Monday, August 30, 2010

How to stop criticism in its tracks

Are you constantly being criticized by people? Perhaps bosses, or spouses, or parents, or friends? And do you feel worn down by it?

Here is a neat little tool I recently developed for my therapy clients. It is a worksheet where you plug in the right words, and then watch the other person's criticism go down the drain. It is based on very powerful, evidence-based principles of strength-based communication.

It came into being when I would instruct people to "acknowledge" or "validate" the other person, and they had no idea how to go about it. So I would whip out a sheet of paper and write down a step-by-step procedure, and suddenly everything became clear. Try it yourself and let me know what you think!

The criticism-stopping worksheet

Step 1. Begin your response with, "Well, of course!"

Step 2. Describe the worst possible thing the other person might be imagining. Don't hold back!

Step 3. State your own case. Use facts, stay positive, and never, ever use the word "but."

Step 4. Ask "What do you think?"

Here are some examples of how it works:

Mom: What a stupid idea you have about majoring in acting!
College student: Well, of course! I'll bet you worry that I am going to end up a starving actor who hangs around your house drinking beer in my underwear until I'm 43. In reality, I am planning to see how I can use the acting skills I learn to succeed in business, while I try to build a career. What do you think?

Boyfriend: Sheesh – here you go with another crazy business idea!
Girlfriend: Well, of course! The last business I tried failed miserably, so you are probably worried that I am going to crash and burn again – and take our finances with it. Here is how I am planning to gradually bootstrap this business this time (...) What do you think?

Wife: You never pay attention to me. You are always in front of your computer.
Husband: Well, of course! You probably feel like I am married to my career instead of you these days. I have been pretty busy, but perhaps we should schedule a "date night" every week just for us. What do you think?

So what do you folks think? Welcome your comments!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Corporate communications: Talk to the hand

An old joke among my fellow engineers goes something like this: A man goes up in a hot air balloon on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Soon he gets caught in a big gust of wind and becomes completely lost. Seeing a person on the ground, he descends and calls out to her, "Where am I?" She responds, "You are in a hot air balloon." He replies, "You must be an engineer, because you just gave me an answer that is technically correct, but completely useless."

Now, here is my own hot air balloon story. Recently, an over-the-counter medication that my wife and I use regularly went completely AWOL. We could not find it in any store, and every major online retailer was mysteriously out of stock as well. But we hadn't heard anything about it being discontinued, so I e-mailed the company.

The response I received did note that "we are aware of the problem," but the rest of it was corporate twaddle about how they "appreciate the time I have taken to contact them" and "would be happy to assist me in the future." I will not reprint it here, to protect the guilty, but I will translate it into plain English: We are too stupid to know when, where, or if you can purchase our products, or to even acknowledge you directly.

Shortly before that, I called another large company after discovering the PFFFTTT of a broken inner seal on their orange juice. This time I was subjected to a lengthy interrogation – including being asked no less than three times if I really, really didn't have an alternate contact number – and was then ordered to keep the product in my refrigerator until I received a letter from them. This week I finally received the letter, which magnanimously informed me that I was now free to discard my own orange juice.

The lesson in both stories? Most organizations don't realize there is a simple way to turn their customers into raving fans, sitting right under their noses: change the scripts they use to deal with the public.

The word "script" strikes fear into the hearts of many customer advocates. But to me, there is great joy in good scripts. Back when I was director of customer services for a large NASDAQ software firm, great scripts that used people's names, paraphrased their concerns, and used solution-oriented language formed the bedrock upon which we built high service ratings and strong sales growth. Unfortunately, most organizations use robotic scripts that sound like they could care less, like the ones above.

Another important reason for good scripts: your own front line people. When someone like me, who is unfailingly polite, comes away feeling annoyed by transactions like these, I can just imagine how customers with lower EQs react. This is probably why your staff sound like robots who would rather be doing their taxes than working for you.

Let's close with a rare good example. A few months ago, some goof managed to hack my Apple iTunes account and charge themselves a gift certificate. When I finally figured out how to e-mail Apple (which is like trying to call the Pope), I received a response that began, " I understand you are concerned about purchases that were made with your iTunes Store account without your permission or knowledge. I realize how upsetting this can be for you. Thank you very much for reporting this to us." Wow. Perfect. And probably being cut-and-pasted just like all the other corporate responses I get. See what a difference the right words make?

(P.S. Shameless plug department: Do you want corporate communications that help your customers adore you, your employees love coming to work, and your sales go through the roof? Connect with me (gallagher -at- for a nice no-sales-pressure-whatsoever chat, anytime!)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Five Life Lessons I've Learned from My GPS

Last month, I finally joined the 21st century and purchased a GPS system for my iPhone. And now that I've been using it for a few weeks, I have discovered something amazing. It is not just a travel accessory – it has also become sort of a spiritual advisor.

Here are some of the life lessons I have learned from my GPS:

1) Slow down. Picture this. My wife and I are having a great time at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware last week on vacation. So great that we lose track of the time. And now here we are sitting in a traffic jam at the beach, 120 miles away from a Phillies game starting in less than two hours, for which I had $70 worth of tickets. So I drive like a maniac to get there, as my GPS continually updates our precise arrival time, and save ... a whole two minutes.

I am one of those type-A people who is constantly rushing through life. And what the GPS is telling me is that all that cortisol squirting through my bloodstream is really for naught. I may as well relax and enjoy myself more, because rushing the rhythm of life doesn't help me anywhere near as much as I thought.

2) Trust in a higher power. Years ago, getting somewhere required me to be in control of everything. I had to purchase maps, look up routes, get directions (yeah, I know, men never ask for directions...), and then keep track of the route along the way. But now, I have to put my trust in the GPS. I set a goal, it tells me only where to turn next, and I have to follow it.

In life in general, I also often feel that I have to be in control of everything. But I really am not. There is a saying that "man plans, God laughs," and I need to laugh along more. Life itself only gives us directions one turn at a time, and I am slowly learning to trust that each step will lead me to a good destination.

3) You get to do things over. What happen when I ignore the pleasant, detached voice of my GPS? It simply tells me what to do next. No criticism, no raised voice. It doesn't even tell me it is recalculating the route, like some models used to do. It just pleasantly tells me where I can turn next to get back on track.

So what would happen if every boss, every parent, and every spouse suddenly started acting like a GPS? Never criticizing, never saying "I told you so," just patiently telling the people they love how to get back on track again? I think the world would be a much better place.

4) Stay charged up. GPS systems need a lot of power, and I cannot use it for very long without plugging it in to be charged. This is a good reminder that I too need to stay "charged up" with good food, quality sleep, and positive people as I careen through one busy day after another.

5) Think big. What would you do if you knew that you could never get lost? That you could find your way out of any situation? That you couldn't fail? Would you take on bigger and better things than you are now?

Like most people, I used to have terrible stage fright. Nowadays I speak comfortably to audiences of hundreds of people all the time - and in fact, even one talk I gave to 5000 people felt like another day at the office. What changed? The simple belief that I cannot fail. Whatever happens on stage, living in the moment and not worrying seems to get me through it. And this is turning out to be a great perspective to have for just about everything in life.

So to my surprise, it turns out that I am getting directions from my GPS at several levels. Where is yours leading you?

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The real "Secret"

If you follow my blatherings on Facebook or my blog, you probably know that I am no slouch as an author nowadays. In recent years my books have been pretty successful on Amazon, nominated for major awards, published in several languages, yada, yada, yada.

Now, here is something you didn't know. I am only the second best writer in my household.

Here is why you don't know that. My darling wife writes jaw-dropping fiction. She has a talent for painting incredible landscapes of tortured psyches and the human condition. She could take a simple trip for pizza in a small rural town and turn it into an existential masterpiece. And her plots are intricate but refreshingly inventive. If you were to read one of her books you would be gripping the arms of your airplane seat, or staying up way too late turning the next page.

Except that she hasn't completed a book yet. Why? Because she never pictured herself as a successful author. She would say things like, "people say that we're all just mosquitoes in the middle of the ocean." And she turned messages like that into an unspoken belief that she was never good enough, so why bother. Which is why we average five published books apiece nowadays – ten for me and none for her.

Of course I love her madly, novel or no, so no pressure from my end – but with time and encouragement, she is finally starting to see the gifts that I have always seen. Today she is finally working in earnest to complete her first real novel project. It is going to be incredible, and what I have seen so far is incredible already. So stay tuned.

But this brings up another point for you – yes, you – to think about. The difference between Colleen and I is not our writing talents. (If it was, we would be living nicely off her royalty checks.) The difference is the mental images we hold of ourselves. I always saw myself as a successful published author, even 20 years ago when I was like Father Mackenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear. So I acted like a success, and made choices presuming that I would be one. And guess what happened?

So now, I look at all the other big goals in my life. Moving back to Ithaca in the 1990s, when we were tired of living in big cities. Escaping the corporate grind. Becoming a full-time writer and speaker. Each of these goals were things that I pictured clearly in my mind for a long time. Between that and studiously ignoring my friends' well-meaning "reality" ("Everyone starves in Ithaca." "You can't quit your job in a recession." "No one makes a living as a writer."), all of them came true.

This was true for much more than career goals. Like becoming a homeowner in the overheated Los Angeles housing market of the 1980s, when everything seemed out of reach, by being patient and finding the right condo and the right deal. And then there were more personal ones. Like when I dreamed at age 18 of meeting a soulmate, right down to the dark, curly hair and the wire-rimmed glasses – and how we met and fell in love soon after. Looking back on those days, Colleen surprised me recently by saying that before we met back then, she had imagined someone just like me as well.

The bestselling book "The Secret" talks about what they call the power of intention – you will attract what you think about, and the universe will align itself to provide it. For an Irish Catholic like me with an engineering degree, its premise is frankly a little too spooky, kooky, and get-rich-quick-y for my tastes. But here's where I think the real secret is: when you hold a goal clearly in your mind, universe or no, *you* will start making all those tiny, subconscious choices that will ultimately make your goals happen.

This isn't a new concept. I first read about it decades ago in the 1960s book Psycho-Cybernetics, where plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz talked about how you can put your subconscious mind to work on any goal you can imagine for yourself. And by golly, it seems to work pretty well for me. It is still in print after all these years, and I've just picked up a new copy to re-read. Maybe you should too?