When a relationship is difficult: Making the full committment

When a relationship is difficult, especially one in which you have a large business or familial stake, it can color your whole outlook on life.  I’ve certainly found myself with a black cloud hanging over my head, thinking, “What can I do to make this better?”  I’d like to explore some aspects of making difficult relationships better in some upcoming posts, though much of the time I will admit to being bewildered as to how things can become so botched up sometimes.  I know one unhealthy approach I’ve found myself falling into has been to become defensive and lose perspective.

With respect to the business environment, in a classic article by Peter Drucker, he suggests two tips for improving relationships with colleagues: 1) Recognize their strengths and figure out a way to have yours and the others’ strengths compliment one another 2) Take responsibility for communications between you and the other.

This latter point reminded me of something else I learned of a few years ago. I wanted to pass it on here in case it might help you or someone you know.

It is called the 100/0 principle, and it was written initially by Al Ritter. This is the formula: You take full responsibility for the relationship (the 100) and expect nothing in return (the 0). As you take authentic responsibility for a relationship, it will be that the other person does as well. Consequently, the 100/0 Principle transforms to something approaching 100/100, at least that is the hope. By being persistent in your kindness and respect for another person, you will change the dynamic of a relationship. When that happens, true breakthroughs occur for the individuals involved, their teams, their organizations (and, depending on the situation, perhaps their families). Most people just give up too soon. Doing this requires tremendous discipline, faith, and humility, but when faced with a “failure is not an option” relationship, it may be what you need to do.

I will admit that I find the concept intimidating, but I also think it can be hugely rewarding.  If you try this, please let me know how it goes.  Also, if you have any wisdom on how to work your way through relationship difficulties, please share with us all!


Those who escort us where we’re supposed to be

I’ve always been a little confused by the concepts of fate and destiny, yet I do have some sense of the distinction between them and, more importantly, how they apply to our lives.  To me, fate is the circumstance into which we’re born and perhaps where we end up if we don’t make conscious choices to be more.   Destiny, on the other hand, is what we’re meant to be.  I think most of us can tell when we’re falling short of our calling.  Sometimes I look at my life and think of the all-too-often evaluation that appeared on my report card in elementary school. Needs Improvement

Still, the promise of fulfilling our destiny is one thing that drives us, that gets us up each morning.  Sometimes we hear it calling our name when we wake up for no good reason at 3:00 A.M.  For me, I experience this as a prompting from God; for you, it might be another form of higher power or a deep-seated ethic.

But this isn’t about you or me.  This is about those who have given us the belief that we can be more.  I’ve had teachers, coaches, relatives, neighbors, and others who have helped me to visualize being something more, and without them destiny might have seemed like it was not within my grasp.  I am sometimes inclined to drop to my knees in gratitude, for I know that these people gave me a love and care that I couldn’t have summoned on my own.  There are also those who are a less direct part of our lives but who inspire us by their example.

I hope you feel the same gratitude for the people who raised you, looked after you, scolded you, dried your tears, taught you algebra, and educated you about right and wrong.  You can think of them when you’re down, knowing they would be there to encourage you and tell you how special you are.  (And you are!)

So here, without any particular order, are some who have helped me.

My Grandmother cared for my brother and me in the absence of my deceased mother, cleaning house, cooking our food, and teaching us through her example what unselfishness means.  I wish I had realized how saintly she was at the time.  One example:  I never had a dirty practice uniform in four years of high school football because she insisted on washing it each day.

Speaking of football, my coaches occupied a special place in my young life.  I was singled out for praise, cursed out for falling short, taught about discipline and hard work.  My coaches largely served as father figures in my life.

I was unabashedly a teacher’s pet and worked hard to earn that distinction.  My teachers were a much-needed constant in my life, and I could sense the love that underlay the lessons on U.S.-Soviet relations, the French verb conjugations, and the Physics labs.

There are also those in my life now who inspire me:

  • My friend Brenda who, besides being a ball of positive energy, is inclusive in everything she organizes.  She lives out the phrase “the more the merrier”.
  • My co-worker Justin who endured a harrowing trip from Vietnam in a boat as a child, survived two years in a refugee camp, and made it to the U.S.  Today he is a top-notch programmer and carries a beautiful air of dignity.
  • My friend Jamie who is blind and who personifies hard work.  She is more ambitious and active than most of us.
  • My favorite yoga teacher (a phrase I couldn’t imagine using four years ago) Jacqueline whose spirit of peacefulness is surpassed only by the sense that she wants this for you also.  She’s also self-deprecating and humble, nice qualities for someone in her position (no pun intended!).

These are just a few of the people who I try to think about when my eyes open at 3:00 A.M.  Remembering them helps me to answer destiny’s wake-up call.  I wish the same for you.



Some things I’ve learned


For almost all of the first part of my life, up to my early 40s, I resisted anything the smacked remotely of self-help or personal development.   I suspect this had to do with the possibility of discovering weaknesses (couldn’t afford to do that!) or maybe infringing on my idea of orthodoxy.

I won’t go into the various ways this changed, but it’s safe to say it started with a 12-step group (I didn’t know what those were for a long time, either) and has since turned into a happy pursuit of learning about living.  We live in a time when we have access to many good thoughts.

I would be the first to tell you, though, that there is no silver bullet for what ails you.  As one of my favorite writers, James Hollis, says, there are no self-help gurus who can rescue you.

Still, there seem to be some commonalities or what I would determine to be clear truths which I’ve come to regard as wisdom:

  • Sleep is important to good health and a good state of mind.
  • It’s bad policy to assume you know the motives for others actions.
  • Unless you’re playing racquetball, it isn’t good to be reactive.
  • It takes more energy to maintain an enemy than to maintain a friendship.
  • Our appreciation for nature is strongly tied to our appreciation for life in general.
  • There are no bad days, just bad moments.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  • Once we’ve reached adulthood, we are almost entirely responsible for our own happiness.
  • Don’t hold post-mortems over mistakes you’ve made and brood on what you might have done differently.

These are just of few things I try to keep in mind.  I’m thankful for friends who demonstrate many of these principles to me regularly.

I’d love to hear your wisdom!


How do you spend your precious life?

My task here is to convince you of the great value of your life.  Because I think your time is precious, I will try to be brief.

I visited my soon-to-be 26-year-old daughter last week in her home in Austin, TX.  We did many things but the time I liked best was when we camped at a coffee house for an hour or two and then went next door to a vinyl record store.  It reminded so much of the “special time”, as we called it, we shared each week when she was a little girl.  I didn’t realize at the time how important that time would look in the rear-view mirror.  I’ll go so far as to say that whatever destiny I might have fulfilled to this point in my life, that time was a significant part of it — shaping her life, shaping mine.

Treat your life as the incredibly limited resource it is.  Please think twice, make that three times, before you give a significant part of your life over to television.  I try not to be too preachy but I’m not shy about this point.

This morning my mind was concerned with many Monday  tasks and I was ready to make a “To Do” list and then attack it.  While grabbing a snack from our break room, though, I peered out a big window and saw a light coating of snow, fresh from the early morning.  I saw tall evergreen trees, and two birds happily trying out perches on a building that had no doubt been lovingly designed by an architect 20 years ago.  I realized that this scene had rescued me from the brink of a little functional insanity, and I thanked God for this intervention.

When I think about the best moments of my childhood, almost all of them involved doing things that seem pretty mundane by today’s standards:  Circling the airports (that appear as airplanes) on a state map; Walking to get doughnuts, cutting through the graveyard on the way; Taking the money we earned by mowing lawns to the curb market to buy penny candy.  What they had in common was that we were in the moment, single-tasking.  We hadn’t even heard of Zen but we were monks in our own way.

When you go through today, give yourself fully to another.  Laugh.  Take a recess period like you did when you were in elementary school.  Read something really difficult that takes all your concentration.  Call one of your in-laws.  Go outside at night and look up at the stars.  And whatever you do, do it with you whole heart.


Pity the poor extravert

Maybe it’s selective perception, but it seems like I’ve seen many references lately celebrating the introvert.  I get the feeling that perhaps introverts are tired of being misunderstood as shy or socially awkward, neither of which is necessarily true.  Indeed, introverts are often successful in jobs that we normally associate with those who are more externally focused.

I guess we should define our terms, though there isn’t necessarily a consensus about this.   Since I’m not beholden to psychology (or even facts for that matter), I’ll echo the popular understanding that introverts find energy through time spent alone while extraverts become energized in spending time with others.  Neither of these characteristics is mutually-exclusive, however, and most people view  introversion/extroversion as a continuum.  Some might only label the extreme ends of this continuum as introverts and extraverts.

I can certainly appreciate both types of people.  I love my introverted friends for their thoughtfulness and reflection.  My wife is an introvert who is loved by many for frequent laughter and ability to make others comfortable.  (Myers-Briggs geeks will appreciate that I feel perfectly complimented, as a ENFJ, by my ISFP wife, which perhaps accounts for our 30 loving years together.)  Still, I will sometimes leave the house early with my wife quietly in a chair enjoying a book or doing correspondence and she’ll Lonely Batmanstill be there when I return hours later.  For me, this would be a punishment.

This leads me to conclude that some may not realize that life is sometimes challenging for extraverts like me.  Let’s talk about the practical implications.  I believe strongly in learning from books, both in academics and in professional competence.  Reading is fundamental but reading is not a team activity.  Much of my life, I’ve felt a tension between trying to get through the reading material I need to devour and my preference to talk with others.  When I was in school, I often accomplished what was needed by studying with my friends.  For me, nothing was more enjoyable than being at the library with someone else, satisfying the desire for achievement and avoiding solitude at the same time.  Similarly, I’ve been handicapped in my efforts to learn the piano because all that practice isn’t a social activity!

This reminds me of the plot of a Batman comic that I read long ago and still think about often.  (Stay with me here, I’m making a point.)  Batman, who is likely not an extravert but still gets lonely, called his friend Aquaman over to the Batcave to help him with what was an impossible project.  After an evening in which Batman prolongs the process with a number of extraneous tasks, his perceptive friend says to him,  “Bruce, listen, next time just ask me to pick up some beer and videos on my way over, okay?”

I love the work I do but I am admittedly somewhat miscast in the field of information technology, where I cannot do my job well without much solitary concentration.  I can feel my spirits lifted when I have a reason to leave my desk and consult with others.  On the too-rare occasions when I get to do some public speaking, I get totally pumped up!

The next time I come to your door to borrow some milk or if I ask you a broad question, seeking your opinion, please know that you are imparting some of your energy to me.  Don’t worry — I won’t take more than my share!


Avoiding grievances

Some suggestions for “How to avoid grievances” by John Wooden

1. Get all the facts. What went wrong — not who is to blame.

2. Stay calm. Find the solution together. Do not permit emotions to take over.

3. Criticize in private.

4. Commend before and perhaps after you criticize. Help save face.

5. Keep your criticism constructive. Criticize to correct, help, improve, prevent — not to punish.

6. Treat all people with dignity and respect.

My brief life as a vagabond

There was a  time in my early 20s when I found myself to be homeless. My father had died and I hadn’t much wanted to go home before that anyway, as he was in the last throes of his life of alcoholism. When the college dormitory was open, it was entirely sufficient but between semesters or in the summer when I wasn’t enrolled, I had to find a place to lay my head.

Now, don’t for a minute think I was even close to the destitution in which so many find themselves.  I was in the midst of pursuing a college degree, and if things had gotten too bad, I could have put aside my pride and asked for help.  As it was, it was just a tight spot for about a year.

Still, I learned much from the experience.  Like the importance of knowing which public restrooms were open 24 hours.  Like knowing that a spacious, gas-guzzling car can function as an R.V. when needed.  And like knowing that even a nice loaner apartment doesn’t work well if the electricity isn’t on.

My best friend during this time was the library where I was working.  At night, I would steal away to a dark room where excess stock was stored.  The A.M. radio reception was poor but kept me company.  In the morning, I would sneak past the cleaning crew, always a dicey proposition.  During the day, I would stash my suitcase in nondescript bushes, usually staying with a “hide in plain sight” strategy.

I was understandably embarrassed about all this.  Now, though, I see that it was pretty plucky, if I say so myself, and I know it was necessary to get through those last three semesters of school.

I have fantasies sometimes of providing a home for someone who is coming up short, and I believe I’ll be able to do such a thing one day.  My brief homeless life is one of those important threads that make up the tapestry of life, that help make us who we are.


How do you approach important conversations?

Do you sometimes send an e-mail to avoid a difficult conversation? Have you left voicemail as a hit-and-run technique? Have you made yourself scarce from someone’s presence so that you could stay safely away from a topic of conversation?

I recently came across the book Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson et al. This is not a new book; it’s one of those that I wish I had read in my 20s, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for leaders (and everyone for that matter).

Just the other day I was speaking with a friend who has many years in human resources and is pursuing a PhD in sociology along those lines now. I asked him about leadership books and he said the problem with most of them is that the assertions they make are not in context, and context could make all the difference. The one book he did recommend, though, was “Crucial Conversations”.

If the point of a conversation is to win, to make the other feel bad, or to stay safe at all costs, then it’s probably one you’ll regret. This book provides strategies to understand how you can add to the “pool of meaning”, as the authors have labelled real, helpful dialogue. Much of the process requires the same self-awareness that is essential for any effective give-and-take. I suppose what I found most helpful were the examples, and I could see mistakes I’ve made many times in the past.

I’d encourage you to read this before your next difficult talk.