Are you alright…right now?

I bet you are. Mostly because if you are reading this you are not being chased by the police, or an elephant or even a shark. If you are in the middle of a major medical procedure like heart bypass or having your gall bladder removed, you are probably not reading this. The truth of the matter is, most of the time you are alright right now.

I’ve been reading Just One Thing by Rick Hanson. It’s a book of simple practices to add to your life to develop a buddha brain. A buddha brain, as defined by Dr. Hanson, is using neuroscience and emotional balance to create happiness, love and wisdom. Couldn’t we all use a dose of that? Well, this is lesson 42, which is titled: “Notice that you’re alright right now.”

Here is how to implement this into your own life:

PauseAs I write this, it’s ten days before Christmas. I’m busy putting up the Christmas Tree and I can’t seem to get one strand of lights to work. I’m not sure if I have bought enough presents for both my kids, my house is getting repaired, and I have huge financial decisions looming on the horizon. I know you have similar preoccupations. It may be a medical decision or the unknown leak under your car. There is something preoccupying your head. Press pause. Stop. This very instant. You may think you don’t have time, but unless you are in the middle of performing brain surgery, you have time to pause. So pause.

Sense.  Now that you have stopped your monkey brain from ping ponging from issue to problem to disaster to worry, scan your body. How is your big toe doing? Still there? Any pain? What about your ear lobes? Still hanging in there? Slight pain in your back from that workout yesterday? Ok. But you are doing okay for the most part. Sense it. After I read this lesson last night, I was snug under the covers of my bed. That’s a wonderful feeling. Sense the moment. Right now.


Stock.  Take stock in the moment right now. Is there a roof over your head? Do you have food in the fridge? Shoes on your feet? People you love and care about? When you take stock, you figure out that it’s not so bad. In the past few months, I have gone down the rabbit hole of catastrophizing my financial situation. When I do that, I am diminished. Reduced. Small. A victim. But when I take stock in the moment? I am a badass. I have the tiger by the tail. How would you rather feel? I thought so. Grab the tiger by the tail and take stock in how much you have.

Relax. As Dr. Hanson writes in Psychology Today, “This background of unsettled-ness and watchfulness is so automatic that you can forget it’s there. So see if you can tune into a tension, guarding or bracing in your body. Or a vigilance about your environment or other people. Or a block against completely relaxing, letting down, letting go.” This is going to take practice. We are so hardwired for scanning the environment for threat that relaxing into the moment is against our biology. Feel your shoulders, let them sag. Relax your jaw. Let your thoughts go like balloons into the blue sky. Breathe. Try it. I’ll wait. There is no rush.


So how did that feel? Pretty good, huh? Check in throughout the day. Is everything alright right now? Maybe it’s at the top of the hour. Maybe it’s when you wash your hands. The important thing is just to notice

Ambiguity. How to Thrive in a Gray World

Everyone wants to live in a black and white world. We want to know what is right and wrong. Good or bad. Left or right. Clear concise decisions with no gray area and no regrets. It’s not going to happen. The world is way too complex. We need to embrace ambiguity and march forward with no misgivings. Very little is black or white anymore. There are a million shades of gray. Ambiguity.  How to Thrive in a Gray World

Every time you venture out of bed you are entering an ambiguous world. Heck, even if you stay in bed, the ambiguous world keeps rolling along. The stock market goes up or plunges down, it snows ten feet or doesn’t rain for three years, your wireless router quits for the third time in 18 months, your partner dumps you or you find the love of your life. Nothing is certain. The only that is certain is uncertainty (oh, and death and taxes).

There is hope in all of this but you have to go through and not around. Here is my take:

Perfection. Give up perfection. This doesn’t mean quitting. It means you need to let go. Perfectionism is a false construct. There is no end. You never get to perfect. Your ideal weight plus the perfect job plus the bulging bank account plus the sexy sports car and the perfect, patient, happy spouse will not align in The Perfect Storm. So you might get a flat tire on the way to the airport, you may not land that new job, the next project launch may not fly. Don’t keep score on perfection.

Paralysis. There is no perfect solution. Analysis paralysis has thwarted many a decision. Just one more data point, one more month of sales, another data cut, one more project bid, or one more applicant. The only decision you are making is to not make a decision. Your team, your family, your partner, your boss are counting on you making the decision. One more data point will not make it crystal clear. Stop the analysis.

Surrender. As my good friend, Janine, says with regard to ambiguity, “I am seeking to embrace and sit with uncertainty and not necessarily take action to move through it. More of a surrender to the ambiguity.” There are times when you have to surrender and the best action is no action but to be uncomfortable with ambiguity. I remember starting a new job for a company many years ago and on my first day they decided that the business unit was for sale. Two years later it was resolved. I had no control over the sale of the business, I surrendered to the uncertainty.

Wrong. It’s OK to be wrong. I have grown up with a Mother who always had to be right. There was my way, everyone else’s way and then there’s my Mother’s way. The only way was her way. Being right was highly valued in my house. Being right does not embrace ambiguity. There is no acknowledgement that there might be another way. In fact as CRR Gobal espouses “everyone is right…partially.” So accept that you may be right but may be only 10% right. This allows for ambiguity and you won’t need to engage in lots of righteousness, which can be exhausting.

Chunking. I find that many of my clients make headway when they break things into chunks. A lot of the curse of ambiguity lies in the fact that it can be overwhelming. Ambiguity is a huge monster that incites fear. When you break off an eyelash, it becomes manageable. It’s doable. It’s understandable. It’s not so scarring. Instead of it being a monster, it’s just an eyelash. And then another eyelash, and another.. When you can metaphorically hold it in your hands the ambiguity evaporates. Break it into chunks.

Pause. Ambiguity is stressful. It’s easy to engage your lizard brain (the fight or flight or freeze mode). It’s instinctual. We all started as hunter-gathers. The lizard brain had a purpose which was to save you from a Saber-toothed Tiger or from poisonous plants. But lighting up your lizard brain all day, every day with mountains of email, the latest shooting or terrorist attack and your boss’ endless barrage of requests is simply not healthy. Yoga, meditation, a long walk or run, sitting down with a good book, anything to shut down your lizard brain will help you see ambiguity with fresh eyes.

Agile. As Beyond Philosophy said in their article on Ambiguity, “Work on your flexibility. Be willing to change course as more information comes to light. Don’t let pride delay you from correcting your course. Ambiguity can reveal facts at any time that are going to affect your best decision.” There will be more data points that come along after you set your course. Accept them and make a course correction or completely bail out. Let go of your ego and move on. Be agile.

This not easy. There is so much ambiguity permeating life every day. It’s not just work, or your marriage or your finances. It’s omnipresent. It’s the new normal. How do you embrace ambiguity?

Interrupters Anonymous.

This is really hard to write about.  I’m Cathy Graham.  I’m an interrupter.  It’s been 3 hours since my last interruption.  So you other interrupter’s out there are saying, so what?  I’m sure you have something important to say.  What’s the big deal?

It is a big deal.  It shuts the door.  It says that my idea or thought or rebuttal is more important than your idea or thought.  I am not saying that I am the only guilty party.  We are a society of interrupters.  Every good political debate, decent reality show and “60 Minutes” investigation usually involves someone interrupting someone else.  Shame on all of us.

Some of you aren’t interrupters.  Thank you. Thank you for your patience and forgiveness.  For the rest of us those who will admit we have a problem let me give you a few pointers on how to get over to the other side.

1. Listen.  I know I’ve written about this before but it cannot be over stated.  Actively listen and quit letting your mind wander into the war zone of rebuttals and/or watching the clock so that you can pretend that you are really listening.  Hmmm.  I’ve let my co-worker talk for at least 2 minutes, so now is my time to jump in.  Stop.  Turn on all receptors.

2. Digest.  Take in the conversation or discussion.  If this is a team meeting, take it all in.  Try and get the whole picture of the other participants’ viewpoint. Is your teammate telling you he can’t get the project done; or just not done in the parameters that the team wanted?  Or by the deadline he initially agreed to?  Take in every detail.  Knowing all the details will help you in the end and the rest of the team will be impressed with your knowledge of the facts and details (pretty cool, huh?).

3. Suspend.  Stay far away from making assumptions.  This is dangerous territory.  If you are assuming then you are not digesting.  There is no way possible for you to read someone else’s mind.  You might have a good guess as to someone else’s motivation but you can’t know for sure.  Your boss might have shot this idea down ten times before but assuming she is shooting you down now puts you on the defensive and lights the match for interrupting.  Suspend all your beliefs and assumptions.  Really.

4. Pause.  As in, wait a cotton pickin’ minute.  OK, maybe not a minute, but wait 5 seconds.  Let there be a little air in the room.  Let everyone take a breath.  Don’t be waiting at the ready to rebut and/or shoot down whatever idea has just been floated.  Pause and take a breath.  And if someone else jumps in, this is your opportunity to learn patience (not my strong suit…this is where I struggle).  Engage in listening mode and bite your tongue.

5. Unselfish. It’s all about them.  Unless this is your wedding day, Eagle Scout induction or your retirement lunch, this is always about them.  Them, as in, everyone else in the room; your teenage daughter, your boss, your coworker, the soccer team or the class.  If you keep them as your focus, you slowly eliminate the amount of interrupting you are doing.  If you can keep your focus on them, on their ideas; you will break your habit.

6. Rinse and Repeat.  Just like your shampoo bottle recommends.  Just keep on keeping on.  There will be times when this is irresistible.  Like when someone tries to instruct me that Napa Valley has the best Zinfandels.  I need to just smile and listen patiently and choke the words back that want to spew forth.  Let them have their peace.  Let them impart their knowledge.  When a manager tries to explain a labor law that I know intimately as well as the latest regulations I  smile and let them have their due.  I’m not going to say that I won’t say anything.  But if they ask?  Sonoma Valley Old Vine is the best, in my humble opinion.  But what do you gain by interrupting to bestow that fact. Unless you’re tasting wines or buying a winery, let them have their way.

I find this to be especially effective with hot button issues like politics, religion and most sporting events (my college Alma Mater is worth interrupting for).  I will say that when I listen patiently, smile and acknowledge others in a heated debate or team discussion, it really improves your reputation.  People gravitate to the person who listens rather than tries to interrupt.  So if you have the habit, acknowledge it and start working on it.  You will be on your way to being a social magnate.

Drink the Optimism Kool-Aid

Having a positive outlook can change everything.  If you think you can succeed, finish the race, or complete the project, you will.  If there are a few hiccups along the way, well, that may be what the universe intended.

You probably think that I am being a Pollyanna (for those under 40 and don’t know who Pollyanna is click here) Which is exactly what I’m suggesting you do—be optimistic.  It makes a difference in how you face life; in how you recover from setbacks; in how you lead. In Srinivasan Pillay‘s book Your Brain and Business, he shows why leaders need to be drinking the optimism Kool-Aid.  Dr. Pillay writes, “When you have hope and optimism, you have an automatic way of replacing fear in the line of emotions asking for attention from the amygdala.” Basically, if you dwell on the fear and negativity of the situation, your amygdala goes nuts and shuts down rational and reasonable thoughts.  So if you don’t want to fire up your amygdala (your lizard brain), look on the bright side.  Don’t worry about the “how” and all the obstacles in your way, just have belief that you can succeed and you can lead everyone else (and their lizard brains) out of the fire. See what I mean?  It’s a game changer. optimistic

At my Rotary club every week we have a 50/50 raffle.  There is one guy who wins it on a regular basis.  He knows he’s lucky.  He’s optimistic.  He wins. There are times when he doesn’t win, but he wins a lot more often than anyone else.  Certainly more than anyone who thinks they are unlucky.  They aren’t even putting a dollar in.  They don’t think they have a chance.

OK.  So here is how you can drink the optimism Kool Aid:

1. Suspend. As in, suspend your negative thoughts.  Don’t go listing all the ways why this won’t work.  That is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  You will be correct.  There is absolutely no possibility of succeeding if you think you can’t.  You do not pass “Go” and collect $200.  You will be stuck.

2. Pause.  When adversity comes along (and it will), take a breath and disconnect from your present situation.  Unplug and regroup.  Your reaction under pressure is only feeding your lizard brain.  Don’t let the amygdala go nuts and set off all the firecrackers.  Have a Zen moment and disconnect.  The last thing you need to feed when you are under pressure is your lizard brain.  Chill out.

3. Discerning.  Now is the time to pick the thoughts that go reeling through your head.  Something negative comes along like, “This will NEVER work,” or “Here we go again.” Or worst of all, “You dummy…you always fail at this stuff.”  Stay off the merry-go-round of negative thoughts and pick the right time to select your thought.  Is there something good that could possibly happen?  That is the thought you want.  Wait for it.  It’ll show up, especially if you’ve already done #2.

4. Explore.  There must be something good about the current situation.  The sun is out.  It’s finally raining.  It’s finally summer.  It’s finally winter.  There is a bright side to everything.  Just find the right context.  There is a roof over your head.  Your car started this morning.  You finished high school.  You woke up this morning and still have a pulse.  There is good out there—just go do some exploring.

5. Digest.  Dwell and ruminate on those positive thoughts and outcomes.  Make it real and believe in it.  The board will accept the idea.  Your car can be fixed for less than $100.  The next big client is going to call tomorrow.  The sun will come up tomorrow.  Digest the positive and dwell on it.

I’ve said this in other posts but I’m still working on this and many other positive habits. Practice makes perfect.  Start working on your optimist. It doesn’t come naturally to a lot of us and if it does come naturally to you, share the optimism Kool-Aid with others.

How do you stay optimistic?

Listen up

I recently read Daniel Pink‘s book “To Sell is Human.”  His premise is that everyone is selling; that we are all trying to move people.  So teachers are trying to get students to do their homework.  Doctors are trying to get people to take their medicine.  We are all trying to move someone to do something.  The most interesting chapter was on improvising and a company called “Performance of a Lifetime” created by Cathy Salit. In this class executives are taught how to improvise which involves an intense amount of listening.  If you think about it, we can’t improvise without listening.  We can’t move people without listening.  We can’t sell without listening. images 6

My son and I share a love of listening to stories.  One of the things I look forward to on a long car trip with him is that he is always game to listen to Story Corps, Radio Lab or The Moth podcasts.  These are all documentary type radio shows where people share their stories.  They can be deeply personal, a guy recounting how he met his fiancé who later died in 9-11, or a story about how some people see more colors than others (could it be me?) or mad cap drug induced adventures in Morocco.  The thing is, if you aren’t good at listening, you will miss the meaning of the story.  And it takes practice.

So what could you be missing?  Here are some tips into how to improve your listening skills:

1.  Pause. Daniel Pink and Michael Segovia, an outstanding MBTI instructor, both recommend that you pause. Dan Pink recommends 5 seconds and Michael recommends 10 seconds. In Michael’s case, every time he asks a group of participants if they have any questions, he would count to 10 in his head.  This seems like an eternity. But for those people who prefer introversion, they need that time to reflect. Dan, on the other hand, pauses at the end of someone else talking.  It lets you reflect on what they said. Pause, digest and truly listen.

2. Eye to eye. If you are physically in the room with someone, make eye contact.  Hold their gaze when they are talking.  Be in the moment. If they are on the phone, cut all the technology. Don’t be reading emails, texts, messages, Facebook updates or playing Soduko. Imagine them being in front of you and making eye contact. Can’t you always tell when you are speaking to someone over the phone and they are distracted? We all can. Tune in and turn off the clatter!

3. Understand.   Stephen Covey said “Seek first to understand and not to respond.” If you’re busy planning your response (re: argument, counter point, brilliant repartee) you are not listening.  Ask questions that help you understand their point of view.  “What do you think your boss meant by that comment?” “How is your relationship with your Mother?” “I can see you feel hurt, what do you want to do about it?” Do a deep dive into their story. Don’t give advice. Just seek to understand.

4. Mirror. In one of the exercises that Dan Pink did in Cathy Salit’s class was to mirror someone else’s movements.  Now this type of mimicry would be over the top in real life, and cause a fist fight between my brothers and I when we were kids in the back seat of our Country Squire station wagon.  But subtly copying someone else’s stance can create some symbiosis. They lean back in the chair, you lean back. They lean in, you lean in.  This creates a sense of connection. Mirror others to build confidence.

5. Generosity. Listening is about being generous. Selfless. As a great facilitator from Inscape Publishing once said “It’s all about them.” As in your audience.  It’s time to hang up your one-ups-manship.  Your friend is talking about their trip to Hawaii? There’s no point in butting in to talk about your honeymoon in Maui.  Your co-worker just finished a year long project? Now is not the time for a diatribe on the messy project you are in the middle of that just got delayed….again.  Your spouse had a horrible day yesterday? Now is not the time to bring up the Honey Do List. Give them the gift of being the center of your attention. Completely with no strings attached.  Be generous.

6. Yes, and.  One of the exercises from Cathy Salit’s workshop is something I have experience in one of my classes while earning my Masters.  In the class, we had to plan a fictitious class reunion.  First, we were instructed to say “Yes, but.” When that played out, the energy in the room diminished.  None of the ideas had any traction. Everyone was a wet blanket suffocating inspiration.  In the next round, we were instructed to say “Yes, and.” One word changed, and we all had possibilities. We were intently listening to everyone’s ideas and building on them. Next thing you know we were holding the reunion in Rio with limos, samba lessons and caipirinhas.  Try it. It’s inspiring.

Listening is a way to be present and take in the person, loved one or group interaction around you.  It can be a gift to yourself and others to just show up and “be there”. One of the most effective ways to do that is to LISTEN.