is that this is just a start. If you want to get good at anything, you have to practice it a lot. Today, we practiced apologizing thirteen times. That’s a good start. But if you want to be able to do this with patients in real life, especially when you’re feeling stressed because you have just made a mistake, you have to practice this a lot more. Like a few hundred more times before you graduate.”

And then I left.

Five Lessons

I didn’t ask anyone to commit to practicing after walking out of the room. But my points were clear to them, as I imagine they are to you:

  1. To change something about yourself, don’t just think about it. Practice it.
  2. Most things you want to change actually involve new language—new words and phrases. That’s because we are human beings. Talking (and listening) is what we do. It’s how we get things done, create new possibilities, and build relationships.
  3. Changing what you say can feel uncomfortable. In fact, if it’s something you haven’t said before, it should feel uncomfortable. That’s the whole point! If it was comfortable, you wouldn’t be changing. You would be doing what you always do.
  4. Your mood and intent matter as much as your words. That’s why it’s important to check in with your body by breathing and check in with your emotions by asking yourself, “How am I feeling?”
  5. Deliberate practice requires a lot of repetition. Practicing something five or ten times is a great way to start, but it’s only a start. Building skill requires hundreds of repetitions.

Whether at work or at home, in moments of joy or suffering, while trying to make history or simply making a life, you are what you say. And what you practice.


Yes, Your Mind Can Grow

I want to invite you to take on a new project in your life. It’s challenging, but has big payoffs. It’s weird, but will help you get along with a wider range of people with less stress. It takes effort, but will resolve many problems you are submerged in today.

The project? Grow your mind.

I’m going to wager that growing your mind doesn’t appear on any action lists, on your calendar, or even in your life design (if you have one). In fact, I’m going to double down and bet that this is one of the first times you’ve been invited to grow your mind. Unless, of course, you read this teaser.

There’s a reason why this is a foreign concept. Until recently, people believed that growing up ends at adulthood. As soon as you hit your full height, you might get slimmer, and you might get fatter, but otherwise you are done. The way you are at age 20 is essentially the way you’ll be at 40 and 80.


Or so the theory goes.

And, if you think about it, the theory works really well for people who aren’t open to developing. If you don’t like how I lead my team, the way I communicate, or how I handle conflict, tough luck. That’s how I roll.  ENTJ, thank you very much. Sure, I may change a few behaviors, but on the inside, what you see is what you get. I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam. Popeye said it in 1929, and many of us believe it today.

Sadly, the theory that growing up ends at adulthood doesn’t work well for the rest of us. Want to develop yourself in a way that resolves many issues that confound you today? According to this theory, you are screwed. The next time you will fundamentally change is when you die—and by the time that happens, you won’t be around to celebrate.

The good news is that this theory has been thoroughly rebuked. Recent advances in neuroscience and psychology tell us that adults can and do change. We may not all choose to change, and our life situations may reduce the odds, but the potential is within us.

The evidence comes in two forms. The first, neuroscience research, studies our exterior selves, the dimensions of human beings that can be studied with the five senses and their extensions (microscopes, X-Rays, MRIs, etc.)—in this case, our brains. The second evidence, adult developmental psychology, studies our interior selves, the parts of ourselves that cannot be seen by X-Rays or MRIs but only interpreted through conversation. That’s why this psychological research is based on what is on people’s minds (as understood through interviews and survey instruments) rather than what is happening in their physical brains.

If this sounds confusing, let me make things simple. The important point is that two branches of scientific research that study very different things through very different means have come to the same conclusion: adult human beings can and do grow. Witness:

  • Neuroscientists teach us that the adult mind is plastic. Our neurons (brain cells) can rewire themselves. When they do, we can gain the capacity to respond differently to life’s events. We can become more resilient, expand our repertoire, and behave skillfully in situations in which we used to struggle and or feel enormous stress. The scientific term for this human capacity is neuroplasticity. The short phrase to remember is that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” For more on this, check out the work of Sharon Begley or Daniel Siegel. For applications to leadership and organizations, good resources are David Rock and my colleague, Janet Crawford.
  • Adult development researchers, specifically in the field of constructivist developmental psychology, teach us that the adult mind can pass through anywhere from three to ten stages of development. Each of these stages is as distinct from the prior one as the teenage mind is from the mind of a 9-year-old. Yes, that big! For example, Harvard educator, Robert Kegan, makes a distinction between the Socialized Mind and the Self-Authoring Mind. Once we are in our early 20s, most of us have developed the Socialized Mind. How we view the world, what we think, and how we act, is heavily influenced by the values, expectations, and messages of others. The catch is that we aren’t aware that this is happening. It’s just how we are. Our assumptions about what to do and how to behave hold us, rather than us holding them. As Kegan writes, we are “subject” to our experience. We are in it, but we cannot see that we are in it. In contrast, over a period of years or decades, we can grow our minds into the Self-Authoring Mind. Here, we become aware of all the ways our views are influenced by others. We may still do what others want us to do, but it’s a conscious choice, rather than reflexive. Instead of our assumptions having us, we have our assumptions. If you’ve experienced this—even a little—you know how freeing it can feel. To repeat, growing from the Socialized Mind to the Self-Authoring Mind is as big a leap in complexity as growing from the 9-year-old mind to the teenage mind. For more on the research, look at the work of Bob Kegan or Susanne Cook-Greuter. For its applications to leadership and the workplace, check out the writings of Jennifer Garvey-Berger, Bill Torbert, or Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs.

Bottom line: adult human beings can and do grow.

Regaining Center After The Bull Strikes

He came after me like a bull charging a matador.

“What’s your success rate? I need numbers. What percentage of your clients get promotions?”

These were fair questions for a prospective client interview, and I’d heard them before. But this man, an up-and-coming executive, delivered them with an intensity and ferocity that was surprising. He was testing not only my experience, but also my fortitude.

Bull attacking

“I’m not sure,” I stammered, suddenly feeling like a six-year-old boy facing the class bully in a far corner of the playground. “I, um, haven’t tracked that too closely.”

Six-year-olds don’t make good matadors. This bull tasted blood.

“Then what are you going to do for me? What…are…you…going…to…do…for…me?”

My body collapsed, and my heart sank. Compared to my brain, oatmeal was solid as steel. I couldn’t remember a single accomplishment in my life. Not one. Everything faded from view amidst this onslaught.

I felt the gash in my side. This interview was over. There was no chance he was going to hire me as his executive coach. As that young guy in the movie Aliens says, “Game over, man! Game over!”

Sure enough, he hired a different coach.

And it took me a week to recover my bearings.

Losing Your Center

Here’s the thing about losing your center. Once you are off balance, any slight push can knock you over.

That’s what happened to me seven years ago with this strong-willed leader. I lost my center.

The context is important. This wasn’t the best period of my life. In fact, it was one of the worst. Several months earlier, my wife and I had lost our baby daughter. She was born a few weeks early. Lungs not ready for the world. After two hours of life, she had died in my arms as I lay next to my wife in a hospital bed.

This tragedy happened at a time that was already challenging. I was rebuilding my business in a new city. When we arrived in Portland, I knew only two people. Despite quickly building a network, it was mostly one of loose ties, and in a city where people hire people they’ve known for years. So I was struggling to attract clients and questioning the decision to leave a place where I was known (San Francisco) for one where I was essentially a stranger.

Our daughter’s death, and the traumatic way it occurred (which is a story for another day), left me feeling a loss of trust in myself and the universe. It wasn’t rock bottom—I never gave up, never stopped trying—but it was as close as I’d been as an adult.

This was the world I lived in when I entered the room with that leader. My entire being was already off center. He could sense it, and because of the type of person he was, saw in my vulnerability an opportunity to attack.

What do you do when you’re off center? What can you do to regain center?

Five Tips for Regaining Center

  1. Know what knocks you off center. For me, it was someone ferociously questioning my competence. I knew this was a vulnerability for me but didn’t have it in mind when I walked into the room. What’s the case for you? If you can see this situation from a bit of distance (before you are in the thick of it) you can prepare for it—or at least be less surprised.
  2. Identify the early indicators. Our bodies and emotions respond to perceived threat—or anything that throws us off center—faster than our minds. Do you tighten your stomach? Furrow your eyebrows? Tighten your jaw? Start to sweat down your neck? Shoulders and chest collapse? Get a headache? The sooner you recognize the early indicators, the better chance you have of making an appropriate response.
  3. Ground yourself physically. Are your feet flat on the ground? If not, move them. Notice what it feels like to contact the surface beneath them. Some of my clients like to wiggle their toes to further ground themselves. If you are seated, feel your bottom and back as they contact the chair.
  4. Do the 5:5 Breath. When you’re in fight-or-flight, it’s time to calm down the bodily systems that are in overdrive. Your heart rate and blood pressure, for example, and the stress hormones that ramp them up. Nothing works better for this than deep belly breathing. Slow breaths stimulate the vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. In the words of stress researcher Esther Sternberg, “Think of a car throttling down the highway at 120 miles an hour. That’s the stress response, and the Vagus nerve is the brake.” To use this break, breathe in to a count of 5, and breathe out to a count of 5. Call it the 5:5 Breath.
  5. Use words to buy time. It helps to have a few default phrases or questions to toss into the conversation to buy time. Why? To give yourself time to ground and do a few iterations of the 5:5 Breath. Nowadays, if I sense myself off center because someone is questioning my competence, I might say, “I’d be happy to answer that. But first, help me understand, what makes that important to you?” You may prefer to say “That’s a really good question” or “Sure, let me give you my take on that” or “Please say more about that” before responding. Having a few default phrases is the equivalent of having a fire extinguisher—it help you contain the flames until the big red truck with the heavy hoses arrives.

When the bull strikes and you’re feeling off center—if not bludgeoned—these five steps can help you regain center and respond more skillfully. Of course, it never hurts to have good physical energy hygiene—sleeping 8 hours a night, taking breaks after every 90 minutes of intense work, engaging in strength training, yoga, or other physical activity, drinking a lot of water, and staying off the sugar treadmill.

Make it a deliberate practice. And start today.

ASAP Is A Four-Letter Word

Want to get things done more smoothly and reduce the number of crossed wires in your life?

Then stop saying “As Soon As Possible” (ASAP). Today.

On the surface, ASAP is useful in conveying urgency. It says I’m in a hurry, so do this fast. It also rolls off the lips easily. The two syllables convey that you are serious and need results now.

ASAP sign

Unfortunately, as my first boss taught me twenty years ago, ASAP is one of the greatest sources of organizational conflict and suffering. Every time you say it, you triple the odds of misunderstanding, dropped balls, and disappointment. The reason is simple: ASAP means different things to different people—not sometimes, but all of the time. For example:

  • An important work project you are managing takes a surprising twist. You have a decision to make quickly. So you text the project co-lead, “I need your help. Please meet me in my office ASAP.” Three hours later, she shows up. It’s too late. You already made the decision. Why didn’t she get here sooner, you think? Meanwhile, she skipped a meeting to come over. Why did I rush over here when he doesn’t need me?
  • Your boss asks you to quickly prepare a set of slides for a presentation he is giving soon. “When do you need it?” you ask. “ASAP” he replies. You interpret this to mean two hours from now. So you drop another important project to work on the slides. Two hours later, you send them to him. His admin writes back, “Tim left for the day. He asked me to block out time next Tuesday to review these.” WTF, you think to yourself? I just busted my butt to get this done today, and he doesn’t need it until Tuesday? You carry this resentment with you for the next six weeks.

ASAP creates a lot of messes. Some people like messes, but not you. So what’s an alternative?

Make clearer requests and ensure agreement. This involves the following five steps:

  1. Identify your desired completion time. When exactly do you need this finished? Be specific about the day and time. “By Friday” is too vague. “By Friday at 3pm” is specific.
  2. Include the timeframe in your request. Don’t fall into the trap of holding uncommunicated expectations. Instead, say, “I need those tweets scheduled by Friday at 3pm.”
  3. Describe why. When appropriate, explain why this specific time matters to you. “That will allow us to enter the weekend knowing we’re set for the next week.” Or, “This will give me time to finish the newsletter by Monday morning.”
  4. Ask for agreement. It takes two to make a promise, so this step is crucial. The question can be simple: “Would you be willing to do that?” or “Can you do that for me?”
  5. Listen and, if needed, negotiate. Listen to the other person’s response. If they say “yes” and seem sincere about it, great. If they say “no,” shrug their shoulders, or nod their head unconvincingly, consider negotiating. Ask about their concerns. If they seem willing but won’t commit to your proposed timeframe, find out what time would work for them—or propose one yourself. Negotiate until you reach agreement or it becomes clear that no agreement is possible.

Clear requests coupled with explicit agreement produces genuine commitment. This may take a bit longer than saying ASAP, it produces dramatically better results: more reliable handoffs, fewer crossed wires, and greater mutual trust.

Stop saying ASAP.

And start producing reliable commitments.