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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Coming Home After a Long, Hard Day

In a previous post, we presented an imaginary scenario about a guy who arrives home after an exceptionally tough day at work, and in consequence of sheer fatigue, misunderstands an innocent remark of his wife's. His stress level is such that he immediately flies into a rage. Another story of a husband's homecoming that results in marital friction of a different type, is told in my article: Subtle Dangers on the Domestic Front (see both variations of Scene Two).

Ideally speaking, that hour of the day when the various members of a family unit return and reunite after many grueling hours spent at the office, at school or whatever outside activity they happened to engaged in, should be among the most pleasant and peaceful of the entire 24-hour cycle. It should be a time of gentle winding down, of soothing jangled nerves, of warm feelings of "we're all together again", and of exchanging news and perspectives of the day in a calm, relaxed atmosphere.

But you know and I know that it doesn't work out that way too often.

For the younger members of the family, the daily act of re-entering the portals of the home can be a part of their regular routine of special significance. It means a return to the comfort, warmth and security of family life after a spell in a very challenging and sometimes frightening world outside.

Consider this scenario: teenager Sharon walks in the door, ready to burst into tears. Her school day has been emotionally draining. Let's say she had a major History test. Her attitude to school tests is normally laid back, but for whatever reason, it was particularly important for her to perform well in this one. She felt the questions were unfair and some of the topics weren't even part of the official syllabus. When she respectfully pointed this out to her teacher, all she got for her trouble was a mouthful!

So she comes in and plaintively calls out: "Ma, where are you? I need to talk to you!"

At this moment, Mom is busy speaking on the phone. Early that morning, she had left a message for an acquaintance to call her in connection with a certain community project they both involved in as volunteers. Just a pity that her fellow activist had to choose just 30 seconds earlier to call back!

"Hey, Sharon, what's the matter with you?" exclaims Mom after covering the mouthpiece with her hand. "You can see I'm on the phone, can't you?"

At this point, the potential tears that Sharon had been bravely trying to hold back cannot be restrained any longer. The trickle quickly becomes a river as she storms out the house in acute disappointment mixed with anger. Mom remains unsympathetic and as she continues her telephone conversation, she makes a mental note to scold her daughter later on for her insolence.

Probably, neither party can be said to be blameless here. Sharon could have considered that Mom might not be available to offer her the comfort she was craving her just at the precise moment she walked in through the door. Her mother could have excused herself momentarily to the lady on the other end of the phone while reassuring Sharon that she would be with her very shortly.

But what I want to stress with this incident is the potential of the hour of homecoming both for family growth and for family heartache. At best, it will be a time of healing, comfort, relaxation, recommitment and reconnection. But perhaps precisely because of its positive potential, it is also a time fraught with danger.

I'm not only talking about the children.

If Dad comes home in a foul mood, ready to blow his top at the slightest provocation, you can't expect his dear wife to show him the warmth and affection he expects. If Mom, for whatever reason, is overflowing with open resentment and hostility when hubby walks through the door, can she expect him to shower her with the care and attention she really deserves?

Of course, I'm by no means implying that since either or both of them are so tightly focused on their own unmet needs of the moment, this entitles them to remain blind to the hell the other may be going through at that time.

Just the contrary. If the overriding, uppermost thought in the mind of each partner, of each member of the family, would always be the special needs, the anguish, the unique difficulties of the others....well, need I complete the sentence?

Indeed something to think about.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Throw Your Resentments in the Garbage

If you leave a wet towel on the bathroom floor, it could be somewhat irritating to the next person who uses the bathroom after you, but would anyone start a major fight over it?

Most definitely, according to new research funded by the US government's health research arm and conducted in the department of communications at Louisville University, Kentucky.

Trivial though it may seem, such a practice, if repeated, could be a ticking timebomb when it comes to relationships, warned the researchers.

Their report, Social Allergies in Romantic Relationships aimed to establish the nature of the link between nasty habits and nasty divorce. Among the "minor" irritants that they found could very quickly lead to irreparable rifts between couples are: failing to hang up towels, leaving a new loo roll on top of the empty one, using a fork as a backscratcher, and changing preset controls on the car stereo.

Perhaps a little bit more understandable are such habits as nose-picking, burping, failing to control flatulence, and getting drunk despite lack of obvious excuse. The list of niggles also includes laughing at one's own jokes (oblivious to the fact that no-one else is); using cringe-making terms of endearment such as "babykins' in public; reading e-mails in the middle of a discussion on an important topic; and asking for explanations of TV dramas, causing one's partner to miss a plot twist.

"Wet towels on the bathroom floor cause minor irritation, but the reaction gets stronger each time it happens," points out chief researcher Michael Cunningham. "Through repeated exposure it may produce a social allergy - a reaction of hypersensitive annoyance or disgust."

OK, so what's the solution?

Assuming the couple aren't, after all, really interested in divorce, what can they do to avoid the perpetual bickering?

According to one relationship counselor, it's no rocket science: "We have so many couples saying to us they argue over everything and nothing. Communication is the key. If a minor habit causes bother, it should be no big deal to change it."

I'm not so sure.

Communication the key? Yes, if you want to bring about change without either of you losing your cool along the way, the ability to communicate effectively will be critical.

But very often, a polite and firm request to try to do something about an annoying habit will be met, at best, with a blank stare or a perfunctory nod. Why? Because you and your spouse, consciously or subconsciously, are engaged in a power struggle.

Typically, at the beginning of a healthy relationship, the love and appreciation each partner feels both for and from each other will make any idiosyncrasies the other has irrelevant. Until one trivial incident sets a motion in process from which, it appears, there's no return. The power struggle begins. Then one, or more likely both, of the partners are overcome with a feeling of fear. Each one may feel that he or she has lost the way but is unable to find the way back.

"What happened?" he asks. "What made you change so suddenly?" he asks.

"What do you mean?" she replies. "I'm not the one who's changing. You are."

The truth is that you can't restore a conflict-ridden marriage to perfect health by coercing your partner to do your will. Focusing on what he or she is doing wrong is not the answer. You transform a relationship by creating love, collaboration and respect.

And the key word is create. It won't happen by itself. No way.

Take your shopping list of complaints, frustrations and resentments, and throw it in the garbage. Good riddance! But wait, you do need a list of some sort, don't you? So sit down and write a list of things that you appreciate about your partner. List all your spouse's strengths and qualities. Then share your list with him or her.

Sure, it's easier said than done, especially when the anger and frustration is burning up inside you. The natural urge to seek immediate redress for perceived injustices may be an overpowering one, a fire that's seemingly impossible to put out.

But try. Believe me, it's worth it.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

When Bad Business Rules Backfire

When you're getting terrible customer service, opines veteran entrepreneur and columnist Norm Brodsky, don't be so quick to blame the company official you happen to be dealing with at the time.

In many cases, he says, the poor guy's employer is the one at fault, and he tells an interesting story - against himself - to prove his point.

And like many stories of this nature, it just could be that the lesson to be learned from it is relevant not only to the world of business, but can be applied to other areas of life as well.

Brodsky runs an archive-retrieval business. When customers ask to have boxes delivered to their offices, they charge a regular delivery fee plus a surcharge for priority service. As to be expected in any business, disputes over the charges arose from time to time. When Brodsky saw that a couple of his customer-services reps were giving in too easily, he made a rule: no credits could be issued without the approval of someone in management.

What happened then? Occasionally a customer placed a rush order and, for whatever reason, the box didn't arrive on time. In other words, there was nothing to talk about: the company was unmistakeably at fault.

An angry customer would call up and say: "Because it was late, we couldn't make any use of this stuff. You guys can stand on your head, but I'm not paying."

"I'm sorry," the customer-service person would reply, "we made the delivery and you have to pay for it." When the customer would continue to insist "Nothing doing!", the rep would say, "Well, you'll have to speak to a manager."

No question, the manager would waive the charge after hearing the story, but the damage would have already been done. Bad enough that the delivery was late, but the customer sees that they would have been charged for it anyway had no one complained. Then to top it all, he had to waste time arguing with a rpresentative of the company before he was transferred to a manager who cancelled the bill.

So the customer would go away thinking. "That damn service stinks!", and the company would consider themselves lucky if they ever heard from him again.

Thus, the rule that Brodsky laid down came back to haunt him. He now quickly grasped that establishing a rule to eliminate costly errors was not the right response. Among other drawbacks, good, faithful customers were being penalized for the sake of the one or two who tried to take advantage. A few employees with questionable judgement were tying the hands of perhaps the majority whose judgement was perfectly sound.

Now, he has adopted a completely different approach to the sticky problem of well-meaning but inexperienced employees who were a little too looose in passing credit. The real solution, he realized, lay in better training. His people had to be equipped with more knowledge and better tools to make the right decisions.

Rather than clipping their wings, with all that this entailed, time, effort and even money would have to be invested in order to get the potential offenders up to speed.

The point should be clear.

We're living in the age of instant solutions. In business, as in other areas of our lives, we're inclined to fall into the trap of shortcuts, easy answers, the least painful way out. Why do we make bad rules? Often, it's because we're not really attacking our problems head on.

Rather, we're avoiding them. And therein lies the danger - and the challenge!

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

'GoodSpeak' and the Meaning of Respect

I've written at length on several occasions about the dangers of gossip, and it's interesting to note that in at least one part of the world gossip is now actually illegal!

After malicious gossip led to murder and several wrongful arrests in a small town in Colombia, local officials decided they had enough. The town's mayor declared gossip to be a crime punishable by up to four years in prison. Spreading false rumors can also make citizens liable for a fine of up to $150,000.

"Human beings must be aware and recognize that having a tongue and using it to do bad is the same as having dynamite in their mouths," said the official municipal decree issued last year in Icononzo, 40 miles southwest of the capital, Bogota. Locals claim that it has already had an impact by making people "think twice" about what they say.

Well, how effective this legal activism will be in the long term I don't know, but let's hope that the desired impact on the good folk of Icononzo will be a lasting one and its beneficial effects will spread to other areas!

Yes, gossip is bad. But what I want to do today is take the discussion one stage further.

The Divine gift of the power of speech, common to all members of the human race, is a rather complex one. In practice, it's difficult to remain in neutral gear. You're either raising people up, or putting them down.

I'd like to quote here an inspiring childhood reminiscence of my colleague Bob Burg. It's been told and retold in many places over the last few years, and he recounted it again in a recent issue of his very popular e-zine, Winning Without Intimidation, in honor of his parents' wedding anniversary.

Bob's parents were having carpets installed in their home, and the crew boss was , as Bob puts it, "one of those stereotypical beer-guzzlin' hard-livin' guys." At lunch break, the 12 year-old Bob listened in as his Dad went to talk to the boss:

The boss said, "This is an expensive job. Women will really spend your money, won't they?"

Dad responded, "Well, I'll tell you, when they were right there with you before you had any money, it's a pleasure to do anything for them you possibly can."

This wasn't the answer he expected. He was looking for negative talk about wives which, to him, was natural. He tried again, "But, gee, they'll really play off that and spend all they can, won't they?"

Dad replied, as I knew he would, "Hey, when they're the reason you're successful, you want them to do the things they enjoy. There's no greater pleasure." Strike two.


The crew boss tried one more time, "And they'll take that as far as they can, huh?" Dad responded, "She's the best thing that ever happened to me. I'd do anything to make her happy."

I was trying not to laugh. I knew he wanted Dad to give in just a little bit and say, "Yeah, I guess that's true." But I knew that wouldn't happen..not in a million years!

Whether or not the boss was astute enough to learn from this what respect for one's spouse - and by extension, for other people - really means, Bob believes that this particular conversation was one of the most powerful lessons a young boy in his formative years can receive.

What can we learn from all this? Firstly and most importantly, refraining from negative speech isn't really enough. Refined human beings will train themselves to make "GoodSpeak" a part of their natures. For most people, it's not something that comes automatically and requires practice like other worthwhile things, but according to the effort will be the reward.

Second, putting others down or speaking positively about them doesn't only mean talking in their presence. Thirdly, gossip doesn't only mean speaking in disparaging fashion about a specific individual; it applies also to negative speech about a whole group or class of people.

What are you doing to make GoodSpeak an essential part of your everyday life?

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