You get 5 seconds to feel afraid

Every single one of us is terrified. We’re all going to make a choice to let the fear in, let it take over, let it do it’s thing, but only for five seconds. That’s all we’re going to give it.

I don’t know about you, but when I watch a TV show, I imagine myself inside of the action. I’ve jumped out of a plane like Sidney Bristow (Alias). I’ve manufactured blue meth in an underground lab (Breaking Bad). I’ve strutted down the streets of Manhattan in pink Christian Louboutins (Sex and the City). And I’ve been a plane crash survivor on an island with a mysterious monster (Lost).

Isn’t that the point of fantasy? It pulls us outside of our mundane; we play out a different role in an unfamiliar set of circumstances.

This ain’t no fantasy

We’re all living in a reality we never wanted or could have imagined (except for those of us training for this by reading post-apocalyptic fiction for the last 10 years). Covid-19, or coronavirus, has completely changed life as we know it and as we like it.

We’re all struggling. We’re terrified about our health and the health of our loved ones. We’re afraid for our economic well-being. We’re wondering how we’re going to pass the time inside of self-imposed quarantines. We’re also betting on whether we’ll have any Facebook friends at the end of this.

And if we’re parents and managers, it’s not our own health we need to shepherd. Our children, employees, direct reports, colleagues—everyone is counting on US.

How do we model mental health at this time?

All of the schedules, and family activities and walks, and puzzles and games, are inspired by a terrifying need: To hold on to anything that feels familiar or solid. Think of a boiling ocean and a tiny raft. You’re trying to keep your balance while other people are clinging to YOU. How could you not be nauseous and terrified?

Experience tells me you need to feel it

I once had a life-threatening illness (it’s a long story; I’ll tell you about it later). I was struggling to keep any positive energy and was falling apart about once every hour. I had two little girls (four and two) and I was losing my grip. Seriously. I felt like I was going insane.

I was talking to my sister and she said, “Remember that time in LOST when Jack tells Kate about a surgery he screwed up and how he managed his fear? He told her you have to count to five and then you have to keep going. You get to count to five every single time you’re overwhelmed, and then you have to keep doing what you’re doing. You get five seconds—one, two, three, four, five. And then you keep moving ahead.”

What Jack actually said was, “The terror was just so crazy. It was so real. I knew I had to deal with it. So I just made a choice. I let the fear in, let it take over, let it do it’s thing, but only for five seconds. That’s all I was going to give it.”

That’s all we’re going to give it. Then we’re going to count.

Jack says to Kate about his own terror during a surgery, “So I just made a choice. I let the fear in, let it take over, let it do it’s thing, but only for five seconds. That’s all I was going to give it.”

Falling apart is okay; limit it

It’s okay to fall apart. We’re all totally freaked out. This is uncharted territory. The terror is real.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, when the waves are crashing on you, when the ground is unsteady beneath your feet, you have five seconds. Count them—one, two, three, four, five. Then keep going. Because if you let your mental health fall apart, you can’t be the person that your employees and your children need to lean on in this tiny raft.

I hope you have what you need for physical comfort. I hope you’re not alone and you have people in your life who are asking how you are. I’m sure you’re checking in with them. Most importantly, check in with yourself. If you’re feeling IT, let it move through you. For five seconds. One, two, three, four, five.

We’re all counting together.

I had a hard week

How do you handle full on chaos in every part of your life and not go mad?

I didn’t post last week.

When someone asked me why, I said, “I didn’t feel like a good parent or a good boss.” And she said, “So write about that.”

While I was living in Manhattan, my cousin once told me, “You can have a great apartment, a great relationship or a great job, but you can’t have all three at the same time.” Nothing is truer about being a working parent. You can have it all. But you can’t hold it all at the same time. Inevitably, if things aren’t in crisis, they are in flux.

Why was my week hard? Well, all three children needed me in very different ways. I felt pulled to give them my full attention. At work, I was giving an important webinar and felt distracted by researching and delivering that information to my work community with excellence. (Irony: Webinar topic was how to create better healthcare content for moms and kids.)

To top it all off, a direct report was frustrated with the way I had communicated an assignment. I was annoyed at myself about it. On the inside, I felt spent, exhausted and hungry for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk.

What did I do?

(Spoiler alert: I did not eat the ice cream.)

Do you need to look back to move forward?

Instead of eating the ice cream, which would have been fine, but probably not solved my emotional turmoil, I looked behind me. Hard. I tried to figure out where I went wrong. I dissected conversations and events. During a walk in the woods yesterday with my husband (Go outside! You’ll feel so much better.) I said “I think it’s only valuable to look behind you if there are patterns. Sometimes there are just bad weeks. And I’m not really sure I could have done anything differently, because sometimes there’s only one way and that’s the hard way. It’s moving forward that I need to focus on now.”

So, it was a bad week. I wasn’t the greatest boss in the world. I wasn’t the greatest parent. But I did my best to show up as my best self. I spent time thinking about how to be better and decided not to sweat it so much. Sometimes, like an evil stork, all of the chaos shows up at your doorstep and you just need to deal.

I hope you have a great apartment, a great relationship and a great job. But if one of those things feels like it’s sinking, remember, you still have them. You just may not be able to hold all three right now. That’s okay. You’ll figure it out.

And if you want to eat ice cream, go ahead. It may be just what you need, right now.

You have no bargaining power unless you’re willing to walk away

If you’re not willing to walk away from a negotiation at work or in life, you’re not going to get at least a little of what you want. Standing firm and letting go are core actions when reaching an agreement.

A couple of years ago, my company pitched a big contract. And we really wanted it—for a lot of reasons. However, the client thought we were going to be able to complete the project in a ridiculous time frame. When my team huddled before the phone call to sort it out, I said to them, “I really want this contract. I know you do too. But we have no bargaining power unless we’re willing to walk away. And I’m letting you know, I’m willing to walk away from this one if they don’t agree to our timeline. I hope you’ll understand if I do.”

Burning emotional energy is a cost also

If we took this project with those kind of impossible timelines, we’d burn out our core team in no time at all. We’ve been there before and it isn’t fun. My experience was telling me that if the client couldn’t accept a more reasonable timeline, it wasn’t worth it for my team. We’re in business to make money. But, when you expend way too much emotional and psychic energy, no one ever makes enough money to compensate those losses. I was prepared to let it go.

Because of my willingness to walk away, I was clear about what we could and could not deliver on the phone call, and we came to a more reasonable agreement. But, because I was willing to let it go, it was easier for me to stand firm on my terms.

Why are you holding on so hard?

This is the truth about life. So often, too often, more often than we’d like to admit, we hold on too hard: to relationships, to jobs, to friends, to harmful emotional energy that leaves us wrecked. We let spouses, friends, teachers, colleagues, children, relatives—so many people—make us feel like we have to keep going in all types of situations.

But if you’re not willing to walk away, you’re not going to get at least a little of what you want. So try it the next time you have to negotiate. Feel the situation in your hand. Visualize what it would be like to let it slip away. And get ready to stand firm.

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.