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.

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.

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.

Never run to a code

Once at a basketball game (yep, again), I was sitting with my friend Jennifer Offer, MD, watching both of our daughters playing.

At one point in the game, one of the girls on the other team got hurt. She was writhing on the court in pain, holding her leg. I watched Jenny very carefully. She’s a passionate pediatrician who has such a caring, generous heart. But she didn’t run to the injured player. Instead, she was on the balls of her feet, ready to jump, but she waited to go down to the court.

I kept muttering under my breath, “Ok Jenny go down, go down,” but instead, she watched as the girl’s coach helped her off the court limping. I said to Jenny, “Wow, I’ve never seen you wait to help a kid who is hurt.” Jenny turned to me and said, “That’s one of the first things they teach you when you’re an intern; never run to a code.”

Interfering in hurt is interfering in learning

So often, in both parenting and as managers, we want to run to a code. We know we’re in a position of authority to help, and for many of us, rescuing our kids and our employees is a way of life.

But it’s bad for us and them. Here’s why: They’ll never learn. Getting hurt and moving past the hurt results in building self-esteem and resiliency. You can’t learn to be a competent leader or adult if someone is always riding in to save the day. (Obviously if someone actually gets hurt, physically, then you may want to get involved. As my husband always says, “It’s all fun and games till someone gets hurt.” Then we peel our children off of each other.)

Push them forward, even when it hurts you

Never running to a code saves you. If you’re always racing to rescue, both employees and children become dependent on you. They’re always coming back to you to solve the challenge. And we don’t want them to come back (except for Thanksgiving.) It’s our job to push them forward. Just watch a mother bird.

Do what Jenny did. Take a few minutes, or days, or months to watch the result of your employees or your children being hit, psychologically. See if they can limp off the court, without your help. You may need to support them, but try not to solve it right away. That’s how they’ll learn to solve it on their own. Watch it carefully, gather information, but don’t feel the need to get involved until they ask.

And if they do ask, “What should I do?” the best reply is, “What do you think you should do?”

Always be hiring, always be firing

Recently I was talking to my friend Aaron who was lamenting the attitude of a manager he supervises. He said, “She complains that she doesn’t want a supervisor’s job. She says there’s too much hiring,” and I said to her, “As a manager, that’s your job—you should always be hiring and always be firing.”

When I shared that anecdote with some friends recently and told them I was going to include it in the book, they looked at me in horror. “How do you plan on firing your children, exactly, Ahava?” (You know, some days—just kidding.)

It’s not the actual hiring or firing as an activity in and of itself that I think is the point here. It’s the attitude Aaron is espousing, which comes down to:

  1. Understand the people in your life and the roles they play to support you
  2. Identify the people who are not supporting you in the ways that you need
  3. Lose the emotional vampires
  4. Get comfortable with the revolving door metaphor of life

While raising 2 teenage girls, I truly see this as excellent advice for life. Watching their different friends come and go, and how they get closer with some friends and pull away from others when things change is a sign of a healthy attitude and a growth mindset. Our own growth is predicated on how well we understand ourselves, as well as the impact others make on us.

When you understand that friends and colleagues and mentors and mentees come and go, you open up the emotional space to let others enter your life. While there is grief in losing close friends, employees and colleagues, that’s the reality of life.

Cultivating the attitude of “always be hiring, always be firing,” will get your teams and children attuned to the realities of relationships with others.

That was the best game I saw you play

My daughter Amaya and her team recently got completely killed by another girls’ basketball team. (In case you haven’t noticed, I spend a lot of time at team sports. What can I say? I’m a suburban mom.)

Her team, even though completely overwhelmed, fought valiantly, working together, boxing the other team out and relying on strong defense. But the other team was taller, stronger and better. So they lost—by a lot.

After the game, Amaya was expressing her frustration about her teammates and their defense, upset about her teams’ loss, and I said to her, “Amaya, that was the best game I’ve ever seen you guys play. You worked together, your defense was strong and you never, ever gave up. That’s beautiful basketball.”

Sometimes the game is rigged; sometimes other people are just better

It’s hard to accept in life: Sometimes we show up 100%, do our best, and the other person is still better. They win. And we don’t. And it hurts. It hurts a lot.

But one of the major themes of this blog is learning from our mistakes and failures, and picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off. Nancy Kerrigan, after being hit on the knee by Tonya Harding’s boyfriend, right before the 1994 Olympics, became a household name, and a worldwide superstar—because of that incident. She was signed by Reebok and featured in a commercial, where you hear her voice layered over scenes of her practicing and performing, “There is a voice. I know it well. It’s the voice of doubt that creeps in and doesn’t let go. If I’ve learned anything about getting stronger, getting more competitive, I’ve learned that you can listen to only one voice. The one that says, get up.”

When the going gets tough, the tough get going

And that is the lesson to Amaya and her teammates and to you, your employees and your children—it’s more that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. It’s that we fight through the hard times and we’re proud of our performance even when the chips are down.

Amaya and her team never gave up, never said, “Forget it—these girls are better and stronger. We’re just going to phone it in.” They worked hard to make the point spread respectable and more than that, they could be proud of the way they worked together.

When things are down—either in your family or at work—remind everyone that it’s our choices and our behaviors that define us. No matter what the circumstances. Let’s play the best basketball game we can, even when we know we’re going to lose.

You have to get off your ass to make a dollar

When my business first started to grow, I decided to enroll in a program run by the Entrepreneur’s Organization to learn how to run and build a business. At one of the first workshops I attended, the speaker informed the crowd that there was a dollar taped to the underside of one chair.

Everyone got up to find it, looking underneath their chairs, until one person exultantly cried out, “I got it.” After everyone sat back down, the speaker said, “I just taught you the most important lesson of entrepreneurship—you got get off of your ass to make a dollar.” We all laughed, but I never forgot that.

The key to success is really hard work. Unfortunately it’s hard to see that, especially in today’s day and age. In the era of reality TV stars and “overnight” success, we don’t see how hard someone worked to get to the level of success where they are widely recognized. But anyone who has ever achieved any level of success knows that hard work is key. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

When Taylor Swift released her album reputation, she shared videos of her songwriting process. It’s fascinating to watch how hard she works; how she spends hours on certain phrasings, and picking exactly the right words to fit in with the music. This is what people who work hard know—it takes time, energy and getting off your ass to create success.

Model this level of hard work for both your children and your staff. Talk about and stress the importance of hard work. Very often people don’t realize how long it takes to get good. But when you model your own hard work and you show people how other successful people worked hard, broke things down, took them step by step, you give your children and your staff more of an opportunity to understand how to maximize their own potential.

Recently, one of my children was lamenting that she wasn’t do as well academically as she’d like. I asked her how much time a night she spent reviewing her classes from that day. She immediately got it and started reviewing her flashcards the next day. If you aren’t willing to put in the effort, you’re not going to see the result. It’s just that simple.

If you aren’t willing to put in the effort, you’re not going to see the result. It’s just that simple.

I also remember I once had an employee who asked for a raise after a year, and also wanted a promotion. While she had done a good job, she hadn’t distinguished herself in any outstanding way. In fact, one of her arguments was that she had solved a situation she herself had created. I still shake my head when I think about it. Doing your job doesn’t deserve an exceptional reward. Being exceptional at your job is where you’ll find the promotion and the raise.

Doing your job doesn’t deserve an exceptional reward. Being exceptional at your job is where you’ll find the promotion and the raise.

So help your children and your employees understand that growth comes from putting your head down and getting the work DONE. Nothing impresses the people around you more than knowing you can make it happen.Suggest to your children and staff to read autobiographies of successful people, watch YouTube videos where people break down their creative process, and talk to other successful people they admire. Share your own experiences: They demonstrate how hard work, time, effort and commitment pay off.