Friday, August 24, 2007

My failed attempt at a midlife crisis

I’ve been writing nonfiction books for a long time – and after 12 years and $1/2 million in gross sales, it finally dawned on me that something wasn’t right about it.

You see, since I make much of my living as a writer, the advances and royalties for each of my books have always gone into the general fund, to pay for things like heating bills, dental appointments and kitty litter. But one night, it struck me that while writing books was something I did in my quote-unquote spare time, I’ve never done anything substantial to reward myself for it.

So, I hatched a plot. The next time I got a contract for a book, I would get something I always wanted: a white Ford Mustang. Something where, every time I slipped behind the wheel, I would go, “ahh, I earned this by writing a great book”. Soon I was explaining to my spouse of nearly 30 years that since I already had a trophy wife, I needed this car to have a proper midlife crisis, and she enthusiastically agreed.

So over the past week, I got some great news: word of a two-book deal from Amacom for my latest projects, one a book of humorous business fables, and the other a new project on the psychology of giving people feedback (more about that later). After a suitable celebration, I did the math: after tithing to charity, taking care of the IRS, and doing something nice for my sweetie, I could afford a couple of years of payments on the car of my dreams. So off I went to the Ford dealer, with trade-in estimates, pricing figures, and a big smile on my face.

It turned out they had the perfect car for me: a white former rental, equipped exactly as I wanted, for a great price. So I got behind the wheel, took it on a test drive, and loved every minute of it, until it dawned on me: I was getting a headache.

I flashed back to two years ago, when I rented a Mustang convertible for my 50th birthday. I loved the car, but all that weekend I had an eyestrain headache from what I felt was a distorted windshield – so much so that I reported it as a defect when I returned to the rental counter. I was hoping this was just a problem with one car, but unfortunately not. Mustangs have very short, curved windshields, I am an old fogey who has astigmatism and wears bifocals, and for some reason the two of us don’t get along.

Not quite willing to give up, I decided to rent a Mustang for one last gasp to try to make it work. I would adjust my seat, wear different glasses, whatever. I *wanted* this car. When I shared this with the salesperson – a great guy at a great dealership – he checked with his management and graciously loaned me the car I was considering for the evening.

So off I drove, bound and determined. I raised my seat. I lowered my seat. I wore my old “driving glasses” without the bifocals. I tried to stare straight ahead and avoid the curved parts of the windshield. No use. Splitting headache. Finally I found something that sort of helped – looking off to the side periodically. But soon I discovered that (a) it’s a really, really good idea to look straight ahead while you are driving, and (b) now my neck was bothering me.

So, I lost this round. The midlife crisis will have to wait. But in the meantime, at least I’m getting the opportunity to publish a couple of really great books – stay tuned!

Monday, July 30, 2007


I have been doing some graduate work in psychology this year, and recently came across a term from the great existential psychologist R.D. Laing that explains more than half of what goes wrong with bad customer transactions, or bad human communications in general: mystification.

According to Laing, when people don’t want to answer something directly, they instead choose to mystify the other person: for example, when a child asks “What does Uncle Louie do, Dad?”, a parent may say something like, “Oh, he’s a second story man” and never actually answer the question – so that he doesn’t have to go into detail about how he can’t stand Uncle Louie.

I was reminded of Laing this morning when I called my local phone company. They recently offered to combine my wireless and regular phone bills, without telling me that between the size of the combined amount and their obstreperous policies, there was now NO grace period on paying my phone bill. (Not a good thing, as much as I travel, to come back from a two-week trip and find your phone has been disconnected.)

So I called the phone company and the conversation went something like this:

-I asked the agent why I suddenly had no grace period, and he explained that bills were due by their due date.
-I asked the agent again why I suddenly had no grace period, and he explained that I could contact them if I know my payment is going to be late.
-I asked the agent *again* why I suddenly had no grace period, and he explained how many days I had to pay after receiving a final disconnection notice.

See a pattern here? After about the fourth time around this merry-go-round, I responded with some choice things that you won’t find in most communications skills books, and then finally got escalated to a supervisor who straightened things out.

Sadly, this seems to be a trend among many people who work in my former profession of call centers, particularly with the rise of using scripted responses. But I will bet any amount of money that this phone company spent much more time on the phone with me than if they had just condescended to answer my question – and in fact, they came very close to losing a longtime customer.

So meanwhile, if you feel that answering-by-not-answering is a good strategy for you and your customer contact teams, I have one word for you: I am mystified.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bye-Bye, Mr. Imus

By now, everyone who has been within 50 feet of a television over the past month has heard the news about longtime radio personality Don Imus being fired after making a hurtful, racist remark about Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team. He paid a steep price for his actions, thanks in no small part to trashing a very classy group of young women at what should have been a special moment in their lives.

The Imus flap should have never, ever happened. But now that it did, perhaps some greater good can come from it, starting with what you and I watch and listen to every day.

Nearly a quarter century ago, the airwaves in major cities where I lived became increasingly dominated by “shock jocks” who built their reputations around a barrage of crude sexual, racial and ethnic jokes. As they made a career of dancing along the edge of the cliff, trying to push the boundaries of good taste, a few would inevitably fall off, often as a result of racial jibes similar to Imus’s. But for a far greater number of these people, their reward was fame and riches.

Fast forwarding to the present, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the airwaves are now dominated by rudeness and incivility, because it sells. We watch cable news hosts who berate and interrupt their guests, listen to radio personalities who make a career of chortling and demeaning everyone who disagrees with their narrow partisan viewpoints, and create bestselling authors from people whose sense of humor borders on hate speech. We eat it up, because it’s much more fun to watch a train wreck than the banality of positive human fellowship.

Most of us laugh, and cringe, and then laugh some more. And we keep watching, listening, and reading, because at some level they entertain us. But the darker issue is that they are also educating us. For example, if you look at the comments that people post on-line in public forums nowadays, this rude, dismissive view of people and their differences has become the new vox populi, and doesn’t show any sign of changing soon.

But now we have a real opportunity to change all of this. In the wake of the Imus affair, people are starting to pay more attention to how we treat our fellow human beings. There is a dialogue unfolding, even on some of the offending cable news shows, about what we can learn from a situation with such a clear and obvious bad guy. Perhaps most important, we learned that we all have real economic power to decide what stays on the air: Imus was ultimately fired because many of his advertisers abandoned ship, driven by pressure from people like you and me.

So let’s keep the momentum going. Stop seeking your entertainment from people who make a career of mocking and degrading other human beings. Start getting your news from objective sources. Hold advertisers accountable for the programs they sponsor. Then, perhaps someday, we can all thank Mr. Imus for galvanizing us to stop our media – and our society – from its current death spiral into partisanship and disrespect.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

How to tell people to go away - happy

On our way to Philadelphia this week, my wife and I stopped at a nice hotel en route to use their rest room – like we have done zillions of times before. Except this time, a snippy front desk clerk accosted us and said “Sorry, sir, our rest rooms are for hotel guests only.”

It is, of course, their God-given right to keep people off of their private property. And it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that other people’s misbehavior has probably led their management to crack down. (They are the first hotel after a l-o-n-g stretch of freeway.) But still, what do you think my wife’s reaction was? “How rude! I’ll never stay at this place again!”

My reaction was a little different, given my interests in communications skills. I was thinking, “She must have to say this to dozens of people a day, and I’ll bet a lot of them get upset with her. That must be no fun!”

So, how do you tell someone that they can no longer use your rest room, and still send them away happy? By acknowledging their needs and speaking to their interests. It’s part of what psychologists call “social cognition” – we quickly divide people into friends and foes, and when you avoid “foe” language, it becomes really hard for people to stay angry. No matter what you are telling them.

So here’s what I would say:

(Step 1: Acknowledge their needs) “I can help you find a public restroom.”
(Step 2: Speak to their interests) “Ours are reserved for hotel guests, but you can find a public one less than half a block away at the Exxon station. I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”

Does it feel natural to say things like this? No! It feels like wearing a t-shirt backwards, because our human nature is to protect ourselves and focus on what the other person “can’t” do. But when you learn and practice responses like these for your most challenging situations, everything changes between you and others.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Do you work in a negative workplace?

We all have our New Years resolutions. Mine is to keep learning, keep growing, and share new ways to help us all communicate better in the workplace - and that's where you folks come in. I'd like your opinions on one of the next major areas I'd like to address, beyond my firm's flagship customer skills and coaching programs.

As I travel around delivering organizational training, the single biggest complaint I hear from people - often whispered in private - is how much negativity and conflict there is in their workplaces. Whether it is between managers and staff, between different departments, or between individual co-workers, there is a great deal of stress and pain in the workplace.

What I also hear is that most traditional "Dealing with Negativity" training programs simply don't work. A staple of motivational speakers and local trainers, these programs generally exhort everyone to be nicer - and the people who need it the most generally roll their eyes and don't change anything.

I know there is a better way. We fundamentally get into conflicts because (a) we have different personalities with different expectations, and (b) we don't know how to communicate in ways that help us get more of what we want - and these are skills that everyone can learn. When I have personally helped "turn around" negative workplaces before, it has been less a matter of telling people to be less negative, and more one of teaching everyone how to communicate better.

I'm also torn about how to title such a program. No one wants to proudly hang a graduation certificate on their wall from a "Workplace Negativity" program - especially when what they have really learned are a new set of interpersonal and leadership skills. But using it in the program title certainly grabs people's attention and gets them saying "wow, we need that here".

So what kinds of negativity issues do you have at your workplace? If you were bringing me in to do a workshop with your team, what areas would you like to see people learn to change? And how would you title such a program? Let me know at rich at Thanks!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Last Word

Before humor columnist Art Buchwald passed away this week, he did something that was, well, pretty much in character for him. He recorded a video obituary for the New York Times, which starts off with a cheerful, “Hi, I’m Art Buchwald, and I just died.” (Click here to watch it.)

It turns out that this is actually part of a new trend at the Times, and in a CNN interview, the reporter who spoke with Buchwald also claims to have several other Last Word interviews “in the can”, with subjects ranging from a former President of the United States to a noted scientist.

It was fascinating to watch Buchwald’s video obituary, which in sum total was a touching retrospective of a life well lived – particularly for a man who overcame a tough childhood, a struggling early career and frequent bouts of depression to brighten our lives with his books and columns. But what stuck with me the most was his simple answer to the question, “How would you like to be remembered?” Without hesitation, he replied, “As someone who made people laugh.”

So how would I like to be remembered? If I were about to be run over by a beer truck tomorrow, I’d have to say as a loving husband, a good friend, and hopefully as someone who, in a small way, helped people communicate better in the workplace. But it struck me that I’d like to be able to say much more than that.

I’ve never particularly cared for fame, riches, or personal aggrandizement – none of which you can take with you anyway. It doesn’t really matter to me whether anyone remembers me by name (except my wife and family, of course!). But there is so much more to learn about how we communicate, and still so much pain in many of our daily working and living relationships, that I’d like to leave this all-too-short life leaving behind a bigger contribution than I have. So – thanks to you, Art – I realize that I have a lot more work to do, God willing.

So, what would your video obituary say? And how would you like to be remembered?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Higher education: the workplace of the future?

“Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” –attributed to Henry Kissenger

This quote was one of the favorite sayings of my late father, an academic who eventually rose through the ranks to become a university president. But looking back over the last few years, I’m not sure that the stakes are so low any more.

Because I live and work in the shadow of Cornell University, and began my own career as a campus service employee, I frequently get invited to work with teams of university employees all over the country, ranging from deans to dining workers – and looking back at training several thousand people on campuses over the past few years, I feel that in many cases they have become the prototype for the competitive workplace of the future.

The pressures on campuses nowadays are many, including competition for a declining percentage of college-age students, increasing financial constraints, and a world whose knowledge needs are growing by leaps and bounds. But what’s impressive – and exciting to me, as an organizational development person – is how many colleges are responding to these pressures. Many are now viewing students as customers, seeing the globe as their classroom, and shifting their focus from simply teaching subjects to developing young – and not-so-young – leaders. The end result is that on many college campuses, there has been more change in the last five years than in the fifty that preceded them.

What this means for me personally is that campus leaders are among the most open-minded and innovative management thinkers I have seen, and it has been a true pleasure to help them examine their core workplace values, change the way they manage and coach people, and develop service quality levels that would be the envy of most businesses. If you want to see what the workplace of the future will look like, most of us should – literally – go back to school.

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Special note for my friends in the health care profession here in upstate New York - I am leading a workshop just for you, entitled "Customer Survival Skills for Your Health Care Practice", at the Academy of Medicine in Rochester, NY on January 25. For details on this and other public seminars from yours truly, visit

Don't live in the Northeast? Not a problem! Contact me through the website above to learn more about how to bring my communications skills, coaching and workplace culture programs in-house to your team. Here's to a successful 2007 for you and your workplace!