Thursday, December 29, 2011

The self-employment quiz

I am very proud of having been successfully self-employed for nearly 15 years, covering most of my time since the mid-1990s. So as you could imagine, lots of people ask me for advice about starting their own business. I am always happy to oblige.  But people are often surprised that I don't focus on business plans, financing, competition, or anything like that.

To me, the mental game is much more important. Watching lots of other successful and less-than-successful entrepreneurs over time, the differences are crystal clear to me between those who succeed at this and those who don't. In fact, I could boil it down into a simple quiz. Try it yourself, and see how you do.

1. Can you name at least two people – real people you personally know – who make a good, full-time living at what you do?
People often think they have to pick something "unique" that no one else has done before. But the people I know who succeed generally pick things lots of people already pay for, and do it better than anyone else.

2. On a scale of 1-to-10, how good you are at what you plan to do?
If you aren't a nine or ten, please keep thinking. Employees can afford to be "good enough." But the most successful self-employed people I know completely blow their clients away with good service and great work, whether they mow lawns or speak to thousands.

3. What do other people say about working with you? Really?
Comparing two of my own areas of work, I often joke that I am more of a therapist for my writing clients than I am as a (real) therapist. Genuinely liking people, listening to them, and having a real interest in their lives, businesses and success is a common denominator among nearly every successful entrepreneur I know.

4. How do you react when something costs you time or money?
The single most important reason I have remained self-employed is one most people would never think of: I am always polite and professional when things go wrong.

Something amazing happens when you shift gears from a paycheck to a world of cash flow. People slow-roll your invoices. They wake up with "brilliant ideas" that force you to do their projects all over again. They cancel appointments at the last minute. They tell you for months that a contract is a "go," and then no it isn't.

Listen carefully: these things always happen when you are self-employed. If you react with anger, annoyance, or self-interest to them, you are finished. You can't play in our sandbox. You will silently get put on people's pain-in-the-ass list and never get called again, by them and all the people they talk to. And you will probably never even know what hit you.

For me personally? Had I succumbed to human nature when things went wrong, I would have lost the majority of my current clients. Simple as that.

5. Do you get along with your competitors?
Other people in my field are my best buddies. We celebrate each others' successes and learn from each other. And refer thousands of dollars worth of business to each other. Suppose someone wants a speaker on a date I'm not free, or a therapist who uses a different approach than mine? I send them to people I know and like.

Many would-be entrepreneurs view the world through a competitive lens. Ask yourself a simple question: do you want others in your field to tell people how great you are, or why they shouldn't work with you? Mindshare is everything in a small, connected world.

Did you notice something interesting about this quiz? Not a word about what kind of business you should be in. Because it doesn't matter. I see people succeed – and fail – in any kind of business you could imagine (as long as you re-read question number 1 about what people already pay for), and generally for exactly the same reasons.

Does this all sound pretty straightforward? Good. It should. But here is what amazes me: the (many) people who flunk this simple test nearly always fail, and those who pass it generally succeed – even in this economy. How do you score?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Collaboration versus competition: An interview with author Lynn Serafinn

Today I have the great pleasure of being the host on Day 4 of the Virtual Blog Tour of author Lynn Serafinn, whose book The 7 Graces of Marketing: How to heal humanity and the planet by changing the way we sell launches on Amazon on Tuesday, December 13, 2011.

First, a little about our guest. Lynn is the queen of mind-body-spirit books, and has probably helped launch more Amazon.com #1 bestsellers in this genre than anyone in history. And she is a great friend and colleague. Here is the official bio:

Lynn Serafinn, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach and teacher, marketer, social media expert, radio host, speaker and bestselling author. Her eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India. In her work as a promotional manager she has produced a long list of bestselling mind-body-spirit authors. Passionate about re-establishing our connection with the Earth, she supports the work of the Transition Town network in her hometown of Bedford, England.

Yesterday, Lynn visited Freya from BookBuzzr, where they talked about purpose and 7 Relationships/Sins in marketing. Today, I'd like to share a recent interview where I got to ask Lynn some questions on collaboration, getting started and her personal music career. I hope you enjoy it!

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Rich Gallagher: You and I have something in common: we don't see other people in our profession as competitors. But when I share this view with others, they often look at me like I have three heads. What would you say to convince others that collaboration beats competition?

Lynn Serafinn: I totally understand what you are saying, Rich. And I believe a lot of the reason why people look at folks like you and me as if we have three heads is because the whole “myth” of competition is something we have been fed since we were very young. I cannot count how many times my parents (especially my father) used to talk about competition as being “the” thing that makes the human race—and our economy—stronger. My dad used to cite the whole “survival of the fittest” argument, saying it was a scientific part of natural evolution. But what I found out when I started researching this book and speaking on the subject was that this was actually a common myth we in the Western world have embraced.

Speaking for myself, when I was growing up in the “Cold War” era, the argument for competition was actually part of the propaganda used to justify capitalism versus communism/socialism: We were told that if we didn’t have competing economies, everyone would become lazy and wouldn’t bother to work. Also, we were taught that competition was equivalent to economic freedom, when in truth these two things are very different. When we “fuse” together two ideas into one, that is neither one nor the other, it becomes what I refer to as a “collapsed belief”. And collapsed beliefs can be very dangerous, when they are used to sway public opinion. This whole notion of collapsed beliefs is something I return to again and again in the book.

While I’m not saying any “ism” is better than another (in fact, all “ism’s” become rigid and dysfunctional if they become a set of collapsed beliefs rather than dynamic systems that serve society), what I am saying is our belief in the value of competition is something many of us have passively accepted as an absolute truth over the past 100 years, when in fact it is something we have been taught through the “marketing” of politics and big businesses.

Ok, now, getting back to your question about what I would say to convince others that collaboration beats competition, here are some starting points. First, there have been many studies done that show that competition actually makes us less innovative, creative and daring in our work. A book I would cite that has loads of examples of this is Alfie Kohn’s book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, how we lose in our race to win. In that book, he cites numerous examples of how competition actually results in lower quality performance in everything from business to schoolchildren.

In my own experience as a career musician in the past, I have seen how competition can shut down creative expression, and limit the artist in just so many ways. In the natural world, although we have been led to believe that “evolution” means “survival of the fittest”, this is actually a belief that was created by 19th US and UK capitalists. In Nature, no such thing actually exists. Life is a permaculture—everything is interdependent. If we compete at the expense of others in our economy, we harm the whole economic organism of our society. This is really the main them of my entire book.

Rich Gallagher: The single biggest question I get from would-be entrepreneurs - and perhaps the greatest force pulling them toward old-school interruptive marketing - is "how do I get started in business?" How would you answer this?

Lynn Serafinn: My answer would be that if they really want to succeed in business, they need to shift away from a “hunter” to a “farmer” mentality. In other words, instead of focusing on making the quick “kill” (or sale), focus on planting seeds that will grow and generate seeds of their own. This is hard for new business owners, because it takes a lot of courage to survive through the first year or two of ANY business, during which time you quite likely to lose more money than you make. Surviving through that loss takes a lot of faith. Think of how seeds are when they are beneath the earth, but not yet sprouted. You don’t see that they are actually developing and growing because they are not visible to your eyes. But if you lose faith they will yield fruit, and as a result stop bothering to water them, they will die and you will indeed end up with nothing. That’s the point that so many new business owners end up going back to employment, giving up on their dreams.

Here’s a scenario I have seen again and again in clients, even those who have been in business for years: They start to panic when their business is struggling economically. And instead of thinking, “How can I be more innovative and adaptive, and create something that will take me forward?” they think, “How can I get out of this mess right away?” That is when they frequently resort to aggressive “interruptive” marketing strategies. But in my experience, while this might (not always!) bring some short-term results (like “the kill”), it frequently doesn’t align with the values, dreams and goals of the business owner, and hence there is a “disconnect” between the business owner, his business and his audience.

It helps to have a support network of colleagues who understand this kind of thinking. That’s one of the reasons why I am establishing a 7 Graces Global Community in 2012. I’ll be telling you more about that in the New Year, Rich.

Rich Gallagher: You start off your book with a great story about trying to make it in the music business (and many readers might not realize you once had a #1 trance hit). Ever dream of returning?

Lynn Serafinn: That’s such a funny question, Rich. Well, I have no dream of returning back to the electronic music scene (although psych-trance has still got to be my favourite kind of music). In the chapter on “Deadly Sin of Scarcity” in the book, you’ll also read about how electronic musicians so often get hooked on spending a lot to obtain all the latest equipment through very clever (and insidious) use of “perceived obsolescence” in marketing. That was a never-ending hamster wheel back when I was in the industry, and I never want to get on that ride again!

However, for some reason, I’ve been SINGING a lot lately. In fact, I can’t seem to stop singing. I was a singer for many years in my youth, and gave it up when I chose to focus on being a symphony violinist. But now my voice seems to want to wake up again. Symbolic? At age 57 (quite nearly…my birthday’s in January), I have no desire to start my career in music over yet again, but who knows? Maybe I’ll try out for the X-Factor, and show them how you can bring The Grace of Collaboration into a so-called competition.

(P.S. Rich here – I hope I'm not embarrassing Lynn, but here is a link to one of her trance hits on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsZnxQ63AqY. Enjoy!)

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I hope you enjoyed this interview with Lynn Serafinn, and that you’ll check out her book The 7 Graces of Marketing: How to heal humanity and the planet by changing the way we sell at http://the7gracesofmarketing.com/book-launch/pages/pre-launch.html.

I asked to join Lynn's blog tour because I truly feel this is one of the most important books I have read on marketing, and it resonates very strongly with my own philosophy. In closing, I want to share two very special events Lynn is planning for the launch of her book:

First is a free, no-purchase required telesummit happening from December 6-9, 2011, with a truly world-class lineup of bestselling authors, speakers, and media experts - some of the "all stars" include Escape from Cubicle Nation author Pam Slim, Dr. Joe Vitale, and even yours truly! Here is the link to register and receive a "launch reminder": http://the7gracesofmarketing.com/free-telesummit



Here's the spectacular list of guests speakers for this 7-part event:

Dr. Joe Vitale * Greg S. Reid * Dr. Eric Pearl * Dan Hollings * Pamela Slim * Liz Goodgold * Allison Maslan * Suzanne Falter*Barnes * Tad Hargrave * Misa Hopkins * Richard S. Gallagher * Ward Vandorpe * Barbara Altemus * Andrea Conway * Renee Baribeau * Renee Duran * Michael Drew * Chris Arnold * Jeffrey Van Dyk * Tanya Paluso * Kate Osborne * Shelagh Jones * Paula Tarrant * Lynn Serafinn

You can listen to this free telesummit online in the comfort of your own home, and even ask questions during the broadcast. If you are reading this after Dec 9th, 2011 you can still access the playback for a limited time when you register at http://the7gracesofmarketing.com/free-telesummit

Second is a set of great free gifts when you buy Lynn's book on its launch date of Tuesday December 13, 2011, including the MP3 download of all 10 hours of this historic telesummit, plus a complete library of beautiful personal development gifts from authors, speakers, coaches and other enlightened professionals from around the globe - including a free full-length book from me! To claim your FREE pass to the 7 Graces of Marketing Telesummit and read about the free gifts, go to:

http://the7gracesofmarketing.com/book-launch/pages/pre-launch.html

Thanks for reading! As usual, please feel free to share your comments and thoughts below. I love reading your feedback. AND… be sure to follow Lynn's next stop on the Virtual Blog Tour with Shelagh Jones, who will be podcasting her interview with Lynn. Here's the link. Enjoy!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Service metrics: Pushing the genie back in the bottle

Just got back from the Voice of the Customer conference in Boston this week. VOC is a retreat for customer service executives run by my good friend Phil Verghis and his colleagues Fred Van Bennekom and Jeffrey Tarter, better known jointly as The First Wednesday Group. It is always a great meeting, but this time it was more like a religious experience.

You see, for the first time in recorded history, a major company got on stage and announced something that I always predicted would never happen: they *stopped* measuring the performance of their customer support teams.

For decades, one of the biggest trends in customer service has been the ability to measure anything and everything. We can now easily know things like how many keystrokes per hour you type, how many questions you answer per day, how much you sell, how long you are in your seat … even how long you spend in the bathroom. Nowadays these “metrics” are part of the daily reality of nearly everyone who serves the public.

Metrics have become the darling of business thought leaders over the last decade. We now talk effortlessly about things like balanced scorecards, accountability, and maximizing customer value. Many people see our ability to measure everything as part of a revolution in productivity.

But in my view – and that of a small but growing fraternity of others in customer support – there is a dark side to metrics:

-People are often measured on so many different criteria that many constantly fail at something. And the stakes are often very high for failing – in his heyday, for example, people like GE’s Jack Welch used to recommend firing the “bottom 10%” every year, and the fall of Enron was a case study of a culture where people had to “make their numbers” or else.

-Even when people meet their metrics goals, they often feel constantly pushed in the back, in an environment where managers treat grown employees like children. Except that if real parents constantly measured how long their kids took to brush their teeth, eat their breakfast, or put on their pajamas, we would probably be calling social services.

-Worst of all, these metrics often destroy the very things they were designed to measure. Have you ever called for help and spoken with someone who pushed you off the phone with a bad answer, or refused to let you speak to someone more knowledgeable? They undoubtedly put their “first call resolution” numbers ahead of fixing your problem. Because you can’t fire them, but the bean-counters can and will.

To be fair, as an engineer by training, I am also a big numbers guy. Good metrics have at times helped me make positive changes in how I managed customer support teams. So with apologies to Caesar, I have always taken an approach of both praising and trying to bury metrics. In past writings, I often proposed a compromise: continue to measure things, but don't hold these numbers over people unless they vary far from your norms. To me, this reflected cold reality: how could you tell your management to stop measuring productivity, without them looking back at you like you had three heads?

So along comes my friend Phil Verghis, who consulted with this major company and took things a big step further: he told them that their metrics had to go, period. Don’t even measure them at all, because people will still find out about them. Instead, focus on the really important things – customer satisfaction, retention, costs, and sales – and get everyone behind them.

They bit. The metrics are gone. So are some of the “old guard” of micromanagers who wouldn’t change. The result? A substantial increase in productivity. (I don't have the exact number, which was shared verbally, but I believe it was on the order of 20-25%.) And more important, teams of employees who now feel they are part of something bigger than themselves.

So, are you feeling really brave? Stop measuring people. Today. And then watch what happens.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Horrid Picture: A new look at teambuilding

Just had a great speaking engagement yesterday, doing a workshop on customer skills here in Ithaca for my friends at the New York State Nursery and Landscaping Association and their annual conference. Afterward, they were gracious enough to invite me to their evening reception, where I saw a great example of teambuilding that I have never encountered before.

The highlight of the evening was an auction where members contributed their wares to raise money for the Association's work. (I was proud to see a signed copy of my own book What to Say to a Porcupine sell for a high bid of $100.) But they saved the best for last: the Horrid Picture auction.

As the name implied, the Horrid Picture was a truly horrid framed painting: a color-blind rendition of a rural landscape, with stars and a silhouette of a duck's head inexplicably floating in the upper left corner. And people weren't bidding to purchase it – they were bidding for the right to require another Association member to display this picture, where their employees and customers could see it, at their place of business for the next year. So one person would bid $100 to have it in Chuck's office, then another would raise the bid to $200 to have it put in Bud's office, and so forth.

Eventually the winning bid reached a thousand dollars, with groups of people teaming up to choose their favorite "victim." Which brings up something that sets this group apart from any other group I have met: how close are you really to your network of business colleagues? Do you know them well enough to force one of them to hang an ugly picture in their office – for a year – and do it with a smile?

As the auction was rolling along, one person after another was telling me what a tight-knit group this was. One large, successful business owner told me that he was always happy to give advice to new people getting into the business in his town, even though they would technically become his competitors. Another shared that he had been in the business for 50 years, and had more work than he could handle from word-of-mouth. Still another described himself as the "baby" of the group, with only 12 years under his belt.

So how about you and your colleagues: Do you support and learn from each other? Do you build and maintain a network that is profitable for everyone? Do these relationships and friendships stand the test of time? Could you put a horrid picture in one of their offices for a year?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Feel the fear and don't do it anyway

Hi there, all you people who write motivational articles about how to "go for it," "feel the fear and do it anyway," and "get out of your comfort zone." I really appreciate what you are trying to accomplish with these articles.

Now, respectfully, could you all please knock it off?

Over the last two and a half years, I have done a lot of work with people with anxiety disorders. These are not people with quote-unquote too much stress, but rather people who suffer from issues like fears, phobias, and compulsions. They can't board airplanes, drive over bridges, or stop washing their hands 50 times a day. And whether you know it or not, articles like yours are part of their problem.

Since early 2009 I have been running a group program called "Anxiety Camp," and to a man or woman, its participants all tell me the same thing: well-meaning friends and relatives have always pushed them to engage in "Nike therapy" about their fears (e.g. just do it). The results are always the same. At best they suck it up, muddle through fearful situations, and then feel no better the next time they face them. More often they freak out, have setbacks, and end up worse off than where they started. And then everyone assumes that the sufferer simply isn't trying hard enough.

In reality, trying hard *is* the problem. It goes against your neurobiology. Being afraid is a survival instinct that protects us, and when we try to short-circuit that instinct, our subconscious pushes back - hard. So how do you get well from anxiety disorders? In tiny baby steps. While paying a lot of attention to what you tell yourself. That way, you start re-programming your circuits about what is frightening to you, as you gradually expand your comfort zone.

You see, the suck-it-up types want you to face your fears by gritting your teeth, putting your head down, and enduring situations. At best, doing this simply distracts you and teaches you nothing. At worst, it sensitizes you to situations you really want to become *de*-sensitized to. I want you to learn to become fully present in feared situations. And that almost always requires experiencing them gradually.

To be fair, I do understand the value of these motivational articles. Sometimes people decide to make brave, fundamental moves that change their lives. They choose to take control instead of take cover. And sometimes it works. For example, the day I leaped without a net from corporate life into self-employment will always rank up there as one of the most life-affirming things I've ever done.

But that is not the same as dealing with the fears that, statistically, one in five of us struggle with. And when fearful people read these articles - or worse, are handed them by well-meaning others - they become disheartened. And worst of all, don't realize that from a clinical standpoint, these words are often leading them toward illness and not wellness.

Conversely, when people start taking tiny baby steps from within their comfort zone, magic often starts to happen. I've watched this happen over and over. Anxiety scores drop, limits start disappearing, and people develop a renewed sense of faith in themselves. So if you're fearful, remember: learn all you can about your fears. Take things one small step at a time. And stay far away from motivational speakers.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

My next book

I am very pleased to announce signing a contract with leading business publisher AMACOM Books, for what will be my ninth nationally-published book.

This project has a working title of What to Say in Your Very Worst Customer Situations. It will explore what people like hostage negotiators, crisis counselors, and psychotherapists can teach you about handling your most difficult situations. Best of all, you can become part of it! Stay tuned for social media opportunities from AMACOM and I to share your own very worst customer situations.

I am thrilled to be back with AMACOM again: for a customer service author, this is the business-book equivalent of signing with the Yankees. They have released three national number #1 customer service books in as many years, including my own What to Say to a Porcupine, as well as one of the best-selling customer service books of all time, Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service. Their stable of authors includes some of the top thought leaders in business today.

One milestone I am especially proud of is joining a very small fraternity (along productivity expert Brian Tracy and customer service guru Ron Zemke) to publish four books under their imprint. More important, I am happy to be back working with such great people.

This book will also have a worldwide platform – it will be available from McGraw-Hill outside the US, and AMACOM has always done a great job of foreign rights sales. (Porcupine was a top 10 customer service book around the world, and my AMACOM books have been published in six languages to date.)

A summary of the new book is listed below – pub date will be a little over a year from now. Can't wait that long? I've been speaking on the material in this book for quite a while now: contact me at www.pointofcontactgroup.com to learn more. See you on the bookshelves again soon!

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What to Say in Your Very Worst Customer Situations
by Richard S. Gallagher, MA MFT

Why do people struggle to give good service?

It is not because they don't care. It isn't because they need more smile training. And it's not because they need to work harder. It is because of FEAR.

They feel alone and vulnerable on a very public stage, worrying about when the next customer will leave them twisting in the wind. They have no idea how to handle other people's demands. They don't know how to negotiate productively. And they have no clue how to defuse someone else's anger.

Even though they wear name tags that say, "Hi, Can I Help You?", they are silently praying that your customers will go away with as little collateral damage as possible.

So how do you change this fear? By totally blowing it away. By teaching them the skills that hostage negotiators, crisis counselors, psychotherapists, and police officers use every day. Because when people learn how to handle their very worst customer situations, everything changes. And great things start happening to your service quality, morale, and turnover.

Author Rich Gallagher loves worst-case scenarios. He enjoys having people get angry with him about high-stakes situations in front of large audiences. A former customer service executive, practicing therapist, and author of the #1 customer service bestseller What to Say to a Porcupine, he has a track record of dramatically turning around the performance of customer contact operations, by teaching people what to say in their very worst customer situations. His new book will teach you:

• How to defuse anger and criticism by "leaning in" to it – with gusto!
• Avoiding well-intentioned "trigger phrases" that escalate a bad situation
• The secret to helping people feel heard in a crisis
• Using a "divide and conquer" approach to safely deliver bad news to anyone
• What to say when a situation is your fault – and when it isn't

Most of us think excellent customer service involves smiles, positive attitudes, and "magical moments." Yet none of these prepare you for what to say when someone experiences serious consequences that are totally your fault. Or a customer is so upset that he wants to sue you. Or someone says the wrong thing and a customer is in-your-face angry. These are the times when “magical moments” suddenly go out the window – and they eventually happen to all of us. That's where this book comes in.

Attitude and courtesy alone will not fix your most difficult customer situations. Specific communications skills will. What to Say in Your Very Worst Customer Situations will teach you the right words for any critical situation, in a powerful new book that will change everything about how you work with customers.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

What to say to someone at risk of suicide

By now, many of you have seen a news item that public speaker and social media expert Trey Pennington committed suicide this morning.

I did not know Trey personally. He was one of my earliest Twitter followers (one of over 100,000 people he followed). If you look at his Twitter feed, even just before he passed away, you will see someone who was incredibly upbeat, articulate, and giving to others. And perhaps today, someone who reminds us that depression and hopelessness can strike anyone – even someone with enough friends to fill a small city.

Which brings up something I strongly feel everyone should know, just like we learn first aid or CPR. Most of us have the best of intentions when someone in our life is depressed – but in reality, we have no clue what to say. So we say things that don't help – or make the other person feel worse – or worst of all, we say nothing at all. (As one example, most of the things we think will motivate or cheer on a depressed person do not actually help.)

In 2005, when I was a crisisline counselor, I penned an anonymous piece for the Ithaca Journal about what we are trained to say to people in crisis. (Crisisline counselors, while actively serving, remain anonymous in the community.) I personally did not know these skills until I was taught them. If everyone learned them – especially how to really listen, without giving advice or "fixing" the other person – it would have a real impact.

People may not realize that crisis counseling is incredibly effective. Informal studies have shown that people who call crisislines are much more likely to stay alive afterwards. So if you are hurting, please, please call 800-273-TALK from anywhere in the USA, 24 hours a day. Be safe and be well.

* * *

As a volunteer for Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service, I am fortunate to work alongside a great team of staff and volunteers. Together, we help over 10,000 callers a year from all walks of life - and while the calls themselves are anonymous and confidential, some of the life lessons they teach us are worth passing along to all of us.

First of all, you might think that the main function of an agency called Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service is to prevent people from committing suicide. Wrong. That happens to be the most critical thing we do, and we are highly trained for it. But what usually happens day in, day out, 24 hours a day on the SPCS Crisisline is something that is even more important: we show respect, dignity and understanding to a great many people who often experience none of these things in the rest of their life.

You see, the typical Crisisline caller isn't about to commit suicide. The typical caller may be a teenager whose parents constantly scream at him about his clothes, his tattoos and his attitude - but is feeling lonely and scared. Or a severely mentally ill person who is keenly aware of the strange looks she gets from passers-by, and feels ignored and rejected by her family, friends and caregivers. Or a retired professional who feels alone and useless, as his once-busy days now drag on endlessly. Or someone who feels compelled to cross-dress, or cut themselves, and feels out of control.

They could be any of literally thousands of people in this community who are hurting in ways that make them feel alone and different from the rest of us - and desperately need to talk with someone.

Here are some of the things that crisis counselors do when these people call the SPCS Crisisline:

Really listen. When someone has a problem, human nature is to give advice - or criticism. Crisis counselors never do either. Instead, they listen - and continually acknowledge the feelings of the person they are listening to. This creates a zone of acceptance where people can truly open up and start to examine and solve problems.

Check for safety. Many of us are afraid to say anything when we are worried someone might hurt or kill themselves - sometimes, tragically, until it is too late. Crisis counselors check with every person, on every call, to make sure they are safe. Never be afraid to ask frankly if someone has been considering suicide.

Focus on the present moment. Crisis counselors cannot cure mental illness, take away losses, or fix someone's life. What they can do, perhaps better than anyone, is look for the one most important thing bothering someone right now. These "focusing questions" help shift the dialog toward making small, positive steps - the act of which is very important in crisis.

Explore alternatives. The next step in someone's life might involve a community resource, like counseling or shelter. Or it might just involve discussing feelings and alternatives with an empathetic and non-judgmental person. Crisis counselors help people explore their options, and make choices that are best for them.

Establish a safety plan. Above all, if someone has expressed a risk of committing suicide, work with this person to develop a plan for what they will do when they are overwhelmed - who they will call, what health care providers will be contacted, where they will go. Then ask this person to contract with you to execute this safety plan - and call you, or a crisisline - before they decide to act on feelings of suicide.

If we each started treating the people in our lives like this - whether it is our spouses, our children, our co-workers, or even the person sitting next to you at the bus stop - the difference would be truly life-changing, for them and for us. And in some cases, perhaps life-saving.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Word pictures

I will never grow old as long as iTunes is around. This week, they just announced the pre-release of "The Beatles 1," a collection of each of their number 1 chart hits – the last of which was released over 40 years ago.

So what do the Beatles sound like to me? Of course, they sound like Buffalo, New York. Because as I was growing up in 1960s Buffalo, the Beatles and top 40 radio were the soundtrack to my life. So for me, the Beatles will always sound like my parents' Oldsmobile station wagon, football practice at Ellicott Creek Park, fish fry on Fridays from Brownraut's, Catholic school, and my first ride on a Boeing 707.

And Elvis Presley? Why, he sounds like China. When I took a sabbatical from my software job in the 1980s and taught at a Chinese university, soon after that country opened up to the West, my colleagues at Tianjin University taped my lectures – and tried to make me feel "at home" by playing elevator pop music beforehand. So one morning I popped out their tape, put in my own cassette of Heartbreak Hotel, and proceeded to teach them some American musical culture – explaining who Elvis was, and how he sang about things like going to a very bad hotel when your girl left you, gyrating my hips instructionally as everyone roared with laughter.

Of course, your Beatles and your Elvis are probably very different from mine. And that is the point. Words paint very different pictures for each of us. And we often get into trouble when we assume that our picture is the only possible one.

For example, when you say "productivity," your word picture might be one of helping people do their very best. My word picture might be of a slavedriver who burns people out. My view of "success" might be liberating, and your view of "success" might seem like a straightjacket of other people's expectations. Just because I am an adult, and like to read books, doesn't mean that I would want to visit an adult bookstore.

Of course, things get even worse when you turn to politics. I was a real American last time I checked my passport, but calling myself one would move my needle pretty far to the right. I might like the sound of being a non-conformist, but showing up in a gathering of them in my best suit – which certainly wouldn't conform – might not have the desired effect. Being in favor of speaking English can mean totally different things to your English teacher and the folks on the Arizona border. And, of course, when I grew up during the Cold War, living on a commune might have been fine, but being a aficionado of commune values – e.g. a commun-ist – often was not.

So how do you get around this problem? Discover what pictures the other person sees from your words. Take a genuine interest in how they see the world. Learn from them, rather than trying to "enlighten" them, and you will probably both be enlightened.

In the case of Elvis, my hosts eagerly wanted a copy of my music – which I agreed to, as long as they gave me a copy of their favorite music in return. What I got was a Chinese opera that was so sweet and poignant that it still brings a lump to my throat. And to this day, I still try to hear everyone else's music.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

I can't explain

This blog title was the name of a 1960s hit by The Who. It is also the key to using social media without turning into a boor. Let me, um, explain...

Say someone posts something. Someone else doesn't like it - and posts a comment saying so. Then the first person responds by explaining their position. The second person still doesn't like it. Invariably the first person usually keeps explaining, and explaining, and explaining some more.

Does it work? Never.

When people don't agree with you, online or in the real world, you can't explain. At least at first. If someone doesn't like your political position, explaining it further will not change their mind. If what you posted offended someone, explaining it will only make you sound defensive. And if someone is ranting, explaining your rational position usually leads to more ranting.

If you want to see an example of this in action, look no further than the comments section of just about any online news story. Some troll posts something that annoys people, someone else takes offense and responds, the troll responds with more trollishness, and they go back and forth at it until everyone is exhausted and gives up. Does anyone ever "see the light" in these discussions? Nope.

So how can you respond to someone else's negativity online? You really only have three choices:

1) Apologize. Apologizing when you offend someone does not diminish you. It enhances you. Unfortunately, most people react the opposite way because they do not get this.

2) Own your truth. If you firmly believe what you write, and someone else disagrees with you, don't try to convince them they are wrong – convince them how firmly you believe in yourself. There is all the difference in the world between "Here are X reasons why I am correct" versus "I respect your view. I see why you feel that way. And I have a different view."

3) Walk away. For example, lots of people post reviews of my books in places like Amazon.com. Most of them are just ducky. Recently, one wasn't very complimentary at all. My response? No response. First, I respect whatever the marketplace thinks of my wares – but more important, nothing I could possibly say would matter. So often, the best answer of all is the lack of one.

All of these revolve around the subtle difference between engaging people versus defending yourself. One approach works and the other doesn't. If you feel differently, you would have to somehow explain it to me. No, wait, scratch that.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

How to influence me

Do you ever have conversations like this? Someone asks what you think about their pet issue. Whatever it is. Then if you gently, politely, ever-so-slightly disagree with any part of it, the following happens: their eyes narrow into slits, they loudly repeat their views in a half-shout/half-hiss, or they ask you some pointed rhetorical question ("Well, that must mean you are one of them, right?")

Now, here is a pop quiz: What do you think of the other person's viewpoint after this exchange? Here are three choices:

a) You are suddenly transformed and now see the wisdom of the other person's argument.

b) You appreciate the chance for a frank exchange of ideas.

c) You are silently whispering to yourself, "OK, take three steps back from the crazy person and don't make any false moves..."

It isn't just individuals who fall prey to this. Try donating to a political party some time – any party – and then start reading the breathless letters they send you about those awful, horrible people on the other side who will stop at nothing to completely ruin life as we know it – unless you send us more money. (And obviously it doesn't work because next week, by golly, they are at it again.) I often wish we could lock the letter-writers from each of the major parties together in a room sometime and watch what happens.

Of course, unless you happen to drink their particular Kool-Aid, all of these people are about as persuasive as spam e-mail. And many of them don't even see that blurry line where their passion for a cause or an issue turns them into boors who can no longer discuss it rationally.

Most of us need to form opinions in our own time and space, and proselytizing scares us off. If you really want to influence me, learn to have a respectful two-way dialogue that understands other viewpoints, because that is the only way minds are ever really changed. Otherwise you will preach exclusively to your own choir, and your passion will be completely wasted.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

In my world, nothing ever goes wrong

Earlier this year, when I was commuting to Pennsylvania twice a week, I started listening to audio summaries of motivational books.

Normally I am not a big "motivational slogan" kind of guy. (Here is why.) But I did hear one quote that has stuck with me for months now. It comes from self-help author Dr. Wayne Dyer, who quoted someone as saying:

"In my world, nothing ever goes wrong."

In other words, everything is a learning experience. Our life is constructed around how we react to both the good and bad things, and these reactions – in and of themselves – are much more important than what actually happens.

This resonates with me. Much of my own happiness today rests in dealing with life as it is, and not just how I wish it was. I discovered over time that a cancelled flight, a delayed project, or even a personal struggle need not define my mood: we cannot control life events, but we can choose (with time and perspective) how we interpret many of these events. Everyone has ups and downs, but I look back on my life so far and see lots of lessons, none of them bad in the end.

Along the same lines, I recently heard some research that completely stunned me: people who win the lottery are generally no happier a year after they win – and people who become paraplegic are generally no *less* happy a year after their accident. So look at the people you know. The people who constantly bitched about life years ago are, by golly, still bitching now, right? And I'll bet the people with positive outlooks haven't changed much either. So guess who I choose to associate with?

Slogans have their limits, of course – I wouldn't try to tell someone who has just experienced a tragedy, for example, that nothing ever goes wrong. But for the most part, I feel that learning to accept things, overcome them, or let them point me in a new direction has a lot to do with why I am a pretty happy guy most of the time. Because in my world, nothing ever goes wrong. What do you folks think?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Someone stole my idea! No they didn't.

I just saw an interesting quote on Twitter today that stuck with me. It comes from Thomas Jefferson:

"An idea shared is still in your possession"

This reminded me of an interview I did a couple of years ago for Careerbuilder.com. They asked me and a panel of other experts what to do when a co-worker steals your idea. My answer made them practically choke on their lunch: congratulate them and encourage them to keep doing it!

Some people view ideas as a zero-sum game: the more they are shared, the less they benefit. If you are selling, say, the plans for building the Space Shuttle, this might even be correct. But for me, and for most people, it is the exact opposite. You *want* people to steal - in other words, spread - your ideas. And the more they do it, the merrier.

In my case, the more freely my ideas get spread around, the more profitable I am. In fact, since I tend to write books on just about everything I do, any chucklehead can go to Barnes and Noble, plunk down $20, and pick my brains clean. They can - and often do - create training programs around my content without my ever seeing another nickel. And I actually like it that way.

There are two reasons for this. First, who do you think hires me to speak, train, or license my content? Right. People who buy my books and watch my presentations. None of this good stuff would ever happen if they didn't (a) find me and (b) benefit from what they hear. So I always take my very best content and leave it all on the field. I even set up a YouTube channel with almost an hour of free content for people (right here).

But the second reason is perhaps even more important. Suppose I started the Gallagher Communication Skills Academy, with lots of promises about how successful you'll be, and offered bupkis until you were a paying customer. Or worse, held back my best stuff until you paid to join my "platinum circle." How many customers would I have? Years ago, lots of people sold this way. Nowadays, drowning in a world of free information on demand, it would be about as effective as drinking poison.

Same thing is true at your workplace. In a 35-year-plus career, I have never had a single idea "stolen" by my definition. I don't know about you, but I want my ideas discussed by as many others as possible, and people can take all the credit for them they want. So if someone goes to the boss first with something you've talked about, I really do think you should congratulate them! They are taking your ideas to higher places, and you want to encourage more of that. Spreading ideas far and wide - and cheering on those who do it - will almost always get you further than hoarding information.

Should you ever worry about people stealing your ideas? Sure, maybe, if they are the top-secret design to your next product or some such. But for the rest of us, I'd say let people steal away!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

How to shut down an argument - instantly

How would you like to banish 80% of the arguments in your life?

I am about to teach you a simple but powerful technique that will do exactly that. Something that almost no one ever does – but once you try it, you will find it positively liberating.

Picture someone criticizing you about something. Anything. Is there even the slightest shred of truth to what they are saying? Good! Now, here is what I want you to do: "lean in" to what they are saying, and acknowledge their criticism with as much gusto as possible.

Repeat after me: Wow. You're right, I really *am* that way. It's terrible. This must completely frustrate the heck out of you ... you get the idea.

This feels like bungee jumping naked off a bridge for most of us. We all have very strong survival instincts to lean away from criticism and defend ourselves. Which almost always makes the other person react with more anger. But when you lean in, something amazing happens. You short-circuit the other person's natural fight-or-flight reflex, and suddenly you are both talking rationally.

Here is an example: I train lots of hospitality professionals, and I often have them role-play the following scenario. A guest comes in to your hotel at 2 AM with a guaranteed reservation. You just gave away the last room. Now, the best you can do for them tonight is a room at the Dumpy Inn, 20 miles away.

At first, most people walk right into my trap: they are timid, euphemistic, and try their best to sugar coat the situation. They won't even mention the name Dumpy Inn. And it never works: the other person always reacts with rage and righteous indignation.

Then I coach people to deliver the bad news, and then lean right in: "Absolutely, you do have a guaranteed reservation, and you certainly weren't expecting to not have a room. You must be exhausted at this hour. We do have one option, but it isn't a great one. We can put you up tonight at the Dumpy Inn. It is 20 miles away, and it is pretty Dumpy. But I want to make sure you have a place to sleep until we can make things right for you tomorrow. And of course, tonight's stay is on us."

Surprisingly, most "angry" people respond rationally to this frank summary. They almost have to - you are using all their good lines first. And if they complain, I would lean right back into it. "Absolutely. This was totally our fault. I would be furious too!" Almost always, like magic, the other person calms down.

Just remember: the more gusto, the better. It feels like pouring gasoline on a fire at first, but it really works. Take the time last month that I was finishing graduate school and working full tilt, and never got around to clearing out some boxes in the den for my sweetie. What did I say as she stood there with her hands on her hips? "Of course, dear. I've been horrible. You've been expecting me to clean this for weeks. You must be really upset!"

Now, of course, I did also negotiate a firm date to clear out the boxes. (This is why I am a smart man who has managed to stay married for decades.) But my initial response totally sucked the heat out of the situation. And I've watched the same technique break through long-simmering conflicts, sometimes dramatically, when I have had family therapy clients try it.

Last point. Some of you might be thinking, "but can't I get in trouble by owning up to what I did wrong?" Ironically, you usually get in much less trouble. Even in the extreme. Here is what I find fascinating about the last decade's wave of corporate scandals, for example: the sentences handed out to the frank and remorseful, versus those who acted like conceited narcissists and deflected all blame. In my view, some people are literally doing years of extra prison time for the want of communications skills.

So next time someone starts shooting flames at you, try walking right into them – and then crank the heat even higher! You will be truly amazed at how much less criticism there is in your life.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The second half

I recently posted a picture on Facebook of all the books I have authored, ghostwritten, or contributed to. Including foreign and second editions, it comes to almost 30 books. And if I included the books I don't have copies of, or the technical publications I've contributed to, it would be nearly 50% larger.

In response, I got a nice compliment from a Facebook friend who is in her 30s. I replied by saying that her shelf would be even better someday. (And I wasn't just being nice: she is an incredible writer.) Which got me to thinking: I didn't even publish my first book until I was almost 40 years old.

In fact, almost everything I "do" nowadays, I started later in life. I was nearly 45 when I gave my first paid public speech, and nowadays I make much of my living from speaking. This year, at age 56, I just finished the graduate work to become a psychotherapist, as mentioned in another recent blog. And my interest in communications skills dates back to my first management position, nearly a decade into my original career as a software engineer.

Aside from the obvious lesson that it is never too late to start things, I've learned a more subtle lesson as well. Many of the biggest things in my life have been happy accidents where, at the right time, someone cheered me on. I would love to say that my success as a writer was planned ever since I was seven years old. In reality, I didn't have a clue early on that I would ever pursue this. After all, I was a "C" student in writing in college, and never published a thing in the first few decades of my life.

What changed was that in the 80s, my wife and I took a night-school writing course together in Los Angeles, and people told me – for the first time in my life – that I was good at it. From then on I thought of myself as a writer. Eventually the rest of my life became a process of learning, growing, and becoming all the things I thought of myself as. Or dreamed of being. I wish I had known that decades earlier – who knows what I might have done in all that time. But it is never too late.

I truly believe that no goal is too ridiculous to pursue if you want it badly enough. For example, I am thinking right now of an engineering classmate from my Cornell days. I have never met him, but every few months I would read in our alumni news how he had a day job as an engineer, and did standup comedy at night. Or public access television. Or acting. I used to think to myself, "how will he ever merge these different interests?" Here's how – he eventually became television's Bill Nye, The Science Guy.

So what new direction could you start, right now, for the next phase of your life? And more important, what kinds of well-placed encouragement might change the lives of people around you? I am far from through growing and changing, and so are you.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Rich Gallagher, MA MFT

A few years ago, as my writing and speaking career was starting to take off, I said to myself, "I make much of my living having people get angry with me in front of large audiences. Why not spend my off-hours putting myself in the middle of other people's family conflicts?"

So by the middle of 2005 I quietly started living a second life: first as a volunteer crisis counselor, then a 50-something graduate student in marriage and family therapy. And now I can finally say it: Rich Gallagher, MA, MFT. After four years of classes, term papers, and nearly 600 therapy sessions with clients, I have now finished the graduate work to become a psychotherapist.

This is not a career change. Rather, it gets added to the eclectic mix of things I do for a living. (More accurately, I will go from being an off-hours student to being an off-hours therapist.) And I had both practical and emotional reasons for doing this.

First, the practical ones. It adds depth to my "day job" of teaching workplace communications skills, many of which borrow from techniques used in psychotherapy. My most recent book How to Tell Anyone Anything, now a staple of my consulting work, was based in part on my graduate work - and my next book will be the first to have "MA, MFT" after my name. Another practical reason is transitioning to a retirement that is no longer that far away. I will never be happy sitting around watching daytime television, so I thoughtfully chose a new profession that I can practice for as long as I like.

But there are emotional reasons as well. Like the kid who dreams of being a fireman, I always wanted to be a therapist someday. Counseling people has attracted me ever since I was a young boy wanting to be a Catholic priest. For a number of reasons, some very personal, I ended up pursuing a technical career after college, but becoming a therapist later in life finally keeps a decades-old promise to myself.

Perhaps the biggest reason is that this stuff really helps. I ran several "Anxiety Camp" group programs where average participant anxiety scores consistently dropped by about 60%. I've had the pleasure of seeing relationships get closer, workplaces function better, and people work through grief or divorce to start living renewed lives. Therapy clients are generally very good people dealing with the life issues we all share, and it has been a pleasure to be at least a small part of their growth and healing.

Above all, it is a gift to enjoy something so much that the journey itself is worth it. Think, for example, of the person who loves horses so much that they don't mind cleaning the stables every night. This is exactly how I felt about the 14-hour counseling shifts, the crisis interventions, the housecalls all over rural northern Pennsylvania, and the 30-page papers. All a pleasure and all very much worth it.

I couldn't have done this without a lot of support from others, starting with my darling wife Colleen, my family, and my close friends, few of whom escaped being psychoanalyzed for my course assignments. Northcentral University made this all possible with a pioneering, fully accredited online MFT program for working adults. I was fortunate to be mentored by two of the nicest and most talented clinical supervisors, Wendy Hovey, LCSW at Guthrie Health and Kate Halliday LCSW. Even the IRS gets a tip of the hat: Thanks to tax deductions and spreading my expenses over time, I am graduating debt-free.

I also can never repay the friendship and practical help of the Ithaca Therapists Group, a digitally-linked community that was always there for me. Whether it was client referrals, hooking me up with supervision and clinical opportunities, coming to speak to my therapy groups, or simply encouraging and supporting me, I cannot thank its members enough (and won't forget to pass it on).

What happens from here? Hopefully lining up the two years of part-time supervised practice required for NYS licensing, and then getting my full LMFT license and hanging out my own shingle. But that's the fun part. From here, pretty much the only thing that stands between me and being a therapist is being a therapist. Thank you all for supporting me on this journey.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Goofy way to sell

Does this ever happen to you?

Someone wants you to buy their product. Or join their movement. Or whatever. You politely let them know that you aren't really interested. And then the following happens:

-They ask "why" and then try to overcome your objections
-They present facts that "prove" that you should be buying or doing what they want
-They feel your reticence is simply a result of your ignorance
-They act visibly unhappy with you, as though you were responsible for their emotional well-being

How well does this approach work? Well, suppose that a successful company like Disney decided to try it. You are at a travel agency planning your next family vacation, and someone dressed like Goofy comes up to you and has the following conversation:

Goofy: Ah, hy-uk, hi folks! Are you nice people planning a vacation?
You: Er ... yes
Goofy: Well, I've got a great idea. How about joining me at Disneyland?
You: We weren't really planning to go to California.
Goofy: Well, shucks, that's OK. You could go to Disney World in Florida. This is a nice time to go to Florida, isn't it?
You: But Disney is so expensive. To be honest, we just want to spend a long weekend visiting Aunt Matilda downstate.
Goofy: You know, lots of people say that. But they don't realize how much fun it is to go to Disney.
You: I don't really like the crowds and the lines. We just like to go off and spend time together as a family.
Goofy: You could go at off-peak hours and the lines aren't as bad. And Disney is a great place to be together as a family.
You: Look, we're really not interested.
Goofy: (hangs his dog head down and throws his arms down)

Now, quick question. If this was your experience every time you contacted Disney, how likely would you be to call Disney? And how often would you vacation there? If this was how Apple treated you inside their stores, how badly would you want that new iPod? Is this approach more effective than simply having a great product or service that people *want* to purchase?

So why is it that just about every contractor, retail store, and political party still treats me this way? Obviously they still feel it's an effective way to sell to people. As for me, I think it's pretty Goofy.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Go for it! Or not!

Near the beginning of the movie "Ice Age," a turtle decides to try an evolutionary experiment: he hurls himself off a cliff exclaiming, "I can fly-y-y," before landing with a resounding thud on the back of his shell.

I got thinking about that turtle yesterday while I was reading Seth Godin's new bestseller Poke the Box. It's a short book with an even shorter premise: start things. People who "poke the box" are people who go for it instead of waiting for permission.

It's a compelling argument. But then, a little later, I read a NY Times article about a 70 year old woman in California who continues to work because she has no savings, despite a long professional career. Why? According to her, she kept plowing her money into business ventures that never succeeded enough to sustain her today. Was she poking the box too?

Same thing is true in the job jungle. Godin makes a good case that being an instigator in the workplace is better than being a sheep. So why is it, when I look back over most places I've worked, that the foot soldiers generally have stable careers while many managers – e.g. the instigators and box-pokers – frequently get whacked? I've seen so many bright people lose their jobs as companies keep looking for better quarterly numbers, a "new direction," or the latest leadership flavor of the month.

It's an interesting juxtaposition. Poke or not poke? Lead or follow? Start or wait? Succeed big, or keep ending up like the turtle?

I think part of the answer lies in the difference between initiative and risk. Let's face it, stories about risk-takers are inspirational. They sell books. But most truly successful people I know are actually pretty risk-averse. They become really good at something, often over a period of years. They test the waters instead of just taking flying leaps. They poke the box when the time is right, but they also know the difference between being brave and stupid.

I also believe that poking the box isn't for everyone (and suspect that Seth agrees). There are lots of good people out there who would probably be better off being great followers than mediocre leaders. Pushing them otherwise would be like trying to start a rock group composed of people who hate rock and roll.

Still, Godin makes a good point, as he usually does. Now I feel like going out and poking a few boxes.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Tractor Supply Challenge

I will do almost anything to keep my wife happy. Which is why, although I've never quite seen the point of having live animals in a household, we have always had a male Siamese cat. And trust me, there are few relationships that are more codependent than Colleen and Simba.

Part of this codependency is that while I don't get fed fine steaks every night, Simba is treated to Royal Canin Siamese formula and Intense Beauty cat food. I mean, come on – when was the last time you saw special Tabby formula cat food? But my sweetie gladly pays a stiff premium to purchase exotic disco cat food for her exotic cat, who then turns around and bites her anyway.

So recently, I stopped by a local Tractor Supply store and purchased two 39-cent cans of their cat food – about 1/3 the cost of Intense Beauty – and proposed a challenge to my sweetie. Put out a plate of each brand, first thing in the morning, and see which one Simba liked better. She graciously agreed. So ... on the left is a can of Royal Canin Intense Beauty cat food, and on the right is Tractor Supply Paws & Claws Chicken flavor, replete with a cat smacking its lips.

Add one hungry, impatient cat and the challenge was on.

First he sniffed at the Intense Beauty, which was his usual fare.
Then he went over to the plate of Tractor Supply and started actually eating it, with gusto. Hah-hah! Victory was mine! 

But not so fast. After a couple of bites, he walked away ... came back ... and devoured every bite of his plate of Intense Beauty. And according to my sweetie, made a motion over the Tractor Supply as if to cover it up. I was so devastated that this next picture was even blurry, as my hands shook with despair.

So what did we prove? That Colleen was right, as usual. And that, as I should have known for the past few decades, being surrounded by beauty of both the human and animal variety can be expensive. But all things considered, it's worth it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

You're worth it

I just received a $425 bill in the mail today. And I couldn't be more delighted to pay it.

This bill is my annual membership in the National Speakers Association. It is a club you cannot get into unless you do a lot of paid professional speaking. Here in Ithaca, NY, for example, which is crawling with luminaries from Cornell and elsewhere, there are only three members. So for me it is both a great resource, and a celebration of getting to speak 40-50 times a year.

Which got me thinking about how you - and perhaps your business – value yourself. What makes *you* worth a premium price, one that people are more than happy to pay? Here are some things that can add to your own personal value:

Invest in yourself. What is the difference between me now versus then? First, a lot of work and study on my content and my platform skills. Years ago people gave me good ratings. Nowadays, in 2011, I regularly hear people say my workshops are the best they have ever attended. And I know I still have a lot more learning left to do.

Investing in your skills has two important benefits. The first is the obvious one: you hone the skills. But I think the second one is even more important: you start thinking of yourself as someone who is worth the investment.

Incidentally, they say you have really arrived as a speaker when you are interrupted by applause, and when you get standing ovations in the middle of your talks. I have never had either of these things happen yet. My mother, on the other hand – who is not a professional speaker – experienced both when she delivered a loving and humorous tribute to my late father, shortly after he died. So my next goal is to catch up to Mom someday.

Look at what you give instead of what you get. A lot of beginning speakers will ask "what can I charge?" I ask myself "what will my audience take away?" When I step on a stage nowadays, I *know* I am going to create an "a-ha" moment that changes the way people communicate.

Value goes beyond your products or services, into who you are. I would stand on my head to give my clients a great experience. I will come early, stay late, customize my material, meet and greet people, have breakout sessions, or practically get them coffee if they want. This may be why a lot of my livelihood comes from customer relationships, not just customers.

So take the question of what you are worth, and turn it into one of how much value you can give. And realize that this value could be much higher than you think.

Think about what the other person values. I am not just happy to pay a $425 bill. Years ago, I was delighted to have to suddenly pay a five-figure sum. You see, my wife was in a serious automobile accident, running full-speed into the back of a stopped truck. She hit it with such force that its tailgate ended up inside her passenger compartment, totaling the car, but still walked away from the accident.

I could not have been happier to purchase her a new car with every airbag imaginable. Cars are relatively easy to replace; wives and soulmates, not so much. So I was and still am incredibly thankful for the privilege of writing that big check.

Bringing this around to your business, there is often a lot of *relative* value in what most of us do. Think about what people want, need, and value. Think about where their "points of pain" are. What can you do to ease that pain, and what is it worth to these people?

I once read about a dog trainer who practically couldn't get arrested – until she changed her focus on teaching people how to avoid dog attacks. Suddenly mail carriers, meter readers, and others flocked to her seminars. Likewise, I don't have a lot of flashy new speaking ideas. I simply teach people how to communicate in their most difficult situations, with customers and each other, and make a nice living from the relative value of these skills.

So what are you worth? The answer is simple: not a penny more than you think you are. So start valuing yourself, with all the potential that you have inside, and then go out and share that value with others. For me, this has always been the true key to a nice life.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Anatomy of a bad apology

Some of you may have seen a news story last week about John O'Connor – a college basketball coach who was caught on videotape knocking over one of his players in practice, kicking him when he didn't get up, and then yelling, "Got a little blood on ya? Good!"

This incident made the news after the player filed a police report, and kicked off a national debate about tough versus abusive coaching. It eventually culminated in a tense meeting between player and coach on the television show Good Morning America, during which the player would not accept the coach's apology. Soon afterward, the coach resigned his position.

After reviewing a video of the show, I feel this incident has an important lesson for all of us – but not the one you might think. I feel that in this case, the coach did not lose his job over a shove on the basketball court. He lost it over a stupendously bad apology.

Apologies are a tightly scripted dance where every word has to work. They are one form of communication where 99% often isn't good enough: like O'Connor's game of basketball, the momentum of the game can turn on you in a heartbeat, and the wrong words can easily backfire. So in that spirit, I would like to respectfully break down how the player probably heard O'Connor's words.

"This was an accident": Here, the coach is blaming circumstances rather than himself, and saying it wasn't really his fault. Statements like these are like throwing chum into shark-infested waters.

"I was just trying to make us a better team and make us more competitive": This is the dreaded rationale statement, where he thinks the right reasons will somehow make things OK. But the listener doesn't care. Instead of taking ownership, these "reasons" make him sound entitled and defensive.

"It was unintentional by me": He may think he is saying he had no malice of forethought. Instead, it sounds like he had no control over what happened, and for that matter, it could jolly well happen again.

"I'm really sorry that it happened": Oops. This is the classic "I'm sorry but not responsible" statement. Instead of talking about what *he* shouldn't have done, he wishes that "it" hadn't happened.

So let's replay this apology as the player probably heard it: "I wasn't responsible for what happened. I have no clue how I could have avoided it. Besides, I had good reasons for it. So it's too bad it happened." Breaking down the linguistics, I frankly don't think the player had much choice in turning it down, especially in front of an audience.

Even worse, when GMA host George Stephanopoulos asked coach O'Connor whether his behavior was over the line, he hemmed, hawed, and insisted it was an "accident." Linguistically, game, set, and match went to the player at that point.

Now let's try a real apology that steps up and takes ownership, validates the injured party, and expresses remorse and restitution: "Matt, I crossed a line last week. I tried to be competitive after a tough loss and took it much too far. In the process I embarrassed you, me, and our school. I acted like a bully, and I don't blame you for reacting the way you did. You are a good player, and this shouldn't have happened to you. I apologize for what I did; more important, I want to promise you that I have learned from it, and that it will never happen again. I hope you will give our coaching relationship another chance from here."

If the coach had chosen the right words, I feel his player would have been much more likely to accept his apology; in fact, he might have seemed petty not to. And the coach – who had the support of much of his team after the incident – would probably still have his job and his dignity intact.

If this subject interests you, check out a truly incredible book: Effective Apology by John Kador. It breaks down the mechanics of good versus bad apologies – and in the process, will teach you how to have grace and power in your most challenging situations. Like sinking a clutch 3-pointer, I hope this coach can eventually learn to use the power of words better, and move forward from this incident.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Direct e-mail: Lessons from the slush pile

It wasn't that long ago that permission-based e-mail marketing became all the rage. But now, after a few years of responding to free offers, book bonuses, and the like, I get a billion jillion e-mails from people. And you probably do too.

Like many people, I sign up with a specific e-mail address reserved for this kind of stuff. I check it every couple of months or so, open a few of them, and do a mass delete for the rest. And it fascinates me to see which ones I do and don't open out of the hundreds that are waiting for me.

Let's start with the ones I never open:

False urgency: If you use capital letters, exclamation points, or time limits, I will never ever click your message. For exactly the same reason I don't hang out with people who shout in my ear. Messages like "Rich, will I see you TODAY?" and "You HAVE to check this offer out" all go through the trap door immediately.

False intimacy: I realize you have my name. I gave it to you when I signed up for your list. But that doesn't mean splattering it all over your subject lines is going to impress me. "Rich, get my e-mail about tomorrow?" "What's your plan for 2011, Rich?" Look, we haven't even met, and here you go asking me all these personal questions.

It is even worse, of course, when you use the name from my credit card order. The only time I am ever called "Richard" is when my wife is mad at me about something.

Guessing games: I really don't have time to play "ha-ha, made you look!" So if you have cute e-mail titles like "Read this fast, Rich" (there you go with the "Rich" again ...) or "I'm totally convinced," you have to get in line behind a few hundred other e-mails that are willing to tell me what they are talking about.

Now let's look at the lucky few e-mails I do open:

You offer me something of value: One e-mail I did open had a subject line of "Want to meet Zig Ziglar?" Yes, I would. He is a legend, and being in his 80s, who knows how much longer he'll be working the speaking circuit. The workshop was too far away and too expensive for me, but at least I did click through a couple of levels to explore it. You offered me something cool and very specific, and I checked it out.

I like you: For example, I recently connected with a fellow speaker on Facebook named Al Borowski, based in my former hometown of Pittsburgh. I really liked his schtick, and his messages are pretty high-content, so I'm happy to see what new things he has to say in his e-mails.

You have a track record: My good friend and colleague Carolyn Healey, publisher of customer support industry portal site SupportIndustry.com, has an incredible radar for high-content articles on trends in the industry. Her content helps my business, so I have always read her weekly newsletter cover to cover (and still do). That's why her stuff gets delivered to my personal e-mail, not my "slush" e-mail.

It is tougher than ever to get your message through in today's ultra-high-bandwidth environment. To sum up what works for me: Offer value. Be likeable. Be genuine. Be specific. Amp down the urgency. And please don't call me Richard.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The best book ever on entrepreneurship

There are lots of books out there on starting your own business. Most of them are bubbly, optimistic - and ultimately pointless. Finally, one has come along that really gives you the straight scoop on starting and running a successful business.

My good friend Carol Roth is no wannabe entrepreneur consultant. She has helped businesses raise over a billion dollars in capital, shows up regularly on cable news channels like MSNBC and Fox Business, and has reviewed over 1000 business plans for clients. She will soon be featured in a new cable reality show on business startups. Above all she is smart, funny, and takes no prisoners.

Her new book The Entrepreneur Equation isn't a warm, fuzzy tome on the joys of entrepreneurship. Instead, she breaks down the hard truths of starting your business: the capital you will need, the hours you will have to put in, the personal strengths it requires, and the realities of starting up in what she describes as the worst competitive environment ever. And you will be laughing as you read every page. Carol, who fashions herself in the book's introduction as Lucy Van Pelt from the comic strip Peanuts, combines a caustic wit with a razor-sharp insight on what makes successful businesses tick.

But don't think this book is simply a needed dose of castor oil. More accurately, it is - as she describes it - a screening interview that will make sure you succeed. Her own proprietary consulting formula, which goes by the acronym FIRED-UP (Finances, Inspiration, Reponsibilities, Experience, Dedication, and Unbridled Passion), boils the mechanics of starting a business into the basics everyone really should be thinking of: Do I have the drive, the capital, the experience, the crazyness to pull this off? No bland chapters on how to write your business plan here.

As I was talking with Carol a few weeks ago about this book launch, it got me thinking about my own business startup. I've been on my own for the better part of 15 years, and make a very nice living writing for people and being a public speaker. And everything she says really resonates with me and my own situation. I started with enough capital, I knew my market, knew what I was doing, and was very good at it. But above all, I was and still am crazy. I can stay up to 5 AM finishing one client, and then get up at 5 AM for another. I can get off the phone after losing a lucrative five-year contract bid, shrug, and get back to work. (And react much the same way after winning a similar one last year.) I keep learning and re-inventing myself. All because I know how badly the guy on the other side of the mirror wants to live the life I lead.

But back to Carol. This is the launch week for her book, and I am honored to be a part of it. If you buy her new book this week through her web site here, you will get some great bonuses, ranging from video media coaching to a chance to win a free coaching session from me - or, better yet, her. Purchase multiple copies, and you will even get a realistic Carol Roth doll made by a major toymaker (and one of her clients), the only business author I've ever seen with her own action figure.

In closing, don't just take my word for Carol's fresh approach to starting a business - watch this video and you will see exactly what I mean. And then go buy her book. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The storyteller

I was back this week doing some training for my good friends at Colgate University, one of the most mission-driven organizations I have worked with. They see their role as not just being an elite liberal-arts school (and having a great football team), but creating experiences in and out of the classroom that help students develop as leaders.

It was in this context that I was fascinated by this mural, which graced the wall above me as I led a workshop at their campus multicultural center. It appears to be a storyteller ("naw, it's a shaman" remarked my sweetie ...), bathed in light, with people gathered around him. In the far background, people are dancing.

What are the things you do best? What are you proudest of? What is the North Star that you move toward in life? I will bet these all revolve around things you were *taught*. Things you never knew before that captured your imagination, gave you new skills and powers, and perhaps even changed the direction of your life. Things that helped you learn to dance your own unique dance.

Storytellers have had a huge influence in my life. For example, I struggled in school when I was a child, actually getting put in a special private school by the time I was seven years old. (I'll bet I am the only Ivy League graduate you know who flunked third grade.) So what was different there? For one thing, they assigned me a "math nun" who taught me college-level matrix algebra in fourth grade – and then had me teach it to the fifth grade students.

The simple act of teaching me a skill that few people knew – and then giving me a chance to show people I was great, not just bad – was life-changing for me. I later earned an engineering degree from Cornell and actually made a career of using matrix algebra for many years. In fact, those who know me as a communications skills author often have no idea that my first book was actually a book on 3D computer graphics that is knee-deep in matrix equations.

I have seen the same thing happen many times in other people's lives. The young person in trouble who discovers great skills in culinary school, and jumps from the fire into the frying pan. The person struggling with their job or their attitude, until someone takes them aside and says, "I see potential in you – try this." Or in a more famous example, Susan Boyle living a very ordinary life until someone asked her to open her mouth and sing.

Much of my current career as an author and public speaker revolves around telling stories that teach people new things, and hopefully giving them powers they never had before. People often tell me that they don't communicate well, react badly to others, or get flustered in difficult situations. Then I teach them different words to use, and pow! Problem solved. They didn't have to work harder, try more often, or change their personalities – in fact, those approaches have almost always failed them in the past. They just needed to listen to someone who knew something they didn't, take it in, and hopefully pass it on.

I would not be so arrogant as to compare myself with the person bathed in light in the picture above. Sometimes my stories lift people, and very often other people's stories lift me. In both cases the brightest moments of my life, now and I believe yet to come, spring from gatherings where stories are being told and new ideas are being shared.

So what stories do you have to share with people? What could you teach people that might lift them, give them new skills, or help them believe in themselves? And more important, what stories might be out there that might change your life?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Going for shock value

There has been a lot of buzz lately about the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where Chinese-American mother Amy Chua describes her no-holds-barred approach to raising her children: no sleepovers, no tolerance for less than A's and first place, and making one daughter practice a piano piece for hours with no water or bathroom breaks until she got it right. The media has now taken this book beyond one person's extreme approach to parenting, into a cultural commentary about how America is becoming a nation of coddled children who settle for being second best.

I am not going to join the chorus of people calling her a bad mother – that is between her and her daughters, at least one of whom publicly supports her. But what she describes goes against everything I have ever learned in family therapy, and for some of it (like the piano incident) some columnists are wondering what the social services folks think. And for whatever it is worth, my four siblings and I – all of whom became Ivy League graduates and successful adults – came from good parents who didn't scream at us when we got B's, block our social lives, or pressure us into activities we didn't want.

For that matter, my late father's parents were always trying to get him to loosen up and not be such a grind studying, and he ignored them and eventually became a university president – kind of like an early version of Michael J. Fox in Family Ties. If his parents had used Chua's approach and pushed him instead, what would he have done instead – lead two universities? Or perhaps lose his motivation entirely? I am not yet convinced that Chua's argument would hold water if you were to do a legitimate empirical study. Especially if you measured being happy and successful, versus just test scores and trophies.

But I have a deeper concern with books like this. Our society has become addicted to extreme solutions with no room for shades of grey. Whether Amy Chua intended it this way or not, she now joins the flamethrowers on cable news channels, the shock jocks on the radio, and the get-rich-quick hucksters on the business bookshelf. All of them make a great deal of money by putting out extreme views that people embrace as the next great hope.

Ultimately my concern isn't so much for Amy Chua's parenting skills. It is that her book is on the cover of Time magazine. Because it draws a lot more attention than things like supportive parenting, productive dialogue, political diversity, and moderation. In my opinion, the problem isn't with them, it is with us. When we put books like Chua's on the bestseller list (currently #4 on Amazon as I write this), we sacrifice more of our own humanity to the counsel of the loudest voices.

The road to civility doesn't make for good media buzz. This is why I rarely watch television unless there is an umpire on the screen somewhere, and do not purchase books like Amy Chua's. But if enough of us start changing the channel, we could honestly build a much more respectful world, where screaming parents and political extremists are off in the margins where they belong. Care to join me?