Welcome to The Living Room!

Welcome to The Living Room!

I'm developing this blog to foster a warm community of people interested in ideas, art, science and practice around personal development and flourishing.

I work as an executive coach, and founded a company whose mission is helping people to find success at work in a way that provides satisfaction across all areas of their lives (you can check us out at www.madeleineshaw.com.au).

Leadership, learning, the wonderful brain/body connection, presence, influence, emotions, thinking, effectiveness, flow and FUN.

I want to know more, and do more!

The world is our living room so let's get living.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Metaphor: A helping hand

The New York times ran a completely fascinating article recently. It was about the brain science of metaphors. We know that metaphors are powerful. Tell someone you need to get 5 days work done in 2. Or tell them you're squeezing a house through the eye of a needle. Which is more evocative? 

Dirty, dirty boy.

Now we are increasingly understanding that the same parts of the brain that process physical sensations and emotions (pain, hunger, happiness) also process concepts. What's more, we confuse the two. Various studies are demonstrating this effect. In one study described in the article, volunteers were asked to think about either a moral or immoral act in their past. As a thank you gift, they were offered a choice between a pencil or some antiseptic wipes. Those who had thought of their "dirty" acts were more likely to choose wipes.

Mmm, vinegar, yes please

NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) uses metaphor to help people change the way they think and feel. For example, imagine you want to like coffee less – say, about as much as you would like to drink a glass of vinegar. A simple NLP technique would involve understanding how you mentally conceive of coffee (probably, when you think of coffee, it’s a large, clear picture in your mind –perhaps with smells, warmth and the motion of the steam rising) and how you mentally conceive of vinegar (probably small, black and white, still and distant in your mind’s eye). 

You would then be guided through a short process that amends your mental image of coffee so that it takes on the attributes of the vinegar image. Coffee will still taste like coffee to you, not vinegar. But now, the idea is your mind is storing the attractiveness of drinking coffee in the same way as it stores the attractiveness of drinking vinegar. And chances are, you’ll find you just don’t crave those coffees in the way you used to. 

Just what's going on at a neural level, we don't know and there's not much scientific research (though I'd love to see it), but I'm fascinated by the overlap with neurolinguistics and psycholinguistics. In fact, the whole area of brain research is so exciting at the moment, and our understanding is growing exponentially.

Your point being?

So, how does this apply back in the everyday? 

A client of mine was working on having a less angry response to certain situations. We didn't talk much about it in those terms though. Instead, we spoke of "triggers" and finding ways to shrink the trigger button, and "cut the wires" to it. We use metaphors intuitively, and it's been my experience that deliberately finding and using metaphors to adjust our thoughts and responses is enormously powerful. 

Which discipline that sits under isn't so important to me - there are always turf wars - but I am excited at the prospect of learning more about how our brains work, and how we can tap into that knowlege to increase the health and happiness of ourselves and those around us.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Get clear with an offsite - solo style

I'm chuffed to have my article published on FlyingSolo.com.au!

Getting away to clear the head, think differently and create your plans is not just for corporate bunnies. Here’s how to have an offsite on your own. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ask yourself this one question and nail that meeting.

Ever thrown every fact in the book at someone, but failed to budge them? Or conversely, how often have you sat firm in an opinion despite the best efforts of someone to convince you that you were wrong? It happens when people use facts to try and persuade – when emotions work much more convincingly.

More and more, we’re understanding that emotions play a central role in decision making. Neuroscientist Antonio Demasio discovered that people who injured the part of their brain governing emotion were left otherwise intellectually intact - but unable to make decisions. He has shown that emotions and thinking are intertwined - often unconsciously.

It’s not that facts are unimportant – they’re very important. It’s just that we’ve tended to give them all the weight and ignore emotions. When you get that equation back into balance by restoring the role of emotions, you’re going to be much more effective.

I often coach clients who have an important meeting coming up – such as a job interview, performance review or a presentation to key people. My clients are smart and successful, so they’re definitely prepared – they’ve got their facts straight, they’ve done their homework. I often ask them:

How do the other people want to FEEL when they come out of a wildly successful meeting?

If it’s a job interview, the answer might be “confident”, “relieved”, “excited” and “secure”. Those people have to take a gamble when they decide who to hire. Yes, you need to show them that you can do the job (facts) – but if they come out of the room feeling even a tiny bit doubtful, on-edge, bored or worried, they ain’t hiring you.

Your job, then, is to do what you can to put those people in the right state. Think about what would make you, if you were in their shoes, feel those things.

Gain confidence.

Thinking about how you can make the others feel good also tends to reverse your perception of the hierarchy in the room. This helps with nerves. Instead of thinking of them as powerful superiors looking for your flaws and shortcomings, you are now thinking of them as what they are – human beings with emotional needs that you can meet.

Take that awareness and intention into the meeting with you and notice what happens. In my experience, consciously following this process makes a huge difference to the energy and success of interactions with other people. 

What about you?  How do you prepare for those important meetings?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Get excited about finding time.

Do you want to find more hours in the day? Here's how: first, cull unnecessary meetings..  blah blah blah. WAIT. Before you get into the nitty gritty of how to cheat a few more minutes here and there, stop and ask yourself:

Why do you want the extra time?
Is it to keep doing exactly what you do now, but have it spread out over an even longer period? No, I didn't think so. So many of us feel we don't have enough time, but trying to find more, just "because", usually isn't enough to motivate us to make a real change. 

Someone stuggling to start an exercise program might genuinely protest that they couldn't possibly find an hour a week to get to a class at the gym. But could you find 5 hours a week to sit in a meeting room, if I were to pay you $500,000 each time? Yes, I thought so!

A consultant, Ron Ashkenas (see here) did some research that illustrates nicely that we can find time if we really want to:

"Imagine if the president of your company personally asked you to take on a special assignment — working directly for her. The project would take one day per week but you would have to continue your regular job in the remaining time. Would you take the assignment? By now we've asked this question to hundreds of managers — most who complain about not having enough time already — and 99% say they would take the assignment."

Most of us know we can find time in our week if we really want to. The problem isn't time - it's motivation. So, if you haven't got the company president knocking on your door, or a lazy half-million from me on offer, how do you find that motivation?

The 3 step process for getting excited about time management

Step 1 - Find your underlying driver.

(a) Grab a piece of paper and write down the answer to this question:
If you had more time, what would it allow?
(b) Now write down the answer to this question:
When you have that, what will it give you?
(c) Now write down the answer to this question:
When you've got that, what will it allow?
(d) Keep going until your answer resonates powerfully and you don't see any need to go further. Take a look at that final answer - that's your underlying driver - the basic reason you want more time.

For example, Peter might say:
If I had more time, it would allow me to get the sales reports done on time.
When I get the sales reports done on time, it will give me my Thursday nights back.
When I have my Thursday nights back, it will allow me to get to the gym.
When I am going to the gym, it will give me more energy and a clear head.
When I have more energy and a clear head, it will allow me to be more focused and calm.
When I am more focused and calm, it will give me a sense of control over what I'm doing.

So John's underlying driver is have a sense of control over what he is doing. For you it might be more time with your family, a sense of freedom - anything. But it needs to be the ultimate reason - the one with nothing else underneath it.
By focusing on the deep motivation underlying your urge to find more time, you will be more driven to make the changes. 

Step 2 - Decide what changes will support you.

I just googled "time management tips" and got 17,300,000 results. But simply following someone else's list isn't necessarily going to work for you. You need your own list, and you need to create it with your underlying driver in mind.
Brainstorm options - without analysing.
Without thinking too much, jot down 3 things you'd do differently, if they would guarantee you wild success in achieving your underlying driver.
Just for fun, jot down another 3 things you'd do differently, in order to free up those 5 hours a week and pocket the $500,000. Quick - no analysing - just get them down.
Now scan your calendar for the past couple of months, and the couple upcoming, and generate 3 more ideas.
What else would you add? Remember, you're not committing at this stage - so capture whatever comes up. What other options do you have - if they guarantee you will successfully achieve your underlying driver?
 Step 3 - Commit to Action

Now it's time to analyse and commit. 
Take a look at your list of options and decide which ones you will commit to putting into action. Which ones are most likely to work for you? Which ones have you feeling excited and motivated?
When you have your action list, rate it: On a scale of 1 to 10 (where 10 is certain), how likely are you to stick with it?
If your answer is less than 10, what do you need to change to make it a 10? 
Make those changes.

Now go and do it.

Have fun, and enjoy your time! 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Steady Chameleon

Do you recoil at the thought of the slippery leader - you know the one - she tells you exactly what she thinks you want to hear. She'll tell you the sky is green, if she thinks it'll get her whatever it is she wants.  And everyone knows it, and no-one likes it (or her). Or maybe he's the guy who "manages up" just enough to hide the lack of competence or empathy that's so obvious to his peers and reports.
No-one (ok - almost no-one) wants to be that person.  And yet, we also often hear what seems to be a conflicting message - that successful leaders adapt their style to the person they are with or the situation they are in. If that's true (and I believe it is):
How do you change AND stay the same?
Actually, most of us already do this. I don't act the same way in a coaching session, talking with a prospective client, buying groceries, cooking dinner, at a party. In fact, people who don't adapt in this way are the stuff of comedy - think of Robert de Niro behaving as though the whole world were a national security agency in Meet the Parents. More seriously, someone who insists on "just being myself" in exactly the same way in all situations is going to find themselves colliding with brick walls in their career and elsewhere in their life.
So why do so many of us resist changing within the sphere of work?
I have worked with several clients who accept that their "work" self shows up as different from their "home self" - but insist that having multiple work selves is fake - something distasteful that automatically takes them from hero to slippery-leader-zero.
There's a fascinating and useful HBR article on exactly this point: "Managing Authenticity: The paradox of great leadership".
(You can read the beginning of the article here but will need to be a subscriber or purchase a copy to read the lot.) They say:
Authenticity has often been thought of as the opposite of artifice - something that is straightforward, sincere and uncomplicated. But that conception of authenticity is not only simplistic, it is also wrongheaded. Managers who assume that their authenticity stems from an uncontrolled expression of their inner selves will never become authentic leaders. Great leaders understand that their reputation for authenticity needs to be painstakingly earned and carefully managed.
That's all well and good - but how? The authors of the article go into detail on this and it's well worth a look if you're interested.  In my coach training, I was shown a model which I found summed it up well. You want to look for the real part of yourself that overlaps with the role you're in at that moment (boss, friend, customer, sister) and the person you're interacting with. 

This model gave me permission to adapt AND still be my authentic self. I've since worked with this model with several clients, who find the same thing. Within work, we are constantly moving from role to role, and dealing with different people. To be effective, we need to access the part of our authentic self that is most appropriate at any given moment.
The skill is in being able to locate and access that part. To do that, you need to know and understand yourself, your role and the other person. "Just being myself", inflexibly, ignores the importance of these other 2 facets.
What about you? How do you adapt, and stay true to yourself? How do you develop the skills you need to find that overlap? What frameworks or ideas have you used to help you meet the needs of different people and roles?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How interesting are you?

When I was a child, my complaints of boredom to my mother were given short shrift. "Only boring people get bored", she'd reply. I remembered that recently, when I was re-reading Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (Masterminds Series) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He devotes a whole chapter to exploring how being interested in something relates to having "flow" experiences - flow being those times when you are totally absorbed in what you are doing, when the challenge is high and you have the skills to match, when time seems to fly by without your having a sense of it.
You've probably experienced that hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck feeling when something captures your curiosity.  It's that feeling of being fascinated. You lose the sense of yourself and place all your energy and attention on the object of your fascination.  Csikszentmihalyi calls it "disinterested interest" - interest that's about something outside ourselves. He says:
Without disinterested interest, life is uninteresting. There is no room in it for wonder, novelty, surprise, for transcending the limits imposed by our fears and prejudices.
When we are in this state, we are more likely to experience our peak state, or flow.
There will always be things that we don't enjoy doing but, of necessity, have to do (say, taking the rubbish out or attending a tedious meeting - my personal favourite, the tedious meeting). Csikszentmihalyi suggests that if we train ourselves to pay close attention to things, we will begin to find them fascinating, and will want to pay them attention. We are more likely to find ourselves in flow. Finding something in these tasks to capture our genuine curiosity and attention means they can give us energy instead of draining it. The challenge is to make the initial effort this requires, when it can seem easier in the short term to switch off or avoid the task.
My guess is that someone who is fascinated in, and engaged by, the world around them is going to be a lot more interesting than someone who is unplugged, bored, switched off. So I suppose that means my mother was right - only boring people get bored! What do you think?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

3 steps to set your boundaries at work

If Meatloaf would do anything for love - but he wouldn't do that - what limits do you set for yourself at work?
We all have different boundaries - and we all need them. When you ignore your boundaries, you ignore your own limits.  This can work in the short term, but in the long term it can seriously affect your wellbeing. Mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health can all suffer when we are operating outside our limits.

So how do you manage your boundaries at work? There's no doubt it can be incredibly tough to do - especially if you work somewhere with a culture of constant crisis - where your late night/weekend/constant emailing/20-coffee-a-day habit is essential to the continued turning of the world! It can definitely seem essential to your continued employment. It's certainly very normal to want to play our part and meet expectations at work.

The question is how do we play our part at work AND maintain limits for our own health and wellbeing? The answer is different for everyone. Some of my clients thrive doing a few 80-hour weeks, so long as they get two or three weeks to recover afterwards.  Others need a more predictable pace. You'll get some clues as to what works for you if you follow this 3 step process.
1. Ask: when it works, what's working?
Think about 2 or 3 periods during which you felt highly energised at work, and that your limits were respected. Ask yourself these questions (write down or record the answers and study them if it helps).
  • What did these periods have in common?
  • How long did they last?
  • What came before and after these periods?
  • How many hours were you working?
  • How adequate were your resources vis-a-vis your workload?
  • What time were you arriving and going home?
  • Were you taking a lunch break and getting outside?
  • How was your exercise routine at that time?
  • Were you highly social or making time to work alone?
  • What activities were you engaged in outside of work (family, community, friends, hobbies)?
  • What was your inner voice saying - what was the ethical and moral framework around you?
  • What else is important?
2. Listen.
Take a look at your answers. Listen to what you've told yourself. If it helps with perspective, imagine showing them to a friend or coach and asking them: what themes and clues do you see here? What basic boundaries do you need to set from now on, to help you enjoy the levels of energy and wellbeing you experienced in the past?
Write them down. For example, they might be something like:
  • Arrive at work at 8.45 instead of 8.15, and use the time to do 30 minutes exercise each morning.
  • Take at least 20 minutes at lunch to walk alone outside for some quiet time.
  • Switch off the emails for 90 minutes each morning and afternoon.
  • Don't accept meetings on such-and-such a project.
Your boundaries need to be realistic for your role - and your role needs to be realistic for your boundaries. If it's essential to your wellbeing that you work from 9 am to 5 pm each day and never a minute more, that is a perfectly reasonable boundary - it's also possible that legal practice in a large firm might not be a role that leads to happiness for you.

3. Tell.
Often we feel like we can't state our own needs when dealing with other people. But this is a short term game. Maintaining appropriate boundaries - respectfully and responsibly - is an important part of building sustainable relationships.  
Most importantly: give yourself permission to say no. If taking on the new project will tip you over the edge, say so. If you need help learning to assert yourself in this way - that help exists. Seek it out.
Much as we might like others to read our minds, if we don't communicate our needs others won't know what they are.
Be flexible and prepared to negotiate - sometimes your boundaries will conflict with someone else's. When this happens you could
  1. Cave ("Of course, I'd love take over your project! You go out and have fun!") - and watch your wellbeing suffer.
  2. Be unmoving ("I never work between 12 and 1") and watch your career suffer.
  3. Negotiate  ("I can work late Tuesday if it's absolutely essential to the deal, but I'd be missing my class so what if I come in early on Wednesday instead?") and watch the conversation open up.
Just be sure that the negotiated deal respects your limits. If you are happy to cut a deal like this every so often - great! It's within your limits.  If it leaves you miserable and resentful - see step 1. 
What boundaries do you have at work and how do you keep to them?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Toddlers, chimps and leaders

We were at a barbecue yesterday. The very pleasant afternoon was made all the more so because our 2 year old played happily and harmoniously with our friend's 3 year old for hours.  By contrast, when our daughter teams up with her other 2 year old buddies, the peace is shattered pretty regularly by power struggles and turf wars.

What was the difference yesterday? Hierarchy. She slotted right in behind the older child, who took on the role of leader.  They took turns and shared but any differences of opinion were settled (by the leader) before the conflict grew into a real dispute. Of course, had he abused his power I am sure it would have been just a matter of time before she rebelled.  As it happened, he was a generous and thoughtful kid who was happy to accommodate his younger friend and play nicely.

It got me thinking about how hierarchy plays out in the workplace.  Andrew O'Keeffe at Hardwired Humans draws fascinating lessons for humans from his observations of animal behaviour. He wrote a great newsletter on just this point, suggesting that hierarchy, status and power are natural and intuitive - so don't fight it, work with it. He also offers some tips for leaders in working with this power.

Although I'd like to think that the urban sophisticates of the modern workplace have moved beyond chimpanzee or toddler behaviour, I suspect that in fact we simply become a lot more subtle about it. The stories we tell ourselves and others might become more complex but at the core, the same forces seem to be driving us. When I was at university (not the pinnacle of urban sophistication that we believed it to be at the time!) I was involved with a very right-on political collective that ostensibly made decisions by consensus.  In fact, a small group of leaders made the decisions.  When these decisions went against the wishes of the majority of the group for long enough, there was a vote and the leaders' group was de-throned. I vividly recall their outrage!

There seems to be a level of discomfort with hierarchy - it resonates against our ideas of democracy and a fair go. What do you think? Should we be able to move beyond hierarchy in groups or is it something that can be worked with in the best interests of all?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Do you feel lucky, punk?

Fascinating Harvard Business Review post on what luck is, and how to make it work for you. The part about optimism is really interesting to me - ties in with my explorations of the importance and power of understanding your thinking. Here 'tis.
Lucky I found it!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What are your strengths?

I've just come from a great session with a client where we were talking about how to use her strengths to improve her performance and results at work. We used Tom Rath's StrengthsFinder 2.0 to get a great Gallup report on her strengths and ideas for action. (No, I'm not affiliated with those guys but I use the tool a lot - and yes, if you buy it through my Amazon store - StrengthsFinder 2.0 - I get about 25 cents!)

Anyway, the theory is that if you multiply talent x investment (in time and energy), you get your results. According to Gallup's research, most people think they know what their strengths are, but actually don't.

So talking tennis, if you're Roger Federer, you are a 5 for talent and a 5 for effort, so you get a 25 for results.
If you've got Federer's talent but you only put in a 2 for effort, you get 5 x 2 = 10 (a waste of talent).
But if you're like me, you can put in a Federer-like effort but my 1 for talent means I get 1 x 5 = 5 (a waste of energy). Which explains why I don't play a lot of tennis.

It makes a lot of sense, then, to find out what our strengths are and play to them. My client this morning has incredible strengths in the areas of people skills and relationships.  She wants to grow her business and has been putting in a 5 for effort going for tenders where those skills don't really count for much.   Instead, she finds the work comes in when she has been in front of people, building relationships. Getting clear on her strengths let her build a business development plan that lets her spend a lot more time doing what she enjoys (and what works) and gives herself permission to spend a lot less time  slogging through data- and document-heavy tenders.

What about you? Are you playing to your strengths? Or are you depleting your mojo trying to force through your weaknesses?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Welcome - the first post

Hi - welcome to the first post for The Living Room.  

If you're reading this while it remains the ONLY post - thanks for being an early adopter!

Over the next days, weeks and months I'm going to be working hard to add lots of interesting resources and material to The Living Room. My big idea is to create a place where lots of people - including you - want to come to learn more about living well. 
What would get me to follow a blog like this? Well, my career is all about supporting people to develop ever more enjoyable and fulfilling lives. They do it by developing a more and more complex understanding of themselves and how they relate to the world around them.  It's also a path I'm always on myself. So I'd be looking for new ideas, new connections, resources, a place to ask questions, stretch my brain - but also to relax and have fun for a while.

So that's what I'm looking to build.  Come along with me! I'd love your contributions.