Picture the renowned senior consultant breezing into the gleaming corporate HQ of Fortune 500 MegaCorp, for a well-paid gig advising C-suite executives. Now, picture the newly-hired janitor who spends their evenings mopping & vacuuming floors, cleaning restrooms, and emptying trash and recycling cans in a small MegaCorp branch office. Who has more power, the consultant or the janitor?
Growing up, just about every child experiences name-calling. I certainly did. Sometimes I’d tell my mum, and she’d repeat the childhood rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Oh, if only that was true!
In his memoir, English actor and writer, Stephen Fry, expresses an extreme version of what many have experienced:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me. Bones mend and become actually stronger in the very place they were broken and where they have knitted up; mental wounds can grind and ooze for decades and be re-opened by the quietest whisper.” —Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot
When the words of others hurt us, it’s because we take them personally.
Taking things personally
Twenty years ago I read Don Miguel Ruiz’s classic book “The Four Agreements“. The Four Agreements are:
Be impeccable with your word.
Don’t take anything personally.
Don’t make assumptions.
Always do your best.
I like these agreements, and have found them to be useful in my life.
I have always worked to be impeccable with my word and do my best. And I try mightily not to make assumptions.
An aside. In 2002 I attended the Problem Solving Leadership Workshop led by Jerry Weinberg and Naomi Karten. Jerry asked what we had learned from an assignment. I mentioned the Third agreement: Don’t make assumptions. Quick as a flash, Jerry replied, “I’d prefer Assume you make assumptions“. I love this reformulation.
But, I still have trouble with the second of The Four Agreements: Don’t take anything personally.
—The guy who swears at me when we bump into each other in a crowd.
—Angry words said by a loved one in the heat of an argument.
—A dismissive reply to something I’ve posted on Twitter.
In the moment, I take these words personally.
And, like a whack with a stick, they hurt.
An angry guy and me
So Don Miguel Ruiz says, “Don’t take anything personally“.
Yeah, right. In the moment, I think: “easy to say, hard to do, Ruiz“.
Except when — sometimes — it’s possible to do.
I was once running a small seated-group discussion, and a man got furious with me about something I said.
He was so angry that he stood up and moved towards me with his fists raised. He clearly felt like slugging me, and looked like he was about to. If someone had told me in advance this was going to happen, I would have felt scared.
Yet, somehow, I knew that his fury was about him, not about me. I didn’t take his anger personally.
I was able to talk calmly with him, and help him see what he was really angry about. Not me. Rather, his feelings of helplessness in the face of a very upsetting situation.
The whole experience was liberating for me. It was, I think, the first time in my life I’d been able to face another person’s intense anger and not be scared by it.
Words and feelings
A core aspect of being human is that words we hear (or read) often evoke feelings in us. We might feel happy, sad, angry, excited, scared, disgusted, etc. These are common and normal responses.
“Taking something personally” generally means you feel hurt by something someone has said about you or a situation that involves you.
Unlike many other feelings, feeling hurt by someone’s words involves you granting, either consciously or unconsciously, the speaker some kind of authority over you. You are accepting, to some extent, the speaker’s reality as your own.
What Don Miguel Ruiz says is that when you really know that another’s reality is not necessarily your reality, you can be immune to the hurt you might otherwise feel.
Words will sometimes hurt me
I don’t know Don Miguel Ruiz. I wonder if he, or anyone, are truly able to live in such a way that words never hurt. Whether that’s the case or not, I strive to listen to what people say to me without taking it personally. When I don’t succeed at this, drama of one kind or another often ensues! As someone who tries to avoid unnecessary turmoil in my life, I will continue to try to not take anything personally.
Image attribution: Conflict between little siblings for a toy while sitting on stairs at home by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com
Why would you want to share information, not hoard it? In today’s cutthroat business environment, isn’t exclusive knowledge synonymous with power — and the ability to make money?
Well, if you’re a stock trader or house flipper, maybe. But I’m a consultant who has long subscribed to Jerry Weinberg’s Seventh Law of Marketing: “Give away your best ideas” and Credit Rule: “You’ll never accomplish anything if you care who gets the credit”, from his invaluable book The Secrets of Consulting. (More of Jerry’s pearls of wisdom can be found here.)
Skeptical? Well, here’s an alternative historical perspective from a completely different source, a 1926 article about the New York Club of Printing House Craftsmen, uncovered by Jeff Jarvis and described as “…a lovely evocation on the value of sharing in our field, which we used to call printing.”
“Stop. Stop the presses.”
I’ll let quotes from Jeff’s blog post tell the tale:
“‘The times are not so far distant when every foreman or executive jealously guarded his technical ‘secrets’, in the mistaken idea that by doing so he would make himself indispensable to his employer,’ Fuhrmann writes…
‘And the men [sic*] who had the same or similar problems to meet in the actual running of their employers’ businesses found that an exchange of views and ideas benefitted them without hurting their employers.'”
“And so, we attempt the same today in our rapidly changing field with meetings and communities of practice and training of journalists and managers.”
“Along this journey — which I believe will be long, generations or even centuries long — we need to provide the means to bring together these brave new leaders not just to teach them what we know (so they may challenge it) but also to enable them to teach each other, to share.” —Jeff Jarvis, Stop. Stop the presses.
During my decades as a consultant I’ve followed Jerry’s advice about giving away your ideas. (As I’ve been doing in this blog for ten years now.) As he explains:
“I do everything possible to encourage my clients to take over the work I’ve been doing. They usually give me direct credit, but even if they don’t, they love me for my generosity. This increases the chance they’ll give me future business, or recommend me to others.” —Gerald M. Weinberg, Chapter 11, The Secrets of Consulting
Finally, as a meeting designer I’m convinced that using meeting formats that facilitate and support sharing amongst peers of relevant information is one of the most powerful ways to improve the effectiveness of meetings.
Share information; don’t hoard it. Whether you’re a community of practice, a consultant, or a meeting designer, this simple aphorism applies!
Why is experiential learning superior to every other kind? In a word: feedback. Jerry Weinberg explains simply and concisely.
“Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?
First consider reading. Reading is (usually) a solitary activity, with no feedback. Without feedback, there’s no check on what you believe you’re learning.
Now, writing. Unless you put your writing in the hands of someone (or perhaps some computer analysis app), there’s also no feedback, so there’s no check on whether you wrote sense or nonsense.
When you do something, you interact with the real world, and the world responds in some way. With the world’s feedback, you have the possibility of learning, confirming, or disconfirming something. That’s why we strongly favor experiential learning over, say, lecturing or passive reading or writing.” —Jerry Weinberg, Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?
I’d like to add one more reason for leaving a job:
The pain of the job isn’t worth the gain.
Though this is related to Jerry’s 5th reason, I think it’s worth being explicit about the effect of a job on your mental, physical, or spiritual being. Many years ago I took on a client where every interaction was unpleasant. The owner argued with me about my recommendations, groused about my bills, and repeatedly implemented something different from what I had proposed and complained about the results. It took me a while, but one day I sat down and wrote him a letter that said I was unable to work for him anymore. It was the right decision, it felt good, and since then I’ve been better able to disengage in a timely fashion from work that isn’t working for me.
Sometimes you have no choice but to continue with a job you’d leave if circumstances were different. Sometimes you run up against one of the above reasons to leave a job, and you have no choice. But when you have a choice, don’t overlook your own needs because of a commendable but perhaps now misguided loyalty to the commitment you made when you began.
“What are the basic skills required to be a good programmer?”
When this question came up on Quora.com, lots of good and useful answers were given, but they all seemed to be external answers. For me, with more than 60 years of programming experience, the one thing that made me a better programmer than most was my ability and willingness to examine myself critically and do something about my shortcomings. And, after 60 years, I’m still doing that.” —Jerry Weinberg, What are the basic skills required to be a good programmer?
Being continually willing and able to notice our shortcomings and concentrate on working on them may be the most effective strategy we can use to get better at doing anything.
Image by Jonathunder (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
According to a widely ballyhooed recent study, event planning is the 6th most stressful job. I have no idea if that’s true, but, looking back on the two-day event I ran last week, I estimate that I had to solve well over a hundred on-the-spot problems that cropped up during the twenty-four hours I was on duty.
If you’re looking for a solution to a problem, there’s a natural temptation to pick the first solution you come up with.
In my experience, this is usually a mistake. An understandable mistake, for sure, but still a mistake. Most of the time, the first solution I come up with is not the best choice, so it’s worth taking a little more time to think before springing into action.
You can reduce the possibility of a poor decision caused by a hasty response by employing The Rule Of Three.
The Rule Of Three
Before deciding on a course of action, come up with three alternatives.
Here are three ways of thinking about The Rule Of Three.
1) Family therapist Virginia Satir encouraged people to have at least three choices. She said:
…to have one choice is no choice; to have two choices is a dilemma; and to have three choices offers new possibilities. –The Satir Model, Virginia Satir et al
2) Jerry Weinberg (who came up with this rule’s name) puts it another way that should get your attention:
If you can’t think of three things that might go wrong with your plans, then there’s something wrong with your thinking.
3) One more formulation: If you don’t have three options for a solution to a problem, you don’t understand it well enough yet, and you might need to explore it more.
Applying The Rule Of Three
It can be hard to apply The Rule Of Three, especially in stressful situations. Sometimes I have a hard time resisting acting on the first idea that pops into my head.
Here are two ways that help me apply The Rule of Three:
1) Get help to come up with more options. When I’m under pressure, asking trusted colleagues to help brainstorm alternatives is a great way for me to widen my problem-solving horizons and avoid missing a great solution. Two (or more) heads are better than one.
2) As with making most changes in your life, practice helps. Commit to apply The Rule Of Three to problems you encounter for three days. Then evaluate the results. How and under what circumstances did The Rule Of Three work for you? Decide whether you want to continue the commitment to maintaining this new approach to problem solving.
Uh oh, only two options here. I’m looking for at least one more. Suggestions?
You may not think of yourself as a consultant, but you probably are. Peter Block, in his classic book Flawless Consulting, defines a consultant as someone who has influence but not the authority to make changes. While some, like myself, are full-time independent consultants, a much larger number of people are internal consultants: people who are employed by an organization that, at times, puts them in a role of giving advice without the power to implement it.
The Sixth Law of Marketing. Word of mouth is the best channel for new work; being able to satisfy my clients led me to a successful, twenty-two year IT consulting career without using advertising or agents.
Give away your best ideas.
The Seventh Law of Marketing. When you teach your clients to handle future similar problems themselves, they’ll appreciate your generosity and are more likely to give you further work or good word of mouth to others.
Spend at least one-fourth of your time doing nothing.
Today I was thinking about adjusting my consulting rates, and remembered that Jerry has a lot to say on this subject too. Understanding his Ten Laws of Pricing made it easy for me to set fees for my work, and, more importantly, helped me feel comfortable with the role of money in my professional life. #2 alone gave me the confidence to bill an additional six digit income during my IT consulting career, and #9 makes setting your rate for billing or being charged anything a snap.
So here are Jerry’s Ten Laws of Pricing. If you like them and want to know more, do yourself a big favor and buy his book!
Pricing has many functions, only one of which is the exchange of money.
The more they pay you, the more they love you. The less they pay you, the less they respect you.
The money is usually the smallest part of the price.
Pricing is not a zero-sum game.
If you need the money, don’t take the job.
If they don’t like your work, don’t take their money.
Money is more than price.
Price is not a thing, it’s a negotiated relationship.
Set the price so you won’t regret it either way. (Also known as the Principle of Least Regret.)
All prices are ultimately based on feelings, both yours and theirs.