Friday, August 27, 2010

Speak Easy Note #34 - What's a Brother (Mother) to Say?

Dear Wordsmith,

I have two older brothers who are happily married and I have six nephews and nieces. I have a third brother who is also older but only two years older than I am. He is 26. He and I have always been extremely close. There is something going on right now with him and his girlfriend that is really bothering me and I don’t know if I should say anything to him or his girlfriend about this. My mother and I have talked about this – just between us – and she has the same worries as I have so I’m writing to ask for advice for her too.

Our family is very close and we all spend time together almost every weekend in our old family lodge in the mountains. Everyone loves my brother’s girlfriend, especially my little nieces and nephews, and we all think of her as a member of our family. My brother and she have been together for more than two years and she is three years older than he is. What she doesn’t know is that my brother thinks of her as someone he is happy to hang out with now but that he doesn’t really see her as someone he ever wants to marry. I think she would be devastated if she knew this. My family is very open with each other and very respectful of each other’s privacy, lifestyles and choices.

My mother and I have talked about this and she, too, adores this girlfriend and feels protective of her. My mom is always there for each of us if we need her or want to talk about anything but she has never interfered with any of our lives or choices and only gives us her opinions if we ask for them. She and I both feel that the girlfriend is clueless about my brother’s “position” and we’re very worried about her getting badly hurt. My mother and I don’t know whether to say or do anything about this situation. They have become very close. I would say she is closer to my mom than either of my two sisters-in-law has ever been. I know this is hurting my mother so much.

Torn Brother (and Worried Mom)


Dear Torn and Worried,

This is really a tough one. The dynamics in your family sound wonderful. The mutual respect and wonderful closeness you have for each other is a rare and precious treasure to protect above all else. I would say that this family anchor must be the basis for whatever you and your mother decide to do and to say.

Before tackling your communication challenge, I want to point out that it’s extremely likely that on some level the girlfriend knows exactly where she stands with your brother even if neither of them has spoken about this specifically at all. She, herself, may have chosen never to raise this topic so she can avoid facing it. She and your brother are not children and, as protective as you and your mother feel of her, she is a consenting adult, making her own life decisions without being forced. If you knew that your brother had a drug problem or another secret girlfriend, you would have a very different communication dilemma to face.

I can’t tell you or your mother whether to say anything to your brother or to his girlfriend. That is a decision each of you must make for yourselves. What I can tell you are the elements that I see as most important to consider and include if you decide you want to approach either of them to speak about this.

Let’s start with your brother. It’s important to remove judgment and anger from whatever you say to him. You’ve described a protective feeling for the girlfriend that can easily translate into a judgmental attack on your brother’s actions and decisions. It sounds like early marriage is the traditional choice in your family. Your brother may feel differently about this. He certainly is making other choices at the moment.

People in our country are getting married for the first time at much later ages than in prior history.

“The median age for a man's first marriage was 27.7 years in 2007, up from 26.1 in 1990. The median age for a woman's first marriage was 26.0 years in 2007, up from 23.9 in 1990.”

Whatever you say to him, it’s very important that you and your mother refrain from saying anything that can come across like,
“I think what you’re doing is wrong.”

“I think you should ….”

“You are a bad person for ….”

It will be much better if you can make the premise of your communications focused on expressing your feelings about the situation:
“I want to describe the reactions and feelings I’m having …”

“I just want to let you know that I’m worried about …”

“It is hard for me to feel like ‘Her-Name’ has become a part of our family and at the same time know that you don’t want to marry her.”

It will also be beneficial to include loving, open-ended, (non-judgmental) inquiry such as:
“It would help tremendously to know more about how you see this.”

“What is it like for you knowing how much we love ‘Her-Name’ and feeling like you don’t want to marry her?”

“What are your feelings about ‘Her-Name’ getting hurt because you don’t want to marry her?”

If you or your mother decide to speak to the girlfriend to express your feelings and concerns, it's very important to let your brother know that you have decided to communicate your feelings to his girlfriend.

It may be that you can privately and individually express your feelings in a very simple and loving way to the girlfriend to reduce how torn and worried you both are without making an issue out of the problem you and your mother see so clearly. You can say something like:
Her-Name, I wanted to tell you how much I love you and how wonderful it is to have you share so much of our family time with us. Whatever the future holds for you and Brother/Son #3, I will always care about you and want to have the kind of closeness we have now. I care about your feelings very much and want your life to be all that you want it to be.”

Of course, if you say anything like this, it could open the door for her to ask if you have made this comment because you have an opinion about whether she and he will be married in the future. You can express your feelings then if you want to answer her honestly or you can say that you're very respectful of your brother’s (son’s) personal life and think this is a private subject between the two of them. If you do want to have a fuller conversation with her you can ask her if she wants to talk about what she's experiencing and feeling about all of this.

Listening and validating will be the main elements for a conversation with her.  Expressing your concern and care is the goal.  Avoid giving advice to her about any of this.  These are decisions for your brother (son) and his girlfriend to make and theirs alone.

The fact that you and your mom can talk about this with each other may be the best outcome altogether.  It may be that this is a situation that can take its course without your or your mother's participation; sometimes it's better to refrain from communicating. There's always an appropriate way to say everything.  Often when we hold things in that are bothering us, it can be damaging to ourselves and to our relationships.  So, deciding whether to speak about this is the first big decision.  The communication part will be much easier than the decision actually. 

SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success has many relevant sections for your current communication challenges. Chapter Three, “There’s a Good Way to Say Everything” will be especially helpful to you and your mother in deciding if, how and what to say about your family situation.

Happy end of summer!

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Friday, August 20, 2010

Speak Easy Note #33 - Refusing a Promotion Because of "The Jerk"

Dear Wordsmith,

I have been asked to take on a new responsibility at work that I am very wary of accepting for a variety of reasons:
#1 - This added responsibility will basically double my workload.
#2 - There has been zero mention of any salary increase for accepting this role.
#3 - The person I will be reporting to is known for her out-of-bounds control problem and has a reputation for imposing unsubstantiated views, implementing disorganized business practices and spreading blatant destructive lies.

If I could report to my current boss without any dotted line connection to this other manager; if I could hire an assistant to focus 100 % of his or her time on the new work and if I could get a substantial raise, I would agree to accept the new responsibility. Otherwise I am not at all willing to say yes. There is basically a big crisis that brought about this request. I am known as a loyal problem-solver who has a very dedicated team behind me. I think they really need me to save the day so I feel like I am in a position to ask for what I want. On-the-other-hand, I know it is a difficult timeframe in the job market right now so I am still hesitant to risk my job by refusing their request. One thing is for sure, there is absolutely no way I will agree to this if I have to report to “The Jerk” so please give me some good advice on how to negotiate well for myself and how to refuse altogether if I can’t get what I want. Oh, yes, I left out something important. Even though everyone in the company hates this woman, she basically has the company President totally wrapped around her little finger.

Pressured Loyal Manager

Dear Pressured,

This is quite a delicate crossroads you are facing. How you communicate will most likely be much more important than the actual content of your communications or decision you make. At the same time that you’re feeling a lot of pressure about how to respond to this request, you’re expressing tremendous clarity about exactly what you want to convey, what you want to do and what you will not do under any circumstances. Clarity is the key to good communication and to making the decisions that are right for you. Ambivalence can be the biggest obstacle to moving forward successfully and you have expressed zero ambivalence in what you have written. Bravo!

Let’s look at the elephant in the room in this situation. It’s obvious from what you’ve written that everyone knows how difficult "The Jerk" is to work with and work for. Most likely, no one will take her on or discuss this with the President. For many years, research has demonstrated that a rocky relationship with the boss and weak management are always among the top reasons cited for why people quit their jobs.

Here are just a couple of the many links to this type of researched data:

It sounds like there are key reasons you have been selected for this role that are separate from your professional expertise and experience. You are the “loyal problem-solver” and people like to work for you. It is quite likely that it’s because of your steadfastness, strong leadership and steady work ethic that you’ve been asked to take on this responsibility. You may be seen as THE person who can fix the “big crisis” while standing up to - and keeping people calm who work for - “The Jerk”.

Basically, you have already identified exactly what the main factors are that you want to communicate. You know the precise conditions that must be incorporated for you to be able to say yes. Here are three critical elements that will contribute to making your communications successful.

No matter how intimidating, discouraging, inappropriate or frustrating other people’s communications are, keep all of your own communications on an even keel. Let people know you have heard them. Acknowledge what others are saying. Leave out the “but” when you acknowledge what you have heard.

Speak to everyone with professionalism and as a respected equal.

The language you choose to present what is required for you to be able to accept this added workload is particularly important. You can remain clear and strong without stating demands. Avoid any comments that have these qualities to them:
“There is absolutely no way I would …”
"If you can't agree to ... , I will have no choice but to ..."
and choose instead comments that have this basic perspective:
“This is exactly how I can accomplish our required goals...”
“I will be able to do this if these important conditions are incorporated.”

The view you have on this right now feels like one of how daunting and impossible this situation seems to you. Your current perspectives of either “refusing and demanding” or “succumbing and giving in” are creating distortion and keeping you from seeing and experiencing the path to resolution. As soon as you can replace those perspectives with
“Here’s how we can meet this challenge successfully...”
you will be able to experience the situation differently and communicate effectively:
“The way to make this happen is…”
“What is required for success is …”
“Here are the exact components I require to do this the right way.”

Let’s take these three critical elements and apply them to
“If I could report to my current boss who I get along with so well without any dotted line connection to this other manager; if I could hire an assistant to focus 100 % of his or her time on the new work and if I could get a substantial raise, I would agree to accept the new responsibility."

“I am quite respectful of our current challenge and appreciate that you have chosen me to lead the way out of our demanding situation. I have given this careful thought and have defined what I see as necessary conditions to be able to achieve this as quickly and as successfully as possible. As I see it, these are the specific components required to do this the right way:
> Report to ( current boss) without dotted line connection to (other manager)
> Hire assistant to focus 100 % of his or her time on (new work )
> ##% increase in compensation to balance ##% increase in responsibility
> (And there may be other components that you did not include in your request.)"

There are many solid communication approaches that will increase the potential of a good outcome. You certainly may want to work closely with a coach to ensure your tone and message delivery match your intention and goals. If you convey that you’re angry or judgmental in any way, you will diminish your professionalism and weaken your positioning. If you decide that you can express what you want without a coach’s input, make sure you practice what you’re going to say with someone first who can give you objective confidential feedback on how you’re coming across.

Your strongest approach can be one of making this happen the right way. Ultimately, your final communication may end up being a well thought-out strategic refusal. The best we can ever be is when we are true to ourselves.

Once again, I am connecting your request with several sections of SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success. In particular, you might be most interested in Chapters 8, “Refusing the Right Way” and Chapter 11, “Getting What You Want”

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Speak Easy Note #32 - Managing Unexpected Feelings

Dear Wordsmith,

I have had a sudden unexpected reaction to an unfolding complicated family situation. My daughter has recently given birth to a precious baby son. I have been divorced from her father for over twenty years; he has been re-married for less than a year. Even though my daughter, her husband and the new baby live in the same town as my former husband and his new wife, our daughter wants to have the christening and a party here next spring in Maryland where she and her husband grew up and where many close friends and most of the extended family live. There will be a church christening and I would like for the party afterward to be in my home. I live in a renovated carriage house that is a wonderful space for large parties. I decided that I would like to ask my former husband and his new wife to host this party with me. My daughter is very happy about this. My daughter’s husband’s parents are no longer living.

I realize that this is a delicate situation since the second wife and I have never spoken to each other nor had any contact whatsoever. My daughter and I asked my former husband to discuss this possibility with his wife and she was surprisingly receptive. What never crossed my mind was that his wife would immediately begin to start planning and making arrangements for this party without my participation or involvement. I find myself full of strong reactions and unanticipated emotions. Please help me figure out how to communicate what I want to say and what I actually want to do about this. I would not want a party in my own home for the new baby to be planned and hosted by my former husband and his wife without having an equal footing. Thanks for giving thought to my situation and to providing ways for me to handle all of this. I realize that this is going to be very emotional no matter which decisions we make.

Emotionally Surprised Former Wife


Dear Surprised,

What a complex and layered situation. Let's see if we can examine some of these layers individually so that you can weigh what you want to say and do. My goal will be to provide objective perspective to what you have described. The key, of course, will be managing these unexpected and completely natural emotions through direct, open and authentic communication choices.

The good news is you have time to make adjustments in the interactions between you and wife #2 and to create mutually comfortable adaptations in how this event will be planned and orchestrated - and where it will take place.

I'd like to address the concept of “equal footing” with you. There really is no equal footing here. She is married to your former husband. You are not. You are the natural mother of the daughter. She is not. The party will take place in your home and your community, not hers, not theirs. So, you see, the most basic components that make up the foundation for this event are without equality or equal footing – as is almost everything in life. The ways in which we feel diminished by others or left out of certain equations can be particularly strong when it comes to family events in families where there is divorce. These are the times when we must come face-to face with our own sense of self-worth, with our comfort with who we are, and with our acceptance of our life choices. The stronger you feel about yourself and the stronger your relationship is with your daughter, the more easily you will be able to find acceptance in the dynamics and needs of the second wife, tolerance for the unfolding of the planning process and ease in communicating what you want to say.

As life’s milestones occur - marriages, births, special achievements, illnesses, deaths - there will be a variety of times when your path will cross with wife #2. If there is a way for you to find common ground for cordiality and for being together in a comfortable way, it would certainly be preferable to the zero-contact arrangement you have had up until now. What better time than planning a family celebration to forge a new dynamic. Opening the doors of communication to plan a party will be a worthy ambition.

The first step is to share the reactions you have had. It is important to feel legitimate about your feelings and express them without ultimatums like, “I won’t allow a party in my home if I’m not equally hosting and planning it.” Rather, by simply stating that you have had some unexpected reactions, you are starting the necessary communications to get to a new and better place. Without demands, you can state that it is important to you to contribute in a meaningful way to the planning and hosting of the party and you want to find the path to make that feel right for everyone.

If there were a simple way for you and wife #2 to be together with others present such as your former husband, your daughter and/or her husband, as an initial way to share time and begin conversation, this would be wonderful. If you could put a few ideas together that feel comfortable to you such as, “I would like to provide the flowers for this party.” “I would like to have my name included in the invitation.” “Here’s what is very important to me for the party to be in my home: …” One of the most important elements of these conversations will be to listen and then validate and acknowledge what she is saying. Letting her know you have heard what is important to her is very different from saying that you agree with her or that you are agreeing to do what she wants. And, of course, it is very important to make sure that the word, “but” does not follow those acknowledgments. “Let’s keep talking so that we can make this happen!” is the communication approach for these conversations.

Of course, there may be another element altogether. If either you are or she is unwilling or unable to “engage” with each other because of control issues, unmanageable emotions or lack of emotional stability altogether, then there may be little hope for a good outcome. If you see that you cannot come together to talk about and plan this event, the likelihood of a jointly hosted party may be nonexistent. And so you may want to make other decisions about the party’s location and/or who will be hosting it.

The opening three chapters of  SEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success  will be very helpful to you in bolstering your communications for this challenging timeframe and situation. Chapter 11, “Getting What You Want” may be particularly helpful as well.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Speak Easy Note #31 - The Trouble With Email

Dear Wordsmith,

I need your help. A good friend of mine is in declining health. She really can’t live alone anymore but she’s having a hard time facing that truth. She pretty much needs care round the clock and independent living is no longer an option. Her two sisters and one brother live in three different locations, each several hundred miles away. She has lived alone up until now and owns her home. The house is in severe disrepair because of her declining health and is basically under water because of the current real estate market and downturned economy. In addition to being her only remaining long-term friend, I have held Power of Attorney for her for several years and have always advised her in any way that I can, including assisting her to get services and disability support. Her family members have started to direct the situation from afar and want me to do all of the grunt work behind the scenes while they make sure the will and insurance are lined up well for each of them. They have all been extremely rude to me, with one of the sisters issuing instructions and proclamations via email. I have had it with her judgment, verbal abuse and disrespect. Because of her family, I recently decided that I can no longer hold Power of Attorney for my friend and I’ve stopped responding to the sister’s attacking emails altogether. The sister had wanted me to participate in a meeting they had scheduled with an attorney even though I’m sure they are well-aware that my views are radically different from all three of the siblings. I had no intention of attending that meeting and I let her know via email reply that the timing was wrong for me and I would not be able to attend. The response I got back from her attacking me for not being able to make time for the meeting was the last straw. There must be a better way to handle all of this but I feel unprepared and extremely uncomfortable about any further communication with these demanding and rude people.

Fed-Up Friend


Dear Fed-Up,

Your reaction to the rude communication of your friend’s sister is easily understandable. Your choice to avoid communication with this sister altogether is certainly one way of sending a message. There are some important ingredients that seem to be missing from your responses that may make a desired difference in this quite difficult communication challenge. It feels like the number one concern that you would want as your highest priority is your sick friend’s well- being and that the awful behavior of her family may be keeping that priority from staying in the number one position where you would want it to be. Also, since there are legal and financial issues involved here, it is especially tricky. You have already made a good decision to resolve one of those. Removing yourself from being Power of Attorney eliminates a good number of potential complications. As long as you are confident that your friend is being well-protected and well-taken care of without your having Power of Attorney for her, then your choice is a good one.

If you decide that you want to communicate further with the sister, I would recommend having direct communications by phone or in person if she is in town. It is possible that the sister will be equally rude and offensive via telephone or in person. The potential for this is low. People choose to be rude in writing in ways they would never be in a direct communication. Sometimes this is purposeful. Often it is not. People can be unaware of the impact of their style of writing. They become used to writing in a cryptic manner to manage their time. Additionally, email is often interpreted in ways that are extremely different from the writer’s intentions which is also true in verbal spoken communication. In email this can be exaggerated because there is no tone of voice at all and the reader can hear any tone that matches the reader’s perspective of the writer’s intended message. This can contribute to an escalation of negative communication interpretation on both sides.

Apart from rude and abusive communication which is never appropriate, desirable or warranted, there are still ways you may have contributed to the evolution of these communications. You say, “even though I’m sure they are well-aware that my views are radically different” (which is an assumption) without indicating that you stated clearly and specifically to the sister that out of respect you chose not to attend the meeting because you know how different your views are from theirs and you did not want either to refrain from expressing those views in the meeting or add to the difficulty of making decisions by expressing views that were so different from theirs. When you indicated that you would be unable to attend at that time, you actually opened the door for criticism and for attack. Whether or not the time of the meeting worked for you, you avoided saying clearly that you had decided that it was wrong for you to attend the meeting altogether and that you would not be there for that reason. The sister’s rudeness may certainly have been just as extreme following these amended communication suggestions but you would have been in a much stronger position and certainly would have been more authentic, communicating in a way that respectfully, directly and clearly stated your truth.

Avoiding communication because it is uncomfortable can weigh heavily over time. Initiating direct and respectful communication that clears the air and gives everyone the chance to speak and be heard can be extremely valuable and satisfying. There are certainly circumstances when it is better to avoid communication with certain individuals at all costs and where the cost/benefit ratio is simply not worth the effort. The fact that you requested help would be an indication that you want to be able to handle this situation or others like it differently. Working with a coach over time may be quite beneficial. It takes time and work to develop new communication skills and it is difficult to be objective about your own communications.

SPEAK EASY, The Communication Guide for Career and Life Success could be very helpful to you, particularly Chapter 8, “Refusing the Right Way”.

Until next time,
The Wordsmith