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Archive for May, 2008

It’s been a tough couple of weeks with the monkeys. We’re in one of those phases where hanging out with them is sort of fun, but sort of a pain in the a** because we keep finding ourselves having to work really hard to get them to follow directions.

The other day I had to put them both in time out just to get them to stand still for long enough to get dressed for school. Lots of fun, really.

I know that this too shall pass, but of course both Mr. Daddy and I are trying to figure out what we can be doing differently. The other night, as we were discussing it, I suggested that we explicitly spend a little bit more of our time with them really playing with them on their level, so that at least the ‘management’ is interspersed with actual fun.

Mr. Daddy has been pushing the idea of encouraging them to spend 20 minutes or so a day hanging out on their own, without us around. This would give them a chance to assert their independent spirits and us a chance to get stuff done around the house.

I told him my idea, and he agreed. He told me his idea, and I brought up all the reasons I thought it wouldn’t work. Finally he interrupted me – can’t we just try it? Sure.

On the train back from New York the other day I was reading Group Genius, by Keith Sawyer, an excellent read on how to get groups to innovate well. While reading a chapter on how to get smart outcomes from groups instead of dumb ones, he reminded me of the rules of improvisation, the first of which is to build on ideas by saying ‘yes, and’ instead of ‘yes, but’.

As a consultant whose job it is to help teams develop new insights and translate them into new ideas for their businesses, I facilitate brainstorming sessions all the time. I know how important ‘yes and’ is not just to brainstorming but to any great collaborative work. Yet in a mini-brainstorm with Mr. Daddy, I forgot to judge his ideas forward and started to, well, judge. It’s not a great way to problem solve or an endearing way to talk to your husband.

We’re going to try out some of our new ideas this weekend to see if they work. If not, we’ll be back to brainstorming early next week. This time, I’ll try to remember the rules.

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I’m a bit of a sloucher. It’s an ingrained habit which I’m not particularly proud of. In fact, if you forced me to make a list of 10 things I’d like to change about my physical presence, standing up straight would probably make the top 5.

Until recently, I didn’t seem to be able to do anything about it. When someone tells me to stand up straight, I would be able to do it for a few minutes, but would always relapse into my slouchy stance.

Over several months of doing yoga, working on building my shoulder strength and opening my chest, I realize why I could never stand up straight – I didn’t know how. When reminded to do it, I’d roll my shoulders back. But it was always a temporary fix.

Really standing up straight, in manner that can be enduring, requires more than just rolling the tops of your shoulders back. First, you need to moving your shoulder blades towards each other, and pull them down your back. This enables you to open your chest without sticking out your boobs, creating breadth across your shoulders and chest and causing you to, yes, stand up straight.

Who knew?

Well, of course, lots of people knew. They just didn’t know that I didn’t know. And they just didn’t think to teach it to me.

One of the biggest challenges of learning new skills is that when you don’t know what you’re doing you don’t know what questions you need to ask in order to learn to do it better. 

This challenge exists when when you’re trying to build technical skills like qualitative research or doing a better asana, but it can be even more difficult if you’re trying to develop fundamental skills like connecting with others or standing up straight. People are used to teaching technical skills, and may even remember learning them, so they have a grasp on what the steps of the process are.

When we’re learning fundamental skills, our teachers may be unconciously compitent, or naturals at something, and therefore unable to effectively teach. Worse, we’re often trying to learn from people who are not actually ‘teachers’. They don’t always teach by breaking down a skill into it’s component pieces and helping you develop them one by one until suddenly, you’re standing up straight more than you’re slouching.

There are a couple of ways that as learners and teachers, we can help make learning fundamentals easiers. First, as a learner, know what you want to learn. But don’t stop there – be on the lookout for when people around you do things well that you struggle with and proactively engage them in a conversation about what they’re doing well, how and why.

As a teacher, take the time to break down the outcome you desire into the multiple elements that can impact success and failure. Then, focus on teaching those elements one at a time. Many basic yoga postures are interim steps that build upon each other and ultimately lead to the ability to do something you never imagined that your body could achieve. If, as teachers, we break down even fundamental skills like listening and leading into their consituent parts, our students can learn one element at a time, slowly making progress until one day, they can stand up straight all day long.

 

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I just finished watching 3:10 to Yuma, which was a completely enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. Like all Westerns, it was a story about What It Means To Be A Man wrapped in a plot involving horses, guns, and manhunts.

What was particularly interesting about this one was it’s emphasis on parenthood – well, really fatherhood, but I’ll take it.

In the story, the good guy, Dan Evans, is escorting the bad guy, Ben Wade, to the 3:10 train to Yuma prison after watching him hold up a stagecoach and helping capture him.

The reason Dan takes on this foolish and likely lethal assignment is to save his family farm, ensure that his young son with tuberculosis has a healthy environment to grow up in, and show his older son, Will, that he is honorable and heroic. For the sake of Providing for His Family and Being a Good Role Model, Dan is willing to die.

Now this might be a stretch, but it made me think of something I hear a lot of working moms tell themselves and others to make them feel better about missing a soccer game, bed time, etc. “By working, I’m being a good role model for my children.” It’s something I tell myself on a regular basis.

Just as I take issue with what most Westerns tell you about What It Means To Be A Man, I take issue with this idea that Being A Hero and Being Honorable the most important lessons you can teach your children. Are they really more important than the many tiny lessons you could teach them every day if you were there to watch them grow up?

I know that working hard and having a successful career isn’t quite like dying to make a point, but it made me think. Are we really trying to be role models or that just a nice excuse that seems less selfish than the real reasons we work? And if we are trying to be role models, what exactly are we modeling?

 

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The final piece of advice that the Heaths have for folks looking to help their ideas stick is to tell more stories. This can be challenging in a business context where we’re more used to people weaving statistics into their presentations than compelling narratives. But the human brain is wired to recall and retain stories. It is the way that information had been passed down for countless generations before the development of the written word and even before the evolution of statistics. Using storytelling can be a way to engage your audience, help your presentation stand out, and help people remember your main points.

Of course, the importance of storytelling is not lost on most parents and teachers. We tell the same stories to our children that our parents told us. We’re even used to telling stories that have a conceptual idea embedded in them, or a moral. But there’s a way to use storytelling in a way that goes beyond bedtime and beyond Peter Rabbit.

The monkeys are often being monkeys, swinging along the banister and hopping up and down the stairs. We have a lot of stairs in my house and they’ve always made me nervous. Again, I tell the monkeys not to goof around on the stairs. And again they jump and swing. When I tell them not to, they’d always ask why. And I tell them: it’s dangerous, you could get hurt, because I said so. To no avail. 

Our neighbor, a little girl who is the same age as the monkeys, recently fell down the stairs in her house. She’s fine, but she did manage to knock out her front tooth, which won’t grow back in for a few more years.

Now, when the monkeys monkey around on the stairs, I ask them to stop. When they ask why, I tell them they could fall down the stairs and knock out their teeth, like our neighbor. And they stop. At least for a while.

The moral of this story: build a story around your moral. It’s more engaging to listen to and more likely to be remembered.

 

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At school and at work, we learn to build on our experiences.

In fact, the older the get, the longer we’re supposed to remember information. When you’re younger, you get tested on what you’ve learned that week, or that month. By the time you’re in college or graduate school, you may only get tested once every few months, on information that’s supposed to accumulate in your brain over time. Professional careers build on knowledge that we’ve built up over even longer periods of time.  We’re valued for having wisdom and expertise, which comes with years if not decades of practice.

And then we have kids. And they have bad days.

After half an hour of whining, not listening, hitting, and other merriment, my monkeys will suddenly want to snuggle and cuddle and play nice with me. They seem to have forgotten everything that’s happened over the course of the past hour and are ready to resume normal hanging out. But not me. I’ve been trained for years to build my knowledge over time, and I can’t just forget the bad behavior, even if it’s already been addressed.

Tonight, I’ve decided that it’s time to unlearn years of conditioning and start forgetting.

In fact, I’m trying to get myself to consciously re-set my attitude every 1/2 an hour or so. The past few days with the monkeys have been very trying, and I find that if I don’t consciously try and reset my attitude, I easily spiral into a frustrated, angry, yelling mom. And I miss opportunities to cuddle, play and generally hang out because I’m still annoyed about what happened a short time ago. But I’ve already punished the act, and so acting out my frustrations with this ‘phase’ (god I hope it’s a phase) doesn’t really do anyone any good.

I recently read a great Parent Hack, called Pause Your Nose. It’s a brilliant fun and physical way to inspire the behavior I’m looking for, and I already use it all the time on the monkeys. They think it’s really funny.
I’m going to try a similar trick on myself: pressing Acupoint 11 when I need to do a hard reset. Best case scenario, I’ll forget about the fighting and arguing, and once again become a patient, calm, fun, and engaged mom. Worst case scenario, I’ll think it’s funny.

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A colleague of mine had a former life in community organizing and development. In that role, he spent much of his time running meetings and getting organizations with various agendas to cooperate for the greater good of the community. He is an expert facilitator and one of the best people I know at working an idea through an organization.

One of the things I’ve learned from him is to pre-wire my meetings. He’s taught me when I need to get buy-in for an idea from a management team, I should make sure that all the players are on board with the message before we meet about it. 

Typically, if you have an idea you gather the group that needs to hear it to discuss it. But I’m sure you’ve all been in meetings where new ideas are met with resistance, fear, territoriality, and suspicion. All of which can be great responses to strengthen the idea and push it forward. But if all those issues come up in a public setting, the idea is more likely to get killed than adopted.

Pre-wiring the meeting involves meeting with stakeholders as individuals before you meet with them as a group, to hear and respond to objections in private. With those conversations out of the way, the idea has a chance of succeeding in the meeting. Instead of a heated debate, the meeting can provide an opportunity for consensus, collaboration, and moving forward.

It’s true that the presentation of insights loses some of it’s ‘wow’ factor if many people in the room have heard the findings before. But in exchange for drama, you’re more likely to walk out of the room with action and implementation. A worthwhile trade-off, I assure you.

I also use my colleague’s advice to manage the monkey’s expectations. Toddlers respond well to routine, so we use consistency of routine to do a lot of our expectation setting. They know what’s going to happen next, because it always happens next, and I don’t have to say anything. But there are, of course, times when we can’t or don’t follow the routine. Special activities or holidays come up or I get completely bored and we do something out of the ordinary.

When I know we’re going to break the monkeys’ routine, I ‘pre-wire’ them, setting expectations about what’s going to happen long before it happens.

A few weeks ago, my parent’s came in town for Passover. I was thrilled about hosting a Seder, but a little anxious about how the under 3 crowd would handle the long ceremonial meal. I started talking it up about two weeks before the night. ‘Nana and Far Far are coming and we’re going to have a special meal. We’ll sit around the table together and read and sing songs and tell stories’. Getting them excited about some of their favorite activities really worked. In addition to talking about it, we started singing some traditional Seder songs together. And they were into it. Between setting their expectations and incorporating some toddler friendly activities into the Seder, we got the monkeys and a friend to sit through about 1/2 an hour of ceremony at 6 PM. A major triumph.

I also pre-wire them to get them excited about things I’m excited about, so that an activity is actually likely to be fun for all of us. Tonight we made pizzas for dinner. The monkeys love to help me cook, so I knew that they would be into the activity. But I wanted to make sure we had a whine-free evening, with lots of participation. So I started talking it up early this morning, singing Louis Prima songs and telling the monkeys we would turn the house into a Pizzariea for dinner. Their excitement helped get them motivated to come with me to buy a new rolling pin and helped me get them to leave the park to come home to make dinner. And not only did they help me cook, they ate their pizza and salad.

I’m always a little bit surprised when I see such similarities between my toddlers and adults in the business world. But it shouldn’t be that surprising. At our core, we’re all creatures of habit. Breaks from the routine can be scary and intimidating to two-year-olds. And trying a new idea, or agreeing to a new way of doing things, can be scary and intimidating to adults. Giving everyone a chance to respond to an idea in private, and time to get used to it, can go a long ways towards reassuring this anxiety. And that can turn Seder, pizza night, or an imporant meeting from a whine-fest into a successful event.

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