The Julia Rule

When engaged in a challenging, crucial conversation, use this simple question to get at a person’s specific ask.

When I was in high school, I was…well, let’s just say I could be…disruptive. In fact, my yearbook quote was, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” Thomas Jefferson said that. And it makes sense why he would.

I had a teacher, who we shall call RDW, who was very unhappy with my behavior. One day, when my mom came to pick me up, he strode out to her car. He stood outside of the driver’s side and spoke to my mother through the window. My classroom looked onto the parking lot so I could witness this whole exchange. I can still see his arrogant stance in my head, legs spread wide, hands in his suit pockets, probably mansplaining.

Can you imagine my mounting dread? And, even worse, my classmates were watching. Some of them were giving me sympathetic glances. Some were giggling. Some were probably thinking about what they were going to eat for dinner.

As soon as the bell rang, I ran out to my mom’s car. I expected her to GIVE IT TO ME. But she didn’t say anything. I tentatively asked, “What did RDW want?”

She responded, “He says you don’t behave in class.” (What does Billy Eilish say? “Duh.”)

Now, previously in the saga of my high school career, my parents voiced extreme displeasure at my “rebellion”. My mom once came home from parent teacher conferences crying. (Seriously, this is true.) But she didn’t seem the least bit bothered by this teacher’s complaint that day.

I began to probe, but my mom, whose name is Julia, said “He wanted to complain. He didn’t know what he wanted. So, I asked him the same thing I ask my unhappy clients, “What would you like me to do?”

What would you like me to do? Seven perfect words when stuck inside of a difficult exchange. Seven perfect words that put the responsibility back on the requester. Seven perfect words that communicate you’re willing to get in the game, if the other person simply says what they want. Which most people have little practice articulating.

When you ask people what they want you to do, you’re asking them to put into words a specific ask. If people want to complain or vent, there’s a time and place for that. But at some point, the venting gets tiring. One way to shut down the conversation is by simply asking “What would you like me to do?”

I use this technique on my children to prod them to make a specific ask. They’ve gotten so used to this, that now when I voice displeasure at their actions, they will turn to me and say, “What would you like me to do, Mommy?” Being on the other side of this question, I see how it stops you in your tracks and forces you to think about what you want—specifically.

When managing a crucial conversation with a client or direct report, I say, “Tell me what you’d like me to do.” I find by taking out the question, it softens the ask. It also gives me a chance to catch my own breath, slow down and try and understand the situation. It also gives the other person the feeling of control, which is important when communicating a desire to solve a problem.

The next time, you’re in a conversation that seems to be descending into a complaint fest, and you want to shut it down, ask the person “What would you like me to do?”

You can think of Julia and smile.

Beware the Wall of Crap

I want you to imagine, for one moment, that someone tells you something that impacts your relationships in the most positive way possible.

Stop imagining.

It’s this moment.

When I married my husband, our wonderful cousin, Susan, gave us the best piece of advice, to date, I’ve ever received.

Beware the wall of crap.

Imagine you’re sitting side by side with whoever it is you’re in a relationship with. You make an offhanded comment, or do something thoughtless—not to be mean, but because you’re just not thinking.

What happens?

A piece of crap falls to the floor between you.

And it lies there.

Smelly. Messy. A dark smudge on your otherwise good relationship.

Not to be deterred, the other sitting with you thinks, “I’m not having it.” They respond, in kind, without kindness, throwing their own piece of crap on the floor. Before you know it, the space between you in filled with crap. Stupid, small, insignificant throwaway comments and actions that in totality have built a huge wall between you and the other.

The remedy for any good relationship?

Pick up shovel and start digging.

All relationships are different. Marriage is different from friendship. Friendship is different from parenting (do you hear that, parents?). Parenting is different from management. Management is different from marriage.

But no relationship is immune to the wall of crap. Entire countries have these walls. Religions, political parties, sports teams—you name it. There’s a wall of crap for everyone!

Pick up your shovels

So, what can you do? Crap is inevitable. While all of us want to avoid saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing, it’s not always possible. You may not have thought your offhanded comment would not become a piece of crap. You may have been in a bad mood. Your boss was putting pressure on you and you put pressure on your team. It happens.

The good news is that there’s a remedy.

The remedy is communication.

Keep the floor clean

The only way to truly avoid the wall of crap building between you and others, is to try to keep the floor as clean as possible. This means:

  1. Watch changes in behavior: If your children or direct reports start communicating with you differently, or seem annoyed or frustrated, it’s time to take a broom to the situation. Sometimes all they may need is a positive interaction for them to sweep away the crap on their own. Or a challenging conversation may be coming your way. But you’ll only know if you initiate the shoveling.
  2. Invite feedback: Sometimes it’s worthwhile to ask people: What should I have done differently? After certain conference calls, I’ll call my team and ask them what they thought. It is so hard to tell your manager what you really think, especially if you’re being critical, but great managers want to improve. The more you open the doors to those types of interactions, the better your relationships will be at work. My children are more than happy to correct my behavior, and a lot of the time, they have good points. (Children, am I listening and implementing your feedback? Only you can decide.)
  3. Find shovels away from home or work: To truly keep the wall of crap clean, you need to leave the environment you’re used to interacting in. This is why companies have retreats, families have vacations and couples go away. Move yourself into a space where you can shovel away at the wall of crap by having positive interactions (not in the car, obviously), and building on those feelings of good will. It can be as simple as going out for coffee, lunch or going to see a movie. Those activities help to keep the crap at bay by taking the pressure out of our everyday interactions.

So, work the wall of crap. The lower you keep it, the easier it is to parent, manage, partner, love, laugh, live.

What will that look like to you?

When people make asks of us, and we aren’t clear about the core of the ask, we make assumptions. When that happens, we leave the door open for frustration and hurt. Use this simple question to define the ask and shape your response.

A friend of mine recently confided that her tweenage daughter is struggling socially. The issue? The daughter gives a lot of emotional energy to her friends, but doesn’t feel she gets back the same in return.

This happens all day long—at home, at work, with friends, parents, teachers, colleagues, bosses, and direct reports. We expect it to look like A. It looks like B. Or N. Or Y. And we’re angry. Hurt. Scared. Annoyed. Sad.

I was talking this issue of emotional expectations with my sister, Ariella. I told her someone once said to me, “I want to be closer. I want to talk more often. I want to do more things together.”

The issue?

I didn’t.

If I’m being honest, I didn’t want to be closer to this person. It’s a hard thing to say to someone, isn’t it? I like you, but not that much? Even though it’s not romantic, the words ‘I’m just not that into you’, apply here. And why the hell can’t you take the hint? I don’t text you back immediately, I don’t reach out, and I don’t pick up the phone. Can’t you read my signals?

Apparently not. Because, this person wasn’t a mind reader. In fact, no one is a mind reader.

I’m going to say it again: No one is a mind reader.  (Except Edward, in Twilight, and he was also a 300-year old vampire. So, I think my point stands.)

Sometimes, people just miss the signals. Or, they misinterpret them because they want to. They don’t want to face the terrible feelings of rejection. They want to believe their boss believes they’re super talented and destined for rock star leadership. People may think: Oh, that friend is just busy. When she’s done getting married, having a baby, adjusting to this new job, having another baby and so on, she’ll focus me on that way I want.

Guess what?

People make time for the people they want to make time for. It’s very simple.

So, what would you do, when this person, who I didn’t really want to make space for, said, “Let’s be closer?”

Simple response: “What will that that look like to you?”

As my sister said, “For some people being closer is talking once a week. For some it’s talking once a month. For others it’s texting every hour. To me it looks like an apple, and to you it looks like an elephant.”

When my direct report says, “I want more responsibility,” the answer is: What will that look like to you? When my husband says, “I want to spend more time together (hint, husband, you should say that), my response: What would spending more time together look like to you? When my children say, “I want you to buy me this,” my response: “What will it look like if you have that thing?”

When we probe for the answers, we hear something solid behind the amorphous request. Then we can start to do the hard work of moving forward. Are as we as far apart as comparing an elephant and an apple? Or, does one person think it’s a banana and the other thinks it’s an apple, so at least they’re both thinking about fruit? In other words, does my direct report want more responsibility because she wants to push herself and engage with more clients to learn more about our business, or is she really asking, “When is my promotion coming?”

If she is asking about her future, I can respond and say, “I think you need to work on X, Y and Z before we consider a promotion. It’s a great sign you’re asking for more responsibility. I need a plan from you on how you’re going to accomplish X, Y and Z; why don’t you think about it and get back to me in a week?” By adding color and definition, we can come to a decision about how to get at the center of the ask.

When my husband (still waiting) says he wants to spend more time together, does he mean a date once a week? A five-minute chat before bed? A vacation in Italy (yes, please!). When we don’t ask when someone says, “I want this thing,” we start making assumptions about what the ‘thing’ is. When we push to define, everyone gets clarity.

The next time someone makes a shapeless ask, go deeper and respond: “What will that that look like to you?” With definition comes the ability to come to a compromise, reject the ask, or decide on a way forward. In the case of my friend, it was: “Sorry, I just can’t talk every week. I wish I could, but I don’t have that kind of capacity.” While it may hurt, it frees them to stop expecting something that isn’t there. And you deserve to give them that truth, no matter how painful it is to say it and receive it.

“What will that look like to you?” Seven words that will transform your relationships—and you. Because the next time you make an ask, you’ll make a clear one, leaving no room for assumptions about what it is you truly want.

You only get a thimble

Your energy is a limited resource. Think of it as a thimble that only gets refilled when you take care of yourself and minimize drama in your life.

When I was a little girl, my older sister, who was 7 years older, watched the soap opera General Hospital. Guess who else watched General Hospital? Good guess.

I’m not sure if it was my youngest personality, or my natural penchant for drama, but I was hooked! Luke and Laura. The Quartermaines. Holly and Robert. Robert and Anna. I mean, there was a character named Robert Scorpio. Who gets paid to think this stuff up? Where do I get that job?

The problem was, by watching soap operas, I developed this idea that drama was necessary. I needed to have a dramatic life. I looked forward to drama. I wanted to know all of the things going on with everyone. I loved it when there was boy/girl drama. The more melodramatic, the better.

I was blessed with an extraordinary amount of energy (what I would give to get some of it back now). With that energy came the desire to do more and more. Funny thing about more and more: It creates more and more drama. A lot of it melodramatic.

Then, as what happens when life is going in the right direction, I got older. I got tired. I had a full-time job. Then I had 3 kids. Then I was building a business. There’s a lot of drama in building a business, let me promise you. There’s also a lot of drama when you’re raising 3 children. I don’t just mean the clean-up vomit from the ceiling kind of drama. I mean the, how do you negotiate with your partner on the best way to manage raising these children?

Your energy is a limited resource

I realized my energy was limited. In fact, so limited, that if I spent time on manufactured drama, I wouldn’t have the energy to deal with the drama that life is so good at manufacturing—all on its own.

My energy is encompassed in a thimble. If I’m lucky, and I get enough sleep, and take care of myself, that thimble gets filled up every day. But it also gets depleted throughout the day. If you only had a thimble of water, would you drink it every second? Or would you sip it slowly, to make it last?

I have 2 teenage daughters, and trust me, there’s a lot of drama in this house. Sometimes I get caught up in it. I also realize that if I get exhausted by every dramatic moment, I won’t have any energy left in my thimble to deal with my husband, friends, business, or my direct reports, or my clients, or myself. I won’t be able to exercise or plan meals that nourish my body in the healthiest way.

When you begin to think of your energy inside of one tiny thimble, you start to make smart choices on how to spend it. I’m not saying there isn’t a dramatic moment now and then. But pulling as much drama as possible out of situations is the better way to go. It’s the healthiest way to go.

That’s why psychologists tell you to stay away from emotional vampires. They suck all of the energy out of your thimble. You don’t get any to tend to you own needs.

Watch your thimble

I recently had to tell someone I’m close to something difficult. Everyone told me to pick up the phone and call. But I didn’t want to call. I knew speaking in person, and making a bigger deal of it, would make that situation more dramatic than it had to be. Some may say that I chickened out. But to me, the thimble was already low. I couldn’t risk depleting it even more.

Try thinking of your energy as a thimble. You’ll be surprised how your behavior changes at work, at home—and most importantly, with yourself.

The truth is a lie

How do we solve problems when people disagree on what truly happened?

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Recently, at a basketball game (yes, again), the ref made a call that one of the fathers disagreed with. When the ref ran by, the father said, “Come on, that was a foul.” The ref smiled, and with the whistle in his mouth, said, “Could be.” But he didn’t change his call.

This doesn’t only happen at high school basketball games. Millions of people watch sports games and disagree with the refs. Sometimes the refs, who are right there on the field, watching the action, disagree with each other. And on instant replay, millions of fans call it one way, and millions call it the other way.

How can this be? Isn’t our definition of truth that we all see the same thing and it lines up with what truly happened? In other words, what is the reality of that moment? And how do we decide that?

This happens as a parent on almost a daily basis—our children disagree with each other, sometimes violently: “She’s the one who left the bathroom a mess. He’s the one that started. Those leggings are mine! Mommmmmeeeeeeeeeeee.”

Conversations in my marriage can be the same way: “I told you this yesterday. I thought we agreed you would make the appointment with the orthodontist. You said you were going to order pizza.”

This doesn’t happen so much at work (go team), but every once in a while, I feel like I’m not getting the whole story about a problem with a client or project. Or, I’ll talk to different members of my team and get the same story, but with nuanced differences.

Why does this happen? Isn’t the truth, the truth? Either it happened one way, or it happened the other. “They are this daughter’s leggings. We agreed a long time ago it was your responsibility to order pizza every Thursday. You said the client never complained.”

Who owns the ‘truth’?

Philosophers spend a lot of time arguing about what truth is. I do not understand half of what they say, honestly. What I do know is not one person holds the truth. The truth is not a shared reality, and we can rarely get people to agree on whose ‘fault’ it is. Instead, as managers and parents, we need to decide, “How am I going to handle this in absence of any proof?”

There are three ways I’d like to suggest:

  1. Instead of focusing on what happened, focus on how to manage it: This kid’s perception is one way. The others differs. Who cares? Looking back can cause paralysis through analysis. Work on the way forward: To avoid the legging mix up again, please put your initials on the tag in the back. Don’t share clothing anymore if you want to avoid this happening again. And I’ve given you a solution, so don’t bring me into it again.
  2. Is the struggle real, or is it a call for attention: My father-in-law once said, “Many times children fight with each other as a way to get attention from their parents.” I think this is true with direct reports as well. Amping up the drama in a work situation can make your manager focus on you in a way that makes you feel special. This is a mistake. Most managers—and parents—would prefer a drama-free day. Life has a way of throwing enough drama at us without manufacturing it. If you are the manager, or a parent, ask yourself if this is a drop the rope situation with the pair who are arguing about the truth. Or try to understand how to resolve the issue without turning the volume on the drama up.
  3. Create a boundary that says work this out together: Sometimes, I listen to people arguing about what really happened, or what their take on a situation is, and I don’t care. I’ll say to my kids, “Work it out together and don’t involve me.” This works about 50 percent of the time. The other 50 percent I get involved anyway. But hey, I’ll take 50 percent. At work, I’ll ask my team, “You’ve brought me a problem. Why don’t you come up with two or three solutions, and present them to me. Then we can move forward.” (I don’t do this enough with my kids, but after writing this blog post, I think I will. They are old enough now to tackle advanced problem solving.)

I did not sign up in life to be a judge. Or a ref. I don’t want listen to both sides, and try to figure out what really happened. Instead, I want to be presented with ideas on how to solve the problem, not focus on the problem.

The ref was 100 percent right. It could have been a foul. But he didn’t see it that way and he called it like he saw it. The game had to move forward: next game, next play. Cultivate an attitude of bypassing the realities to the people involved in the conflict, and move forward to solving the problem.

Drop the rope

When do we give in to a power struggle and when do we hold our side of the rope taught?

I was in Florida over the holiday break and got a new phone. (Wow, why is that such a difficult process?)

The guy helping me started talking about his girlfriend. I asked, “How long have you been together?” He said, “Five years.” I responded, “Five years? Give that girl a ring.” (Why I say these things to people, I don’t know.)

He looked at me and said, “Did she send you in here?”

After we laughed, he said, “Listen, the minute I give her that ring, she wins. Right now, she’s on her best behavior. She makes dinner. But as soon as I give her that ring, that’s all over.”
Besides for saying to him, “Dude, do not marry this girl,” I also had one of those moments—why do we often see ourselves in a tug of war with those closest to us? Why do relationships feel like a power struggle?

Who is in charge?

In Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, one of the author’s friends says to her, “At the root of every conflict is the question: Who is in charge?”

I think about that jewel of wisdom constantly when I’m frustrated in a situation. These questions run through my head:
• Am I frustrated because I’m not in charge?
• Do I think I’m in charge and others aren’t listening to me, so I feel powerless?
• I am in charge: why am I resisting having my authority questioned?

I have this particular ‘tug of rope’ dynamic with one of my children. We’ll call that person “D” to protect their privacy.

D wants to be in charge. Clearly, I’m the mother. I should be in charge. (Complicating this is that I’m the youngest in my family, I was never in charge, and therefore, I yearn to rule over all seven kingdoms, all of the time.) When D and I argue, the mature part of my brain says, “This kid is arguing with you about which one of you in the boss. Drop the rope, Ahava. Drop it.”

But, I struggle. When is it the right call to drop the rope? Conversely, when is it important to dig in my heels? And when does it make sense to let D ‘win’ this one? If D wants to drive late at night and it’s unsafe, I hold my end of the rope tight. But if D wants to hang out with her friends instead of study, is that really my rope to tug?

Reframe the rope

One of the most humbling things about parenting and management is learning we are not in charge. Rather, parenting and management, when done successfully, is truly a partnership between the child and the parents, the employee and the manager. No one person holds the power. Instead, the power is shared.

We don’t drop the rope. We reframe the rope.

Think of the phrase, ‘help me help you’. This phrase is at the root of stopping the tug of war. We say to our children and our employees: How can we work together by you telling me what you need to feel powerful in this situation so we can both achieve our goals? Let’s have an honest, straightforward conversation about it.

I reframe with D: it’s unsafe to drive after midnight. Your safety is my responsibility. You may not like it, but I’m not budging on this decision. D, you should study now, but you’re old enough to make your own choices. If you are choosing to spend time with your friends instead of studying, you need to be prepared to own those consequences.

The rope connects us

When we reframe being in charge as helping the other person be the best that they can be, then the rope is what connects us, not what we’re trying to control. When you create a supportive and consistent environment with boundaries, for both children and employees, you’re sending clear messages that both of you are powerful in the roles you play.

Sometimes, the people you are with aren’t the people you want to be connected to at that moment. We don’t always choose our employees. We don’t always choose aspects of our children’s personalities. The rope is there and it’s real.

Instead of constantly pulling on it and meeting resistance, ask yourself, “Why am I pulling here? Am I just hurting myself by wasting exertion on this issue with this person? Or am I holding tight for the right reasons?” If the answer is yes, then keep holding. But if you keep feeling that tug and it’s getting harder and harder, it might be time to ask yourself, “Is it time to drop this rope?”

After all, if you really are in charge, then there is no power to take. There are just good choices to be made about the best form of guidance and support for that unique soul.

H/t to Lisa Himmelfarb for this idea.

The way it starts is the way it is

You can thank my friend Joel Tabin for this one.

This rule is true 90% of the time. It’s so true that it’s critical to remember when dealing with new events in your children’s lives as well as managing or hiring an employee.

Pay attention to the beginning; it’s the blueprint from which all else will follow. If someone is late to an interview, they’re going to be late to work. If a child is chronically disorganized in the first grade, chances are, unless you intervene, they’re going to be chronically disorganized throughout school. People are who they are. They don’t change until the pain of making bad choices leads them to want to change.

The beginning is the blueprint

I was once hiring a salesperson. (This has happened several times, unsuccessfully.) The guy in question seemed great (let’s call him Bill), but he didn’t seem hungry enough for the job. Bill said all the right things. But there was no…urgency to the process. And the number one thing salespeople are taught? Always be closing. He didn’t seem concerned enough to be closing the deal and getting the job offer.

For salespeople, competition is the electrical impulse that keeps their heart pumping. They want to win more than anything. If they aren’t hungry, then they probably aren’t born salespeople. And when you’re hiring a salesperson, you want someone whose energy screams salesperson.

But Bill was the last candidate standing and I had invested so much in the process, I felt like I had to hire him (This is called a sunk cost. It’s a bad idea to make a major decision on a sunk cost. More about that in a different post.)

How you know the future isn’t bright

On the day I wanted to make the offer, Bill was driving down to Florida with his kids and didn’t want to pull off the highway to take the phone call. And that was the Aha moment for me. He was about to get a job and he didn’t want to pull off the highway to take the phone call. That told me all I needed to know. If I offered him the job, Bill wasn’t going to pull off the highway to make a sale for my company either. And I needed someone who would have stopped the car to make a sale (like I have done. Many, many, many times).

I know you know how the story ends: An awkward conversation with Bill. But that’s okay. He didn’t have the right energy for me or my company. Letting him go would have been even more awkward.

Yellow flags turn red fast

Pay attention to all the clues in the beginning. If it starts weird, or is uncomfortable, or all these yellow flags pop up, PAY ATTENTION. Things can change, yes, but most of time, if it’s weird, it will stay weird.

Some of you are thinking: But I had first dates that were uncomfortable that turned into a lifelong partner. I had weird interviews that turned into great jobs. I had a colicky baby who became a sweet little girl.

But for all your stories, there are even more stories about how it just started great and continued to be easy, smooth and obvious. Even so, your stories still exist about how things can morph into something better.

So, yes, things can change. My point is to pay close attention to the beginning. Often, with the benefit of hindsight, you will see that you learned everything you needed to know about how things would progress from the beginning. So, watch that start. It will tell you most of what you need to know.