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12 Reasons Why Strength-Based Motivation Works better than Criticism

12 Reasons Why Strength-Based Motivation Works
better than Criticism

“You leave messes everywhere!”
“You are so forgetful – can’t you remember anything?”
“You really hold grudges, don’t you?”

Ouch! Have you ever had someone say something like this to you? Or said it to yourself? Of course you have! It is a very old, but very poor method of motivation based on guilt and fault-finding that we could call “Criticism Motivation.” The theory of the fault-finder is, “If I point out flaws, and instill guilt about the flaws, people will fix their flaws.” Admit it – you have believed this, haven’t you?

And although sometimes a bit of direct criticism may be needed, in virtually all cases, a better method to inspire change is called “Strength-based Motivation.”

Strength-based motivation is a powerful way to relate to yourself and others. Unfortunately, most people have no clue about what it is and how to use it. And they don’t know the benefits of SBM. So, here are the answers to those burning questions.

What is Strength-based Motivation?

Strength-based Motivation, or SBM, builds future success on previous successes. SBM highlights areas where the person has previously shown strength. Instead of pointing out flaws and weaknesses in others, a person using an SBM approach points out successes and suggests letting the success expand.

For example, a “fault-finder” boss might say, “I notice you’re late getting back after lunch. You need to stop being tardy.” Whereas SBM would say, “I notice you are always on time to work. That’s fantastic! How could you do the same thing after lunch? Whatever you are doing in the morning works great. . . What would need to happen so we could repeat that success a few hours later?”

When a Strength-based Motivator sees the need for improvement in herself or others, she first points out areas she has been strong. Especially areas of strength that overlap with the area needed for improvement. Then the motivator invites improvement by encouraging the person to use existing strengths to solve existing problems. Nobody needs to re-invent the wheel. Nobody needs to be overwhelmed by making huge changes. A SBM says, “Hey, you are already doing a great job over there. . . I’ll bet you can do the same thing over here.”

Then, after that discussion occurs, SBM makes sure to point out even the smallest improvements to encourage the “motivatee.” Even if the person is still failing to a great degree, SBM focuses on the good stuff so the person doesn’t get discouraged.

SBM challenges both parties to develop positive reponses to challenges. The “motivator” develops the skill of seeing strengths and inviting others to use these strengths to improve. The “motivatee” develops the skill of self-evaluation and problem solving.

Examples of SBM

Let’s use the three examples from the beginning of the article and transform them into shining examples of Strength-based Motivation.

Example 1:
“You leave messes everywhere!”

SBM Mom: “I notice you keep your car really clean. . . how could you take care of your stuff in the house like you do with your car?”

Jason: “Aww, Mom, you’re always nagging me about stuff!”

Mom: “I’m not kidding, Jason, whatever you are doing in your car works great. It’s really amazing. I don’t know many teens that keep their car that clean. And. . .it would help our family immensely if you would do the same thing inside the house as inside your car.”

Jason thinks a bit.

Mom: “Why don’t you think about it and see how you could make that work, okay? I know I’d be happy to let you use the car tonight if you can get your things organized inside the house too.”

Jason cleans up but still leaves some things out.

Mom: “You’ve really cleaned a lot! It helps our family a ton, buddy. Now, looking at the family room, I notice that this half is really clean. No food or clothes anywhere. It’s primo. So. . . how can we make the other half look as good as this super clean half? Can I help out a bit so you can leave before the game?”

In this example, mom didn’t let herself get sucked into defensiveness about “nagging,” but gently focused on what he is doing right. She stated the reward he would earn if he made some changes and expressed faith and confidence in her son. After he made an effort, she didn’t criticize his faults. She used his strengths to allow him to see what he needs to improve. She even offered her practical support to make his goals a reality. Finally, mom didn’t ask for perfection initially. She knows that his strengths and skills will build with practice and time and doesn’t nitpick him into hopelessness. SBM is patient because the rewards include a strong relationship that improves over time.

Example 2:
“You are so forgetful – can’t you remember anything?”

SBM Husband: “Sometimes you might think you are forgetful, but I notice you always remember the kid’s sports schedules. That’s really remarkable because they are so complicated!”

Wife: “The only reason I remember the kids’ games is because it’s all calendared on my phone! That saves me for sure.”

Husband: “You know, that seems to work great for all that . . . I’m wondering if maybe that might work for other things.”

Wife: “What are you talking about?”

Husband: “Well, you are so organized with the sports, and I’m thinking that the same strategy could be used for car maintenance and grocery shopping. You know, put it in your phone like the games and practices.”

Wife: “Hmmm. I could probably do that.”

Husband: “It would mean a lot to me if those were a little more predictable. You are already successful with the sports stuff.”

Wife: “Well. . .Ok. If it will make your life easier.”

Husband: “I think it would make life easier for everyone, really.”

Later, if his wife improves with some of the forgetfulness, the husband can comment on how the changes make life better. He notices even small improvements or successes and acknowledges these to his wife. He may even need to give her credit for things that are “lucky”. Here’s what that looks like.

Husband: “So did you remember to get the tires rotated?”

Wife: “No! I forgot again!”

Husband: “Well at least you aren’t running around on rims yet! That’s a plus. But I am concerned about the wear. Do you think you could enter that appointment in your phone or would you like me to see if I could do it?”

Example 3:
“You really hold grudges, don’t you?”
SBM Friend #1: “I notice you are really forgiving of your sisters. That’s a really cool trait to have – not holding grudges.”

Friend #2: “It’s harder with some people for sure.”

Friend #1: “I admire how you forgive people really hard things – like your sister Chrissy.”

Friend #2: “When she married my fiancée? I know, right? But he turned out to be a loser, so I just felt sorry for her after all.”

Friend #1: “I’m just wondering how you can let those skills spill over to other people in your life. I would think forgiving your coworkers would be snap after Chrissy.”

Friend #2: “I’m not going to give people a pass when they are such total idiots!”

Friend #1: “I’m just saying it’s cool you are able to live and let live even when some people are idiots. Very cool, that’s all.”

Benefits of SBM over Criticism

Strength-Based Motivation
Focuses on Strengths and Successes
Builds on Success with encouragement
Fosters hope and confidence
Strengthens the relationship
Creates trust and safety
Fosters dignity and respect
Encourages creativity and perseverance
Is positive – seeks strengths to focus on
Creates more enthusiastic compliance
Results take a little longer, but the person is more self-motivated
Opens an informative dialogue
Creates self-appraisal

Fault-Finding Motivation
Focuses on Faults and Weaknesses
Ignores success with criticism
Fosters discouragement and fear
Imperils or even destroys relationship
Creates anxiety and sense of danger
Fosters guilt and resentment
Encourages rigidity and quitting
Is negative – seeks weaknesses to dwell on
Creates non-compliance/passive aggressive
Results occur quickly, but may result in diminished returns over the long-term or future push-back
Shuts down dialogue or creates protests/whining
Creates self-protection and defensiveness

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10 Ways to Tell if Someone is Emotionally Unavailable

10 Ways to Tell if Someone is Emotionally Unavailable

We all hate it when we invest in a friendship or romantic relationship, only to realize later that our friend or lover was “emotionally unavailable.” “Emotionally unavailable” isn’t about the ability to make commitments.

Actually, it is worse than that.

You can easily end up in a committed relationship for various reasons with someone who is emotionally unavailable. So what does emotional unavailability look like?

1. The Relationship is One-sided. You do the great majority of the planning, sacrificing, and communicating without a proportional response.

2. The Relationship is Fair-weather. It’s great when things are going well, but when you have setbacks and bad days, the other person is AWOL.

3. The Relationship is Sporadic. The relationship is “on-again, off-again” for no apparent reason.

4. The Other Person is Deeply Addicted. It could be a range of “addictions” from video games, gambling, porn or substances. But the addiction is the person’s way of being emotionally unavailable to you.

5. The Other Person has Many Exits. This is similar to #4 but the exit from intimacy relies on more acceptable means. The other person may be a workaholic, sports-a-holic, shop-a-holic, hobby-holic, or always physically ill. If you find yourself feeling abandoned by the other person who is too often “doing their own thing,” they may be emotionally unavailable.

6. The Other Person has Severe Emotional Disorders. I’m not just talking mild depression here. If a person is in active psychosis, actively suicidal, incapacitated by anxiety, or personality disordered (borderline, antisocial, narcissistic, etc), these are indications that the person has significant struggles. While we can have tons of compassion on struggling people, we should not expect people who are in this position to be able to support us in our times of need. And if we are repeatedly drawn to partner with people struggling at this level, we should get some counseling to figure out why.

7. The Other Person Is Smothering/Controlling. As seductive as it is to be wined-and-dined and overwhelmed with gifts and attention, this pressure is actually a red flag. These are possible indications that the other person views you as someone to manipulate. First, it may start with the “good stuff”, but the desire to control will eventually deteriorate into the “bad stuff.” When you are viewed as a target to manipulate, this indicates the other person will not be genuinely emotionally available to you.

8. The Other Person Can’t Empathize. When you are distressed, they appear unmoved or personally wounded. They focus on themselves instead of you. Instead of reaching out to comfort you, their actions say, in essence, “I’m hurting too! What about me?”

9. The Other Person is Physically/Emotionally Abusive. This one should be obvious, but it is amazing how many of us get snared in these unhealthy relationships. Get support to get out as soon as possible.

10. The Other Person is Repeatedly Dishonest. Lying is a way to hide their authentic self from true intimacy. It won’t get better without counseling or a major spiritual awakening.

So, is there a way to sharpen our “Emotionally Unavailable Detector”? For sure, take this list and watch for indicators that could be a concern.

Along with that, you can run a little test for Emotional Availability. It consists of gently reaching out for support and seeing what the response is. (This will often backfire if you have a pattern of neediness in your relationship, so be aware of that fact). A person who has never learned to be vulnerable can learn to be emotionally available, but it is a long process that usually involves therapy and lots of safety in the relationship.

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Ways to strengthen your relationship with a defiant child

Ways to strengthen your relationship with a defiant child
(approximately Age 7-13)

Living with a defiant child can be exhausting and discouraging. The first and last step are the same: Strengthen your relationship.

This is the most important part of changing your family dynamic. The relationship is the foundation of everything else. If you have a solid relationship, it will give amazing benefits that no amount of consequencing will achieve.

Here are some approaches that can be beneficial.

1. Together Time. Set aside individual time with your child every day (or at least every week day). Eliminate distractions and interruptions and do something that your child has previously listed and gotten approved by you. Together Time should be about 20-30 minutes. It should not cost a lot of money and should provide some good bonding and conversation time. Do not discuss your child’s task list or interrogate them in any way. Keep this a very positive, happy, connecting time. Together Time should not be used as a consequence. Together Time is an unconditional gift to you both because you want a better relationship.
2. Collaborate More. Instead of dispensing edicts as an authority, start collaborating with your child so they can learn to take responsibility. While you don’t want to put your child in the position of making decisions for the family, you DO want to involve her in the discussion and truly understand her concerns, insights and suggestions. You can collaborate one-on-one or start a tradition of having a weekly family meeting where you discuss ways to make your family better. Make sure you child feels safe and deeply understood. Where you can, incorporate his suggestions in the family plan. Areas to collaborate on: family activities, schedules, boundaries/rules, consequences. Again, this doesn’t mean your child makes the decisions. It means that your child is heard, understood and validated as worthwhile.
3. Use Strength-based motivation. Learn to ignore a lot of “small faults” and focus on what your child is doing “right.” Don’t make a huge fuss, but you can definitely point out areas that they are being mature, responsible and obedience. Express your confidence that this pattern can spread to other areas of his life.
4. Stay Neutral. Do your best to tone down the big anger and big praise for your child. The very act of being judged by a parent, puts a child in a very vulnerable and anxiety provoking place. Learn to deal with your anger rather than losing control as a result of your child’s actions. Tone down the praise, too. Stay more matter of fact and calm and positive. Your child will feel much more secure knowing that they aren’t responsible for their parent coming unglued.
5. Listen to understand. Learn to deeply listen to your child. Don’t let your mind wander and certainly don’t think of ways he/she is wrong! Don’t interrupt, but when the conversations pauses, check back to make sure you understand what is in her heart. Say, “Let me see if I get what you said. . . . “ or something like that. Then do your best to express back what your child just told you. The gift of listening without judgment (or even better as an ally!) is a great way to strengthen your relationships.
6. Develop a detailed Love Map. How well do you know your child’s world? Probably not as well as you think. The more details you know about your child’s world, the more they know you care and are interested in them as a person. Start to ask questions and then REMEMBER the answers! If you have to keep asking the name of their friends, they know you don’t care enough to attend well. Ideally, your love map will be so detailed that you really know what is going on for your child. Instead of asking the perfunctory, “How was your day, Champ?” you can ask, “So what did Jennifer do today when Bobby sent her that note yesterday?”
7. Be their ally, not their enemy. As much as possible, be on their side as an ally and advocate rather than acting as an enemy. Let them hear you bragging about them to others. Make sure you empathize with their dilemmas and take their side (especially at first). Later, you can help them understand different points of view, but you need to form the alliance before they will feel safe enough to open up to you. Even when you need to enforce consequences, you can say, “Man, that is really tough, I know. I would really hate that too, and I’m feeling for you.” Don’t be sarcastic about this.
8. Find hobbies/interests you can do together. Don’t just watch their basketball games, get out and shoot hoops together. Don’t just watch a movie with popcorn, but involve them in making the snack and choosing the movie. This will take some thought and effort, but really, they would love to have a parent involved with them at this age.
9. Make everything as “relational” as possible. Learn to talk and joke whenever you are doing even mudane things like doing chores or driving in the car. Instead of telling your child to do something on her own, find a way to participate together. Help her with chores, and even help her in negotiating consequences. Take time to talk and visit, not just accomplish the task.
10. Turn tasks into games. Children this age love games and it makes life interesting instead of drudgery. Let them come up with ways to make tasks more fun.
11. Use humor!! Laughing together is a great way to bond. Caution: Teasing is often perceived as a violation of a child’s dignity. Eliminate teasing that leaves the child feeling helpless or confused. Remember, if you aren’t laughing together, you are doing it wrong.
12. Be an example of talking about your feelings. Children need to hear their parents express feelings aloud. It’s okay for them to hear you say, “I’m really frustrated with the car right now! I need to get it in to the mechanic.” If you can follow up your expression of feelings with a possible solution, it helps your child learn to find solutions for their feelings instead of denying them or bottling them up.

This is not the complete list of things to do so your child will function better, but it is a fundamental foundation to build the most important factor. Later you will learn important aspects of shaping your child’s behavior through a number of modalities. Have fun with this list and let me know what works the best.

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Trauma Makes the Storms of Life Feel like Hurricanes

Trauma Makes the Storms of Life Feel like Hurricanes

Is someone in your life often at the center of a “Perfect Storm”? Is there always some dilemma or mishap that keeps friends running for cover, battening down the hatches, and bailing out the person from trouble? Your friend may be dealing with the effects of trauma. Traumatic events in our past can create troubling volatility in our present. And this creates storms for everyone else, too. By understanding how trauma affects people, we can have more compassion. And we can also learn to relate in helpful ways.

So, what is trauma, and how does it affect us?

Put simply, trauma is any event or series of events that leaves us immediately feeling:

1) Overwhelmed (Sometimes we feel our safety or survival is in peril)
2) Helpless
3) Alone or disconnected from humanity

Because we all have different reactions to events, what is a “mountain” to one person, may be a “molehill” to the next person. With variations in personal history, resilience, social support, physical health, and cultural factors, the experience of trauma tends to be very personal. Imagine yourself alone, helpless, and overwhelmed by a cyclone. That’s how trauma feels.

Here are some examples of events that have traumatized people (note the huge range): divorce (own or parents), abduction, bullying, car accidents, sexual assault, parental neglect, famine, death of a relative, death of a pet, being robbed, gun violence, sexual abuse, day-care, changing schools, natural disasters, war, serious illness, parental mental illness/substance abuse, bankruptcy, imprisonment, new step-family, etc. Because children are vulnerable, dependent, and lack the cognitive filters that adults use, youngsters are often more at risk of trauma than adults are.

Along with these immediate effects during the storm, trauma can leave us with delayed effects after the sky clears:

1. Hyper-vigilance/Reactivity
2. Negative Mood (Angry, Sad, Anxious, Numb, Irritable, etc.)
3. Negative Coping patterns (Isolation, Addictions, Outbursts, Zoning-out, etc.)

These reactions (and others) are common results of trauma but we can sometimes feel like we are “going crazy” or “not ourselves” anymore. Our friends and family can wonder the same thing.

Just understanding how trauma works is often comforting for everyone involved.

In fact, one of my clients who had a history of sexual, physical, verbal and emotional abuse, summed it up for her bewildered husband: “See?” she said to him with some relief, “You didn’t marry drama! You married TRAUMA!”

When we are informed about trauma, we stop asking, “What’s wrong with you?” and start asking, “What happened to you?” Then, we can really listen.

Here are some things you can do for your friend or loved one who has been traumatized:

1. Safety. If the person is still experiencing the trauma, ensure that they are immediately provided the resources to feel safe. To provide physical, emotional and psychological protection, the victim or perpetrator may need to be removed from reminders or triggers, physical needs met (food, drink, shelter, medical, sleep), locks changed, guardian assigned, etc. The person may regress to an earlier stage of life — they may need to be hugged and rocked like a child. The person may experience a range of emotions and should not be left alone until they feel safe. Longer term, safety is accomplished by offering needed support/protection when they feel unsafe in new situations. This can include ongoing legal situations.

2. Social support. Family and friends are the first line of social support along with clergy, colleagues, therapists, support groups and even social media. The professionals will give the person a safe space to process the trauma, but others serve an important function too. Friends, family and colleagues can leave the door open for talking and listening. You don’t have to solve the problem, just let them know you are with them in their distress—you won’t leave them alone and helpless. It is perfectly normal for the survivor to want to talk. It’s also perfectly normal for the survivor to clam up. Don’t pressure him or her to talk about it before they wish to do so.

3. Empowerment. At some point, the person may be interested in learning new skills and information that would offer protection or insight about the dynamics of the trauma. He or she may want to become the resident expert on PTSD, sexual abuse, bullying, legal defense, etc. In addition to knowledge, the person may want to develop new skills for empowerment. Some trauma survivors use martial arts, target shooting, personal defense, or athletic goals to impart a sense of power where before they felt overwhelmed and helpless.

4. Purpose. Sometime after the first three steps are begun, the person may find a new purpose in life. Crafting a positive purpose funnels feelings of injustice and even revenge, toward positive change — in the self and in the world. It isn’t unusual for survivors to become crusaders for social change. A dramatic example of this transition is how John Walsh became the host of “America’s Most Wanted” after the tragic kidnapping and murder of his boy, Adam Walsh. He has spent a major part of his life advocating for victims rights and protections against child predators. This final step sublimates the traumatic feelings of overwhelm, helplessness and aloneness, into empowerment, competence, and social support.

As with the stages of grief, survivors of trauma must negotiate these tasks in their own way. With professional intervention, a survivor has the best chance to calm the storms of life and bask in the sunshine of peace. As family and associates, our support of their journey is the most important role we can play

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Trauma Doesn’t Mean Traumatized

Trauma doesn’t mean traumatized

Bad things happen. Maybe your mom was addicted to drugs. Maybe your dad abandoned you. Maybe you were abused by a family member. Or maybe you just didn’t have any friends when growing up.

Researchers have found that these adverse events, often called “trauma,” have profound and enduring effects on people throughout their lives.

But trauma is relative. One person may be traumatized after being mugged, while another seems to shake off the same experience. While psychologists are determining what traits seem to create resiliency from trauma, a few qualities seem to stand out.

1. Social Support. Being alone is a high risk factor for being traumatized. Supportive family, friends, co-workers, church congregations and community organizations can help mitigate the effects of trauma. Having someone to confide in makes a huge difference.

2. Few adverse events in your life. Interestingly, a person who experiences a large number of adverse events doesn’t become immune to the effects. Instead, the person often becomes more prone to being traumatized in the future. If you can be spared a plethora of adverse events, you can often withstand a traumatic event better than someone who is struggling under a mountain of setbacks. Here’s a special note: Some people appear “hardened” or “numb” to traumatic events. This is not to be confused with being resilient. “Shutting down” is not the same as actually being resilified.

3. Coping skills. If you know some coping skills like replacing negative thoughts, prayer, journaling, envisioning, meditation, relaxation strategies, exercise, goal setting, and distraction with hobbies, you will cope better with the bad stuff.

4. Good Health. If you have a generally healthy body that is well rested, you can endure more than someone who is physically stressed. So exercise, sleep and eat right in order to be more resilient.

5. Find meaning in trials. Do you have a life philosophy that includes a meaningful way to put trials and trauma in some kind of perspective? People who can find meaning in suffering, often cope better than those for whom disaster seems arbitrary and pointless.

6. Find a good cause. Turn your pain into passion and purpose. Find those that need your mentoring. Raise funds for good causes. Advocate for good policies in institutions. Blog, speak, write to raise consciousness. Assemble humanitarian kits for people in disasters that need comfort. Organize others to support your cause.

We will all suffer from some kind of profound setback in life. If we can incorporate as many resilience factors as possible, the odds we will prevail are greatly increased.
Please see my other blog on Post-Traumatic Growth. I mean, if bad things are going to happen, let’s at least limit the damage, right?

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The Three Most Important Words in Marriage

The Three Most Important Words in Marriage

Surprise! The three most important words in marriage are NOT “I love you.” Those are the third most important words in a marriage. The second most important words in marriage are in my other blog post (The second most important words in marriage – Tell me more.)

The number one spot is held by, wait for it, drum roll please. . . . “You’re probably right.”

“Huh?” you say. You read correctly. Let me tell you why.

When you respond to your mate with “You’re probably right,” the following things happen:

1. You align together. You are siding with them. Instantly, you are on the same teams. You are a couple working together and this is good.
2. You see from the other’s perspective. When you can view things from the paradigm that your spouse holds, you can gain understanding.
3. You validate your spouse’s thinking. When you understand your partner better, you can value their thinking. You stop assuming they are crazy or evil for thinking the way they do.
4. You value your spouse more. He or she will feel that you respect and value them rather than dismiss and devalue his or her opinions and perspective.
5. You imply that they MAY not be right. You hold out the possibility that another point of view may be more helpful, but don’t make the case so strongly that your spouse becomes defensive. You leave the door open for further discussion

Of course, you wouldn’t state the phrase sounding like a martyr, right? Think of ways to truthfully be able to say, “You’re probably right.” Next time you are in a tricky discussion with your husband or wife, try responding with “You’re probably right,” and see how the feeling changes between you both.

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Talking Stick Communication

Talking Stick Communication

You may be familiar with a Native American (or First Peoples) tradition that uses a “Talking Stick” in their councils. It can be an effective method to increase safe communication and to understand each other – in families, marriages and business. This article amps up the power of the talking stick in new ways.

First, what is that traditional talking stick? The Talking Stick (or Speaking Staff) is a ceremonial rod that gives the person holding it – the speaker—the right to talk. Holding the staff, the speaker can express feelings and thoughts while others listen attentively without interrupting or questioning the speaker. Then, after the speaker has said everything on his or her mind, the speaker passes the talking stick to the next person who then speaks what’s on their mind. Before any decisions are made, everyone gets to use the talking stick to voice their views.

Sometimes the Talking Stick is accompanied by a “Listening Feather.” This is handed to the person in the group that the remarks are specifically addressed to.

That’s the basic method and it’s pretty good. But here’s how to really leverage it to a more powerful level.
The Talking Stick Dialogue
Rules for the Speaker:

1. Stay on topic. Don’t stray into other subjects, grievances or past hurts. Grasping at random complaints to throw at the listener is called “gunny-sacking” and it is counterproductive. Also, don’t just talk about negative feelings! Please share some positives with the listener.
2. Stay on schedule. Give yourself a guideline of about 4 minutes or less to speak. If the you can’t express your thoughts in that amount of time, you may need to wait until a bit later to speak again. Don’t use a buzzer or formal timer, just estimate.
3. Stay with “I feel” messages. Instead of rehearsing a litany of events or faults, speak the truth about your feelings. Refrain from saying, “First, you were late. Then you were grouchy! Then you insulted me! Then . . . “ Instead, express your feelings about it all: “When that happens, I feel lonely and rejected. I feel scared and hurt—like I’m worthless.” When you convey your tender feelings, it tends to create compassion in the listener. Focus on using terms that describe emotions such as, “I feel worried when. . . I felt angry when. . . . I felt unloved when. . . I feel anxious when. . . . “ Also, avoid saying, “I feel that. . . “ followed by a complaint or a thought. Those expressions are not emotions. They statements of thoughts or complaints. Instead of saying, “I feel that you often ignore me,” stay with your feelings of emotions such as, “I feel lonely and ignored.” Don’t forget to talk about POSITIVE emotions, too. Say, “I love it when I come home and the house is pretty clean. I feel loved and respected when that happens!”
4. Avoid Polarized Thinking. Polarized thinking (or Black and White Thinking) tends to frame ideas in extremes. It leaves little room for discussion when people talk in absolutes. Instead of saying something extreme like, “It killed me when . . .” try replacing this with “When this happens, I felt upset.” Instead of stating, “It’s impossible to . . . ,” say instead, “It seems incredibly difficult.” Here is a table of common polarizing expressions and ways to soften these words.

Polarizing expressions Flexible Expressions
Always Often, at times, sometimes
Never Rarely, not as often as it needs to
Impossible Difficult, challenging, tricky
Killing me Very uncomfortable, distressing, hard
Terrible Troubling, stressful, upsetting
I know for a fact. . . It seems to me. . .

5. Avoid using the word “You” as much as practical. This is challenging and takes quite a bit of practice, but at least keep it as a goal as you learn to do the Talking Stick Dialogue. Do your best to stay away from the word “You” and try for neutral expressions. For instance, replace “When you park the car crookedly,” with something like, “When the car is parked crooked. . .” As another example, replace “When you don’t feed the cat,” with, “When the cat isn’t fed . . . “ Can you sense how avoiding the term “you” is less triggering for everyone?

6. End with your hopes for a positive solution or a good relationship in the future. After the speaker as expressed feelings (both positive and negative) the speaker can express hope and faith that you will understand each other better and will feel closer and stronger in the future. “I really want our marriage to be strong and loving and I am hoping we can do what it takes,” could be a good wrap-up for the speaker.

Rules for the listener:

1. Stay focused. The listeners should face the speaker and make good eye-contact. Giving others the gift of our attention is one of the most important gifts we can share. You are focused on understanding what the speaker is saying and especially what the speaker is feeling.

2. Stay together. Sometimes the speaker will say things that are difficult to hear. This can be a challenge, but don’t bolt. Listen in order to comprehend their point of view and feelings. Give them the safety and security of patient listening. This gift is very important.
3. Stay empathetic. Do your best to connect with the feelings they convey, not just the words that the speaker uses. Try to feel what they feel and put yourself in their shoes.

4. Stay alert. Since you will be reflecting back the speaker’s concerns, you will want to remember what they are saying. When it is your turn to mirror back to them, you better not say, “Uhh, I guess I forgot what you said!”

After the speaker is finished, the listener gets to:

1. Say to the speaker: “Let me see if I understand you. . . “

2. Reflect back to the speaker what the listener just heard — But this is important— say it as if you were the speaker, using the same pronouns like “I” and not “You.” For example, if the speaker just said, “I feel lonely when you stay out late with your girlfriends,” the listener would reflect back the same way, “Let me see if I understand you. . . . ‘I feel lonely when you stay out late with your girlfriends. . . .’ “ Get it? It truly helps the speaker to feel like the listener is trying to be empathetic. And it helps the listener truly empathize with the speaker’s feelings.

3. After the listener is finished reflecting, the listener checks with the speaker and says, “Did I understand you? Did I miss anything?” Then the speaker may remind the listener what was forgotten to be mentioned. At that point the listener adds any forgotten items with something like, “Ok, so also. . . ‘I felt really happy when our anniversary was celebrated with a little vacation.’ “

4. After any missing items are reflected back, the listener can ask, “Is there anything else?” The speaker can add ONE thing at the most. The speaker needs to use all the speaker rules and not forget them at this point!

5. The listener then reflects back the added item the speaker may have mentioned.

6. The listener can/should validate the speaker with something like, “Hey, I appreciate what you just shared with me. It helps me understand you a lot more.” Or, “I can see how you feel that way. . . I feel differently, but now it makes more sense to me.”

Then, the listener has earned the talking stick and the parties swap roles: the listener becomes the speaker and the speaker becomes the listener.

How it works with John and Lilly using a cell phone as the “Talking Stick”:

1. John holds the cell phone as he talks to Lilly using I-messages and feelings. Lilly listens intently so she can reflect back John’s message and emotions.

2. When John is finished, Lilly now reflects back to John what he said to her. She uses “I-messages” and speaks as if she were John. John keeps the “talking stick” while Lilly does her best to put herself in his shoes.

3. Lilly asks John if she “got it.” John points out areas she may have missed. Lilly talks about those parts until John is satisfied that she understands his thoughts and his feelings.

4. Lilly asks if there is anything else that John needs to add. John may add ONE thing at most. Then Lilly reflects back to John.

5. If John is satisfied, then (and only then!) is the “talking stick” given to Lilly, who now takes her turn being the speaker. She uses “I-messages” and feeling words and John listens intently. When Lilly is finished, he tries to reflect back to her, as if he were Lilly, the thoughts and feelings she shared with John. Then he asks Lilly, if he “got” her or if he missed anything.

6. Lilly indicates where John may have missed something. John adds the missing parts and asks Lilly again, “Did I understand you?”

7. For Extra Bonus Points, they can add some validation after each “got it.” Lilly and John can express how they can see how the other would feel/think the way they do. They don’t need to AGREE with the other person. Just understand it from their point of view. This validation that Lilly doesn’t think John is crazy or stupid often really helps the other person to feel understood rather than hostile. Also, this is a great time to express appreciation for the other person’s willingness to communicate safely.

After using the Talking Stick Dialogue to share a deep understanding with each other, then they can proceed to go to the problem-solving stage, if needed. But many times, just feeling deeply understood helps to solve the negative feelings in a relationship. Please see my post on problem-solving which occurs best after people are relaxed and feel heard and understood.

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The Simple Way to Prevent Procrastination in Others

The Simple Way to Prevent Procrastination in Others

Procrastination quickly becomes a bad habit. Why? Because the dread we have about a task is immediately relieved when we procrastinate the job. The relief is the immediate, and powerful reward.

The next time we think about the task (which may have become more difficult because of the first delay) we experience an even BIGGER relief when we procrastinate it again. And so the cycle escalates until a crisis occurs.

Once in awhile, fate (or others) will step in to rescue us, and so the pattern of procrastination is reinforced still more. “See?” our subconscious may tell us, “If we put things off long enough, magically, they go away! How cool is that?”

But we can interrupt that cycle in a powerful way so that the pattern is not established in the first place. How?

Change the reward structure. Start now = Easier job. Start later = Harder Job.

Offer a choice that is structured so that if one immediately gets to work the task is easier and if one delays the task, it gets more difficult. This structural change disrupts the old patterns so now, delaying action creates more stress instead of relief.

Example 1 with a child: “Janey, if you will do your piano right now, you don’t have to do your scales today. But if you wait until later, you will need to do your scales at least 3 times along with the rest of your lesson. What is your pick?”

Example 2 with an employee: “Pat, if you get that report in by today, you can leave the office 20 minutes early. Otherwise I will expect it tomorrow at the usual time.”

Example 3 with a spouse: “Darling, if you will start working on the laundry right now, I can help out. But later I have an errand to run and you’ll be on your own.”

The great thing about this arrangement is that even if the other person chooses to procrastinate, the reward cycle has STILL been disrupted and they are now feeling LESS relief by procrastinating. And that will serve to weaken the cycle eventually. Just remember, any time we are forming new patterns, we must take into account how long the old patterns have existed. Longer patterns= Longer change time.

Sometimes people will question, “But if I let my kid, spouse or employee off the hook just because they start early, doesn’t that teach them to be lazy?” The answer is that you are working on one habit/pattern at a time. Just focus on encouraging others to start promptly and then later, they can carry a heavier work load. But if we can temporarily lighten the task to encourage a new pattern, then we have done a very good thing indeed!

See my post on 4 Ways to Replace Procrastination with Persistence for useful self-motivation tips.

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Make Boundaries like a Peanut Butter Jelly Sandwich

Make Boundaries like a Peanut Butter Jelly Sandwich

Interpersonal boundaries are like good fences: They keep the bad stuff out and let the good stuff in. But many of us are really bad at making and keeping good boundaries. We are the pushover at the office– or the doormat in our family. And it feels terrible.

Poor boundaries, like weak fences, invite trespassers. Strong boundaries, like strong fences, inspire respect. But do our boundaries need to be electrified and topped with razor-wire to be effective? The answer is, “No.”

Many people hesitate to create strong healthy boundaries because they have only seen the “electric fence” version in the past. Is there another way that you can communicate clearly, but still strengthen your relationships in the process?

Enter the Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Method to boundary-making. The PBJ method is easy and most people like it. Not like electric fences.

o First Slice of Bread: Validate the relationship. Like the slices of bread on a PBJ, healthy boundaries start and end by valuing your relationship. In the office it might be, “You know, I’m glad we get to work together in the same office.” If your relationship is strained you could truthfully say, “You know, we need to be able to work together to be successful, and I really want that.” In your family you might say, “I’m thankful to be your Mom and I’m glad you are my son. Nothing will ever change that!”

o The Jelly: Validate their strengths. Jelly is the sweet stuff – and it needs to be dolloped on first so you don’t get peanut butter in your jam jar, right? In the office, you might say, “You do a great job with making everyone feel important and comfortable, and that is a huge benefit.” In your family you might say, “Honey, I just can’t tell you how much I appreciate your driving the kids to all their sporting events.”

o The Peanut Butter (Smooth/Creamy): This is the boundary. Address what isn’t working. Do this by explaining what behavior is impacting you negatively. The “smooth part” is where you use “I messages” and qualifying language to “soften” the impact. These techniques make the bad news easier to take. Instead of saying “You always. . . “ try for, “Sometimes, it seems to me that . . . “ In the office it might go like, “ . . . that is a huge benefit. And at the same time, it seems to me that the monthly reports are late — not every month, but more than we would like.” At home it might go like, “ . . . all their sporting events. And along with that, it seems like I often come home and nobody even notices.”

Did you notice that neither example used the word BUT? Using the word “but” effectively wipes all the jam off the bread and negates all the sweet stuff you pointed out. Use, “And at the same time,” “And, along with that,” “And on the other hand,” or some other transition that doesn’t cancel out all your acknowledgments.

Many times, smooth creamy peanut butter is enough. People get the message. But what if you need to put some teeth into your boundary?

o The Peanut Chunks: State the Consequences. Be direct, but brief. Don’t draw out the pain. You might have lots of chunks or just a few, but make sure you are both clear about the consequences. In business it might be, “If this happens in the future, I’ll need to document it in your file. It will impact your review.” For family it could be, “If this keeps happening, I’ll need to make an appointment with a marriage counselor.”

o Last Slice of Bread: Validate the Relationship (again). That’s right, the last step is the same as the first – you bookend the boundary by emphasizing the relationship. In the office it might be, “ . . . And the reason I’m meeting with you about this is so we can successfully work together. I want to be a productive co-worker (boss, secretary) with you.” In the family, it might look like, “And the reason I’m talking to you about this, is because you are so important to me. I want our marriage to thrive.”

If your trust level is high, or time is short, you may be able to serve an open-face PBJ (Validate strengths, Explain the Boundary, Validate the Relationship). Or possibly just peanut butter on one slice of bread (Explain the Boundary, Validate the Relationship). But remember, if you expect people to eat peanut-butter straight from the jar, they will have a mess stuck to the roof of their mouth! And that stops good communication. Try always to dole out boundaries with some good stuff, too.

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The Armored Heart Part III: Removing the Plates

The Armored Heart Part III: Removing the Plates

You’ve been amplifying your resilience (See my blog post on Part II) and have noticed that you can take emotional hits without shattering — as much. Great! Be patient with yourself as you develop a more resilient heart. Like any growth process, it takes time and energy to accomplish.

Meanwhile, it might be time to start peeling back some layers of armor. Why should we do that? How should we do that?

Why. As we noted earlier (Part I), armor creates a barrier to incoming pain. But it also creates a barrier to incoming joy, love, friendship and caring. If we can peel back our armor, we allow ourselves to connect with the good stuff in life. As long as we have developed some resilience skills, we will be better equipped to deal with real life rather than shield ourselves against it.

How. After practicing and learning skills to become RESILIFIED, we can start removing the armor, plate by plate. This can happen by taking small risks with trusted people. Here are some possibilities:

1. Be a little vulnerable. Let some of your warts and flaws show. If you are having some struggles, share that with a “safe” person. Don’t armor up with sarcasm, dishonesty, or concealment. You might say, “Yeah, things aren’t going so good with my job. I’m not sure it’s going to work out. It really sucks.”

Then the listener has the chance to do one of two things:
• Availability: If the listener is emotionally available, he/she will empathize or join with you with something like, “Really? I had a job that I got fired from. . . it was a drag. So what is the worst part about work? Your boss?” When you find somebody who can connect with your heart-felt feelings, then perhaps you should get to know that person better. Probably be a friend.

• Avoidance: If the listener is emotionally unavailable, he/she will avoid the subject of emotions and probably make a joke or change the subject. “Ummm,” they might say, “So hey, what about that last Yankees game?” You don’t need to reject someone who may be emotionally unavailable, but just understand that they can’t really connect authentically. You might just keep things superficial, right? Recalibrate any negative thoughts that might pop up (Part II).

2. Reach Out. Do or say something kind every single day for 2 weeks and record any good responses. Sure, sometimes people will ignore or not trust you, but if you keep reaching out, somebody will eventually respond well. And don’t forget to reach out to those who are often forgotten — not just to people who are popular or the center of attention. The less popular people will appreciate your gestures the most. If people don’t respond well, recalibrate your thoughts and seek feedback from a trusted friend, family member or counselor.

3. Say Yes. If you get invited to be with people for anything healthy (and safe) then by all means, say “yes.” Don’t let negative self-talk keep you from being social or trying new things. Peel back a little armor during the hang-out session and see who is emotionally available.

4. Be really bad at something. Monitor your self-talk and don’t let fears and negative thoughts keep you from experiencing things you might enjoy. You can be really bad at something and still like it. Everyone is really bad compared to the experts. Really bad at art? Paint anyway. Really bad at sports? Play anyway. Really bad at talking to people? Socialize anyway. It’s a great way to peel back your armor, and if it is a little awkward, you can rely on your resilience skills to keep yourself in the game. Plus, it’s a great way to do #1.

5. Talk to someone. When you find yourself feeling hurt or angry, talk it over with somebody who is a good listener. This could be a teacher, co-worker, family member, clergy or counselor. Don’t hide your frustrations under armor.

Of course, some people really are destructive and there is nothing wrong with putting some distance between you and someone who is hurtful. Just remember that not EVERYONE is out to injure you. In fact, most people are pretty nice.