Playing Well with Others

A definition from Wiktionary:

Playing well with others: “To habitually demonstrate interpersonal skills by engaging agreeably in social or work activities“

Clients who work with me will tell you that I place great emphasis on cultivating relationships and meaningful (as opposed to casual) connections. It is said that 80% of jobs come from connections (as opposed to posted positions), and obviously advancement within an organization depends to a great degree on gaining the trust and respect of key decision makers and colleagues, not just on their assessment of the quality of your work, as important as that may be. So it's hard to overemphasize the importance of strong interpersonal skills.

Whether in such large and often highly bureaucratic organizations like the World Bank, IBM, or the Department of Defense, or in small, nimble startups, building quality relationships is one of the most fundamental building blocks of career success.

Of course some people are blessed with a high degree of “emotional intelligence.” Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others." It is generally said to include three skills: 1) emotional awareness; 2) the ability to… apply (emotions) to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and 3) the ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people.

Let’s look at these three components individually.

“Emotional awareness” requires you to be self-reflective, acting and reacting less automatically and more thoughtfully. Great, but how can you actually put this into practice? First, step outside yourself and examine HOW you’re feeling at given moments, and WHY (to the degree you can identify the source(s). This isn’t easy; you’ll want to practice on relatively benign emotions to build up your ability to be your own “emotional detective.” So, for example, you might start with noticing being annoyed at something (e.g. waiting on a slow checkout line in a supermarket or driving behind someone who’s going way under the speed limit).

“Applying emotions to thinking and problem solving” demands that you motivate yourself to think clearly and deeply about issues you are tasked to resolve. This too is a skill that can be developed. For some valuable tips on how to train yourself to be better in this area, please read my blog post:

“The ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people” will be improved by attending to numbers 1 and 2 above, but requires more. As it relates to self-regulation, it is essential that, once you’ve recognized that you’re in the grips of an emotion, you step back and ask yourself if, and how, that emotion might be serving, or not serving, you in a given situation. I think you’ll generally conclude that you are NOT being served, and that you’d be better off reacting in a more measured, and less emotional, way. Then, of course, you’ll need to call on the self-discipline to calm the emotional (over)reaction.

But it’s the second part of this component, “cheering up or calming down other people” that most directly relates to the ability to cultivate, build, or strengthen relationships that will be important for your career success (and, in fact, to life success in general). Cheering up or calming down other people, and more broadly getting people to like and respect you, requires empathy - the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see situations from their perspective. Perhaps a co-worker has been uncooperative. Perhaps a boss is micromanaging. Perhaps a subordinate is disrespectful. Of course you’re going to have a negative emotional reaction to these situations. But the key to gaining mastery over them is to investigate WHY these other people are acting the way they are.

Is the uncooperative co-worker threatened by you, fearful of being outshone? Is the micromanaging boss insecure about your reliability? Is the disrespectful subordinate being triggered by the way you interact with him/her?*

An indispensable quality in handling these situations is CURIOSITY - the capacity to set aside your certainty about things and to question and probe assumptions. To quote Stephen Covey’s fifth Habit of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When people in your life realize you’re doing your best to come from a sympathetic, understanding place, the path to a good relationship will be a much smoother one.

*I don't mean to suggest that there are never people who are "out to get you." Sometimes intense dislikes are triggered by one's behavior, or even appearance. But ascribing nefarious intentions to co-workers with whom you conflict may often be misleading, and these relationships can sometimes be repaired with less effort than you might imagine.

N.B. - Another blog post that can illuminate ways to build better relationships is one I wrote a few years back:



Many therapists suggest visualization as an important tool, as a way of either increasing the odds of success in a particular endeavor or as a means of putting oneself in a proper, generally relaxed, state of mind. This could apply from anything to winning a match or game, having a good time at a party, or to a resumed connection with an estranged friend or relative. A simple way of thinking about this was popularized by Stephen Covey in “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People”; “Begin with the end in mind”

Frank Niles, PhD., writes in his blog:

“Visualization should not be confused with the “think it and you will be it” advice peddled by popular self-help gurus*. It is not a gimmick, nor does it involve dreaming or hoping for a better future. Rather, visualization is a well-developed method of performance improvement supported by substantial scientific evidence and used by successful people across a range of fields.

Take athletes, for example. Studies show that visualization increases athletic performance by improving motivation, coordination and concentration. It also aids in relaxation and helps reduce fear and anxiety. In the words of one researcher, visualization helps the athlete just do it and do it with confidence, poise, and perfection.

According to research using brain imagery, visualization works because neurons in our brains, those electrically excitable cells that transmit information, interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action.”

Think for example about what happens when you see a movie that is engaging. You feel as if you’re part of the action.

Niles continues: “When we visualize an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to “perform” the movement. This creates a new neural pathway — clusters of cells in our brain that work together to create memories or learned behaviors — that primes our body to act in a way consistent to what we imagined. All of this occurs without actually performing the physical activity, yet it achieves a similar result.”

As a primarily cognitive/behavioral therapist I’ve not given enough emphasis to the role that pictures (visualization) can play in changing thoughts and attitudes. That point was driven home just a couple of weeks ago when I was lucky enough to be scuba diving in the Maldives.

I’d had a few dives where it was difficult for me to “clear” my ears (the process of equalizing pressure in the air as one ascends or descends, as for example driving up a mountain road or in an ascending airplane). I decided , before entering the water for my next dive, to “visualize” myself smoothly descending with no problems and having a trouble-free dive experience. Lo and behold, that’ exactly what happened. I put “visualize” in quotes because I wasn’t able to visualize very specifically - it was more a case of conjuring up the feeling associated with the success I was aiming for.

I urge you to try this technique in various situations. It may not work all the time, but it’s certainly worth experimenting with.

* A prime offender in this regard was the best-selling book "The Secret" which many readers interpreted as a magic formula to get what they wanted simply by thinking about it. If only it were that easy!!


When Worrying Makes Sense - And When It Doesn't

Most of the clients who come to see me are dealing with worry (or, in clinical terms, anxiety) in one sense or another:  Here are some of the questions that I hear most frequently, all of which stem from worry:

“What if I make the wrong decision?” “Is what I’m feeling ‘normal’?” “What career would be right for me?” “What will my family think?” “Am I sufficiently prepared? “Will I ever meet the right person for me?” “Suppose the situation doesn’t work out?” “I’m nervous about this upcoming job interview (or date or meeting or performance or…)” "I wonder if I’ll be able to handle the stress (or the travel or the demands or the responsibilities)” etc., etc.

The first thing I ask you to keep in mind about worry is this:  Worry is a process undertaken by our minds to retrieve undesirable events from the past or the future and recreate them in the present.

Please re-read the sentence above – it is absolutely fundamental to an enlightened, productive view of worry.  Specifically, if creating the undesirable outcome in your mind allows you to take steps to prevent it or reduce its impact, then the worry is productive.  If not, it is useless and counterproductive.  You are simply producing an unwanted experience in the present that could be left in the past, or that might never occur in the future. In general, a state of inner calm is the best place from which to make decisions and take actions, and inner calm by definition excludes worry and anxiety.  From that peaceful, centered place you have the fullest and clearest access to the wisdom and the abilities that are uniquely yours which will help guide you to the best possible decision for you at the moment.

So, how can you apply this concept to your life?  First ask yourself “Can I do anything to reduce the impact of the event I’m concerned about?”  Often the answer is yes.  You can do further investigation or preparation on your own, or enlist the advice / guidance of a friend, colleague, or professional counselor.  If, for example, you're unsure about accepting a job offer you might talk to some current or former employees. If you feel unprepared for an upcoming exam you should study more.  If your boss is starting to exclude you from meetings it would be smart to update your resume.  If you’re worried about marrying someone you might seek pre-marital counseling.  In cases where you’re worried about making the wrong decision it might be helpful to go through a “worst case scenario” exercise, exploring the downsides of the range of decisions you might make.  There are many other techniques for productively harnessing your anxiety, a fuller explanation of which is beyond the scope of this post.

In other words, worry can have a beneficial effect by goading you to become better prepared.  If, on the other hand, you can honestly say that you’ve taken all the steps you can think of to improve your odds of successfully handling an upcoming situation, worrying is counterproductive.  Instead, turn to some anxiety-reducing techniques, some of which are outlined in my post of January 21, 2010 entitled “Choosing Your Thoughts”, others of which are contained in the article on this website titled “Changing Your Reality".

Gaining the ability to step outside of your worry and to view it from the “is it serving me?”perspective is quite simply one of the most valuable tools you can learn.  Practice it!

ADDENDUM - Recently I returned home from a cabaret performance only to discover that my wallet was missing.  I felt some distress, but in inventorying the contents of what I remembered had been in the wallet, I realized it was "only" about $300, $450 worth of checks, and of course my credit cards, license, and supermarket cards.  Seven people were arriving for dinner in an hour, and so I (without too much real effort) focused on preparing for their arrival and also phoned the 3 credit card companies involved to cancel my cards. I never even mentioned it during the dinner party.  I know for certain that years ago I would have reacted far more negatively.  What's changed?  Constant observation and practice of the principle of today's post.  Without even consciously thinking about it, I knew that worry and upset would accomplish nothing productive, and would in fact only significantly downgrade the enjoyment of my dinner party.  The next morning I awoke with the realization that I had changed my jacket on the way out the door to the cabaret (it never occurred to me last night) and looking in the old jacket I discovered my wallet, delighted in that outcome and proud I hadn't fallen prey to the worrying and drama that a lost wallet could have easily prompted.


More Productivity Tips

Andreas Klassen

In my last post I highlighted some of my favorite suggestions for boosting productivity contained in Daniel Pink’s newly-published book “When - The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.”  More today.

Pink reveals that the prospects of success in an endeavor can be enhanced by following a few simple procedures. First, perform a “pre-mortem.” That’s another way of saying “Begin with the end in mind” (per Stephen Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of highly Effective People”), but focusing on taking a look ahead to anticipate what might go awry. So, imagine that you are tasked with completing a complicated analysis, or organizing a social function, or that you decide you want to open a restaurant. If you were to be UNsuccessful, what factors might have contributed? Failure to allow enough time? To get distracted or overwhelmed? To have insufficient monetary resources? Then challenge yourself to develop strategies that would address those factors. As Pink explains, “The technique allows me to make mistakes in advance in my head rather than in real life on a real project.” 

Second, to the degree you can, choose the right time to begin an initiative. Per my previous post, for most people the morning is a better time to undertake a project than is the afternoon. Beyond that, extensive research reveals that there are preferred days to begin a project, careful selection of which will actually increase the probability of success. These are all days that mark the beginning of a new cycle. Mondays. Birthdays. The first of the month (or year). The first day back from vacation. Important anniversaries. 

Another factor to keep in mind when contemplating when to begin an effort: “when people near the end of the arbitrary marker of a decade, something awakens in their minds that alters their behaviors.” Evidence for this is contained in the curious fact that people aged 29 are twice as likely to run a first marathon as those a year older or younger, and that people aged 49 are three times as likely to run a marathon as someone just a year older. This pattern also holds true for scoring statistics in football: in the last minute of a half teams score twice as many points as in any other single minute. It would seem that as we approach a clear demarcation we boost our efforts. The practical implication of this research? Set yourself clear deadlines. in fact, set deadlines for each stage of a project. When you are approaching that deadline chances are you may try just a little harder. 

If, despite following Pink’s multi-faceted advice you find yourself in a slump, there are several tried-and-true methods of re-motivating yourself.

Interim Goals: A tried-and-true method is to break large projects into smaller steps.  Facing a large, complicated task can be so daunting as to be paralyzing.  

Accountability: “Once you’ve set your sub goals, enlist the power of public commitment. We’re far more likely to stick to a goal if we have someone holding us accountable.”

Interruption: “When you’re in the middle of a project, experiment by ending the day partway through a task with a clear next step. It might fuel your next day motivation.

Don’t break the chain: Jerry Seinfeld makes a habit of writing every day, not just the days he feels inspired. To maintain focus, he prints a calendar with all 365 days of the year, and marks off each day he writes with a big red “X.” “After a few days you’ll have a chain” he says. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain - your only job next is to not break the chain.” 

Picture one person your work will help: Dedicating your work to that person will deepen your dedication to the task. Ona work-related project that person might be a boss, colleague, or client. With a more personal project (dieting, exercise, quitting smoking) think about who besides yourself would enjoy the fruits of your success.



New Ideas on Boosting Productivity

I just finished reading a remarkable new book entitled When - The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. It’s written by Daniel Pink, a brilliant, incisive, and delightfully readable author of three other must-read books focusing on career success: Drive, which draws on 50 years of behavioral science to overturn the conventional wisdom about human motivation; A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, which charts the rise of right-brain thinking in modern economies and describes the six abilities individuals and organizations must master in an outsourced, automated age; and To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, which uses social science to offer a fresh look at the art and science of sales. These books are among the most valuable of the hundreds I’ve read, each providing research-based insights that will improve performance not just at work but in other key areas of life (e.g. family, health, relationships).

When focuses on the effect that time of day has on mental performance across a broad range of categories. He reaches three key conclusions:

“First, our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day. During the sixteen or so hours we’re awake, they change - often in a regular, foreseeable manner.

Second, these daily fluctuations are more extreme than we realize. The performance change between the daily high point and the daily low point can be equivalent to the effects on performance of drinking the legal limit of alcohol…..research has shown that time-of-day effects can explain 20 percent of the variance in human performance on cognitive undertakings.

Third, how we do depends on what we’re doing. Perhaps the main conclusion to be drawn from studies on the effects of time of day on performance is that the best time of day to perform a particular task depends on the nature of that task.”

Analytical tasks, requiring linear thinking, are most successfully undertaken in the morning, while creative thinking, more amorphous  and non-linear, is generally better in the afternoon. Why is this? Two primary reasons.“ First, when we wake up our body temperature slowly rises. That rising temperature gradually boosts energy level and alertness. Second, the stress hormone cortisol kicks in as we awaken to heighten vigilance, but declines as the day goes on. The result? A corresponding fall in the ability to remain focused and constrain inhibitions.  Focus and inhibition can limit the free-ranging kind of thinking necessary to solve creative problems.

In support, Pink cites research that amazes: student test scores are higher in the morning, traffic accidents spike in the afternoon, surgical errors are significantly more likely in the p.m., etc.

Pink makes numerous recommendations on how to enhance productivity in the face of these biological realities. He's a big fan of hydration. We lose a lot of water over the course of the night, so drinking a glass of water immeditaely upon arising helps wake us up faster. He's also a big breakfast fan, for similar "restorative" reasons ("it fortifies our bodies and fuels our brains").

Naps are something that he places great stock in ("the overall benefits of napping to our brainpower are massive, especially as we get older"), and offers some ideas on the best way to nap: short (10 - 20 minutes), and, oddly enough, preceded by a cup of coffee because caffeine, which takes about 20 - 25 minutes to kick in, helps arouse us from the lethargy that generally follows napping.

Taking frequent, short breaks has also been shown to enhance productivity. The ideal pattern appears to be an hour of concentrated work focus followed by a 15 minute break. The best kinds of breaks? Those that involve moving around (walking), that are social rather than solitary, that are taken outdoors rather than inside, and that are ones in which we as fully as possible detach from whatever it was we were previously doing. One particularly interesting study that he cites revealed that judges were far, far more lenient in granting a parole request after a break than before one.

What accounts for this phenomenon? When tired, we resort to a "default" mode of thinking that requires less mental energy. In that mode we are much more likely to follow a pre-existing way of looking at a problem, rather than analyzing the problem from a fresh perspective.

I will be sharing more insights from this fascinating book in my next post.