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Monday, May 12, 2008

Can Paying a Speeding Ticket be a Laughing Matter?

What's the difference between a good leader and an excellent leader ? According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ and various other books on the same topic, the answer to that is a no-brainer. You guessed it, of course: it's emotional intelligence. At any rate, that's what accounts for at least 85% of the difference!

And if you think seriously about what emotional intelligence really is, that's no great surprise.

Harvey Deutschendorf, Emotional Intelligence Coach at a large human resource organization, tells in a fascinating article how his company developed a special program to train potential leaders to replace managers who would be retiring in the coming years. As part of the program, a section of the company newsletter was devoted to emotional intelligence. This included sharing stories of personal experiences where emotional intelligence was evident, as examples from which the budding leaders could learn.

The following is one of these stories.

The writer was standing in the cashier's lineup at the local courthouse, waiting to pay for a speeding ticket. Ahead of him, in front of the line , was a short elderly gentleman. He took a fat wad of bills out of his pocket and counted them out in front of the cashier - and as he did so, he was laughing all the while! The writer watched in amazement as the man handed over the money, took his receipt and grinned from ear to ear as he said to the cashier: "Now I'm free!"

The writer was curious to hear what the cashier thought of this, and as he took his turn he remarked to her that he had never seen someone who was happy while paying a fine. They both enjoyed a chuckle and then it struck the writer that he had just witnessed another first - never before had he seen an official in that kind of establishment smile!

When the cashier asked him to sign his credit card stub, the writer quipped that there was no place for a tip on it. As he left, the cashier thanked him for "making my day." As for the very jovial gentleman who by now had disappeared from the scene, little did he probably realize what a powerfully positive effect he had on at least two strangers that day!

After noting that walking away in an upbeat mood after having just paid a fine was anything but typical for him, the writer points out that two lessons he had just learned were, above all, reasons for rejoicing.

Firstly: the stranger had demonstrated that we all choose how to react in any given situation. Secondly and most importantly, we should never underestimate the impact that our behaviors have on others.

To be sure, internalizing these two basic but unappreciated facts is a vital life skill that needs to be mastered by anyone and everyone. But certainly, these two lessons are doubly important in the context of leadership training. As
Deutschendorf notes, learning to deal effectively with adversity and and the ability to carry on despite setbacks are crucial leadership skills.

And as we have seen, staying positive is essential to good leadership for another reason: leaders are in a position where they can affect the mood of many people under them.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

How to Build Relationships That Stick: Popular E-Book Now FREE!

As we've asserted repeatedly over the years, the way many people perceive relationships is great for romantic novels, but has little to do with real life.

People enter into serious relationships such as marriage with little preparation or even basic knowledge what to expect. Then, when the inevitable disillusionment sets in, they may be so overcome with doubt that they act and react in inappropriate and self-defeating ways. And of all the forms of human misery, discord in the home is probably the most widespread.

If the above paragraph is even faintly familiar, here's some good news!

After much thought, I've decided to make my e-book: How to Build Relationships That Stick, which has won wide acclaim during the seven years it's been on the market, available free. (In contrast to the way that word is often used in the world of so-called Internet marketing, I mean it literally - no email address collected or other strings attached!) All you have to do is go here and then RIGHT-click on any one of the links on the page to download your free copy.

I must point out that although a part of the book does talk specifically about marriage and intimate relationships, the underlying principles discussed throughout the book apply to all kinds of relationships. This includes interactions between family members (parent-child, siblings, etc), friendships, and even your relationship with business and workplace colleagues and associates.

Above all, I try in this little book to explode the myths that actually kill relationships!

We said that dissension and acrimony in the home must be one of the worst kinds of misery, but the converse is also true: domestic harmony is undoubtedly the most intense form of happiness. Now it's time to put the past behind you. With the right knowledge and the right attitude, you'll not only improve the quality of your life, but also those of your relationship partners!

So what are you waiting for? Download your own copy of How to Build Relationships now!

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

How Do You Respond When People Share Good News?

Susanne Gaddis, a.k.a The Communications Doctor has for many years been a veritable goldmine of "Prescriptions for Effective Communication", as she calls them, and her new weekly email tip-sheet, Communication Booster Shots, continues the tradition.

A friend, family member or colleague shares some exciting (from her point of view) news with you. So how do you respond? This is the pertinent question that Susanne poses in her Booster Shot No. 2.

She cites Shelly Gable, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, who talks of four distinct response styles different people use in responding to a friend's good news. Let's say your friend hops over to you, bubbling with excitement, and whispers (or shouts) in your ears:

"I received a promotion and a raise at work!"

Prof. Gable asserts that most people would react in one of these four ways:

Active and Constructive Response (You react enthusiastically): "That is great, I bet you're so proud! I know how important that promotion was to you! Let's go out and celebrate." (Nonverbal communication: maintaining eye contact, displays of position emotions, such as genuine smiling, touching, laughing).

Passive and Constructive (You say "little" but convey that you're happy to hear the good news): "That is good news." (Nonverbal communication: little or no active emotional expression).

Active and Destructive (You point out potential problems or the downside of the event): "That sounds like a lot of responsibility to take on. There will probably be more stress involved in the new position and longer hours at the office." (Nonverbal communication: displays of negative emotions, such as furrowed brow, frowning).

Passive and Destructive (You seem uninterested): "What are we doing on Friday night?" (Nonverbal communication: little to no eye contact, turning away, leaving room).

Recognize yourself? In which category?

Susanne adds an example of her own. This situation may even be more familiar. A work colleague walks over to you very briskly and announces proudly:

"I just found out I got the day off!"

Again, your response will most likely be in one of the same four styles:

Active and Constructive Response: "Wow, that's super! Have you got anything fun planned?" (Nonverbal communication: maintaining eye contact, displays of positive emotions).

Passive and Constructive: "That's nice." (Nonverbal communication: little or no active emotional expression).

Active and Destructive: "Well, I'll be here working! I've heard it's going to be really busy around here." (Nonverbal communication: displays of negative emotions).

Passive and Destructive: "I had a bad day today." (Nonverbal communication: little eye contact, turning away).

Well, which would be your choice?

Prof. Gable's recommendation goes without saying: If we're interested in strengthening our relationships, there's no substitute for the "Active Constructive" approach. We must respond to good news in a way that helps someone savor the good moments in life.

As Suzanne puts it, by providing an "Active-Constructive" response we contribute to an upward spiral of positive emotion.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

You're a Great Guy, But Don't Marry My Daughter!

Dr. Mark Goulston, clinical psychiatrist turned business coach, describes in a column of his in Fast Company his meeting with a certain high-powered personality.

Ed is a highly competent and successful CEO, respected and admired by many in the business world. He has good manners and for the most part, is respectful of others. On the other hand, his modus operandi is characterized by that typical signature-tune of highly pressured, impatient executives: "Gimme the bottom line!"

"Leaders like Ed," observes Dr. Goulston, "are superb problem-solvers when given the data,
and like data machines, they can't stand it when people belabor points with irrelevant details and stories."

So the writer tells Ed that he's highly impressed with his fine character and all his abilities and accomplishments. On hearing this heartwarming praise, Ed already senses that there's a "but" coming, and he asks Dr. Goulston what it is. His reply, apparently, was totally unexpected, and although Ed was somewhat puzzled by it, he did not dispute it:

"I wouldn't want my sister to marry you!" Why? "Because she would die of loneliness."

Dr Goulston explains: "What Ed failed to appreciate - as do many leaders who are goal driven to a fault - is that, especially at the end of the day, especially at home, the telling of the story is the data. The story itself is not all that matters. And for the data to compute in the right way to be satisfying (instead of frustrating) to the person talking, Ed and leaders like him need to provide unhurried and undivided attention."

In other words, when busy, goal oriented, and- inevitably - intimacy-challenged business people and professionals like Ed and his ilk finally touch base with their spouses at the end of the day, "Get to the point" or "Spare me the details" just won't cut it. In fact, a demand to "get to the point" is missing the point. Totally. No way to sustain an intimate relationship.

Dr Goulston quotes the eminent psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion who talks about the overriding need to "listen without memory or desire." Listening with "memory" means you have an old agenda you're trying to plug someone into; when you listen with "desire" you have a new agenda you're trying to do the same thing with.

But in either case, these are your agendas not the other person's. And the other party isn't fooled for a second.

For more insight on this topic, read the gripping but sad tale of the mysterious Harold Burwell, everybody's dream boss. Or check out my own contribution on the subject.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How Authentic Apologies Open Relationship Doors

The tension in your marriage relationship is becoming unbearable...and deep down you know you're at fault. Your dilemma is: how do I proceed now?

Implementing a solution can be far from easy, points out Dr. Peter Pearson, but nevertheless there is a solution, and in a popular article on our site, he outlines a formula for getting the results you want.

Yes, it's a matter of apologizing, but what does that mean?

Dr Pearson writes that in the early days of his marriage, the mere mumbling of two basic words was sometimes sufficient to calm ruffled feathers and heal bruised feelings. "It was as if I had a license to do what I wanted - as long as I looked sincere and said 'I'm sorry'. It was like having a 'Get out of jail free' Monopoly card."

But he soon found out that just mumbling a couple of standard words under his breath, or even speaking them out loud or even with all the conviction in his command, wouldn't get him very far for too long.

Dr Pearson and his wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader, work as a professional team and are the founders of The Couple's Institute. In this month's issue of their Practice Development Dispatch ezine, they revisit the topic of the key role of the apology in resolving marital conflicts. They quote a fascinating research project of a few years ago to illustrate and emphasize a couple of critical points.

The research study in question, conducted by law Professor Jennifer Robbennolt of Columbia University, really just confirms what we knew - or should have known - all along. Participants, ages 21 to 70, read a scenario describing a pedestrian-bicycle accident. They were asked to take on the role of the injured pedestrian and evaluate a settlement offer from the other party, based on information about the injuries, the other party’s conduct, and each party’s responsibility for causing the accident.

Important to note here that the settlement that the offender suggested did not fully cover all the costs of the accident.

Robbennolt found that when a full apology was given, 73 percent of the respondents would accept the settlement offer. When no apology was given, 52 percent would accept, but very interestingly, only 35 percent would accept when a partial apology was given (meaning that the bicyclist did not take responsibility for the accident).

“An offender who offered a full apology was seen as experiencing more regret, as being more moral and more likely to be careful in the future than one offering a partial or no apology,” commented Prof. Robbennolt.

The bottom line, and this is crucial: people who feel injured or wronged want to know that the other understands and acknowledges the essence of what they did wrong! This is the prerequisite and starting point for moving forward.

Dr. Bader elaborates that the research results remind her of her many therapy sessions with couples where one party has deceived the other. The offending party often wants to rush it through with some very perfunctory expression of guilt, and then put everything behind them. Sometimes even expensive gifts are given in an attempt to alleviate unspoken guilt. "I said I was sorry. Why aren't you getting over it faster? Why are you beating me up?"

But more often than not, such an approach just doesn't cut! A primary reason why they are not getting it over faster is precisely because a clear, unambiguous and sincere admission of guilt has not been forthcoming!

Dr. Bader sums it up by citing an old African proverb that is equally relevant in so many interpersonal situations:

"It is easier to put out fire in the house of neighbors than to deal with the smoke in one's

Indeed, there are probably few things more difficult for people to achieve than the fault that lies within themselves.

May we all merit, when the occasion arises, to rise to the challenge!

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Why I Don't Like the Word 'Partner' in Connection With Relationships

Yes, you've read correctly. I don't like it.

The word "partner" is used very widely by people writing about relationships, including many of our own site contributors. And it's perfectly understandable. After all, what better term do we have at our disposal to describe your opposite number in an intimate relationship? While dictionary definitions may differ, its simple meaning is one who shares or participates with you in a certain enterprise or activity. So it seems quite appropriate.

Yet, the word makes me uncomfortable. I'll tell you why.

I touched on one reason in one of my early articles on the Web. I don't think an ideal marriage
relationship is a "partnership" in the same sense that we talk about business partnership, for example. When we think of a partnership, we usually think about a contract between two parties. A 50-50 sharing of responsibilities, or the like.

Yet marriage, as I explained is no business arrangement - or it shouldn't be. As I explained, if your mind is going to work along the lines of:

"You have needs and I have needs. Maybe, if I satisfy yours, you will satisfy mine. You wash the dishes and I'll pay the rent. Sundays to Tuesdays I'll take out the garbage, and for the remainder of the week you will. Other duties will be divided by mutual consent. For every suit I buy, you can buy two pairs of shoes..."
...you're not very likely to end up with a happy marriage.

OK, now I can hear you say: "Hey Azriel, who's talking about marriage? You can have an intimate relationship between a man and a woman without them necessarily being actually married. That's why these relationship writers talk about your partner instead of your husband, wife or spouse. It's a term that includes everybody."

Aha, a good point! But, you know, that's exactly my point. You see, I don't really believe there can be an authentic, long-lasting, really happy, relationship of this type outside formal marriage. That, in a nutshell, is the second - and more important - reason why I shy away from the use of the term "partner" in the context of relationships.

We know that the number of couples "living together" has risen very dramatically over the past few decades. Often, the rationale is that by "trying each other out" before tying the knot, they can see how "compatible" they are. Strangely, some of these people seem to be motivated, at least in part, to take this "precaution" by the rising divorce rate.

This is quite ironic,for studies have shown conclusively that "living together" does not increase the chances of marital success. Quite the contrary, the likelihood of a durable and lasting union is diminished by this arrangement. If living together were a test of marital compatibility, the statistics should show that couples who have lived together first should have stronger marriages.

But the opposite is the case. Even though the myth persists!

What's the problem? What's lacking in the temporary arrangement, when a couple "shack up" together knowing that if things don't work out as planned... well, no big deal. It may be a little painful for a day or two, but it's just a question of packing one's bags, walking out the door, shaking off the dust and getting on with one's life.

In marriage, it's not quite so simple. And that's a jolly good thing.

If there's one key word here, that word is commitment. Making a commitment right from Day One.

You see, a newly married couple will make a deliberate effort to accommodate each other and please each other, because they expect to be together for life. In other words, their goal is not to test compatibility, but to build it!

The word spouse , somehow, is not a particularly attractive one. But, where necessary, I would prefer it to partner anytime.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Finding the Good in Others Really Pays Off

Thought is the father of action. How we think affects how we feel, which in turn influences how we act.

Of course, our thoughts, whether positive and negative, also influence the way we respond to the people around us. Often, just by shifting our mental focus, we can bring about a profound change for the better in our relationship with another party. We can create a new reality.

And it may be hard to believe, but there can be times when our most private thoughts have a major, even life changing, impact on the attitude and conduct of another party. Without saying as much as a single word.

The following story is true, although I've changed some of the incidental details.

As a young man, Jake, like many of his compatriots, left the shores of his native land with its struggling economy to seek his fortune in more affluent climes. He settled down in a large city in the country of his adoption but was lonely and miserable. He didn't know whether it was on account of his ethnic origin, or because he was poor, or for whatever other reason, but he felt that people didn't respect him. And that upset him very much

Jake eventually opened a restaurant. It was successful beyond all expectations and soon he was able to open a second branch, and then another. Now at last, as a wealthy man, he was being sought after by a society that he believed had previously shunned him. That upset him even more, as he perceived that people were running after him only because of his money.

This perception, together with the unhappy memories of his early days in town, embittered Jake so much that he began to hate the world around him. The next stage was inevitable. In his business life, he began to involve himself in all kinds of shady deals. Before long, cheating and fraud were second nature to Jake.

On the other hand, somewhat paradoxically, he was known to treat his own employees well. There was one exception. Steve was a worker whose standards of honesty and integrity were higher than those of his fellow employees. This rankled his boss no end. Presumably, Steve - the very image of the upright individual he had himself once been - was pricking Jake's conscience a little too much.

Now, Steve had been brought up to concentrate on the good in every person. His parents had often commented that when you respect people, you influence them to become better. But as hard as he tried, Steve couldn't find anything good about a crooked boss who never missed an opportunity to cheat someone out of his money.

Then one day, Steve overheard a customer in the restaurant, who appeared to be connected to a leading local charitable institution, whisper to his fellow diners that he had just received, quite out of the blue, a large donation from the owner of this establishment.

At last Steve had found something positive in his boss! From now on, he made a special effort to rechannel his thoughts. Whenever he saw Jake, he didn't see a cheat and a swindler. He saw a generous man who supported charitable causes.

Hardly another week had passed when Jake came up to Steve one morning and said: "I don't know why I'm choosing you to confide in, and considering how nastily I've treated you in the past, I'll understand if you don't want to listen...

"But if you do, I want you to know that I woke up this morning feeling awful. I began to think to myself, 'Hey, what am I doing with my life? How can I look at myself in the mirror? Overnight, I have turned myself into a common crook!'

"You know, Steve, that's not how I was raised in my home country, nor is it what I intended to become when I arrived here. I'm destroying my life with my own hands, and I want to stop..."

Before long, Jake and Steve had become firm friends.

Some great lessons can be learned here. It was lack of respect for him that had caused Jake to lose his trust in mankind, which led to his gradual descent to the lowest ethical depths. It was respect for him and recognition of his true worth that led to his change of heart and moral reawakening.

And it all happened through a transformation, in turn, in his employee's secret thoughts.

And yes, without as much as his saying a word.


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Thursday, October 19, 2006

How Faulty Assumptions Can Spoil Relationships

I don't know whether her motive was to pass on some useful advice for mature living or merely to help us remember the spelling of a common word, but a schoolteacher of mine often used to admonish us: "Don't assume! It makes an ass out of you and an ass out of me."

At any rate, it's certainly true that failing to verify what appears to be obvious could mean a lot of hard work and initiative simply going down the drain. Sometimes, it can be the direct cause of your face going redder than a beetroot. And sadder still, the end result of your blunder could be soured interpersonal relationships.

Our contributor Lora Adrianse tells the sad story of Amy, a concierge at a leading hotel who was asked by a guest to buy for him 10 tickets to a local concert he badly wanted to attend. There was one small problem: the concert was already sold out, but Amy, who had a reputation for "pulling rabbits out of hats" assured the guest she would spare no effort to obtain the coveted tickets. And against all odds, she succeeded.

But then the picnic started. For some reason, she was unable to reach the guest to tell him she had the tickets, and she was about to go off duty. So she turned the task over to the usually reliable desk manager - assuming the matter was now in good hands. The desk manager was also unable to reach the guest, but wasn't unduly concerned because he assumed the guest would stop by and enquire about the tickets. The guest, in turn, assumed Amy had been unsuccessful and made other arrangements for the evening.

So here we have three people making unwarranted assumptions, and the damage to Amy's reputation aside, the worst thing, from the human perspective, was that relations between Amy and the desk manger were extremely strained from that point on.

On the Net recently I came across another little story that shows more directly how mistaken (even if very understandable) assumptions can negatively impact a relationship.

Maxine was telling Tom about a problem she had at work. She was halfway through the story when Tom interrupted, saying: "What you should do, Maxine, is talk with your supervisor and turn the whole matter over to her. She's the one who should be dealing with this problem."

Did Maxine thank Tom for his timely counsel? Far from it, she walked away in anger, leaving behind a very puzzled Tom.

The author of this piece, Illene L. Dillon, cites gender communication expert Deborah Tannen as explaining that our two protagonists acted characteristically, reflecting differences in the way men and women communicate. Women offer "troubles talk", sharing their difficulties as a way of building relationships; men are "problem solvers", offering immediate solutions so the problem can be solved and left behind.

But Dillon correctly adds that this explanation, though a good one, doesn't go far enough. The bottom line, she writes, is that there is a clearly defined "relationship violation" here that triggered Maxine's angry reaction. What was it?

It's only natural that decent people should like to help others, all the more so those whom they love and respect. Often, they feel very frustrated if their help is spurned. What they forget is a simple principle: "Help that isn't asked for never works."

Giving Maxine help she did not ask for created anger and disappointment, not receptivity. This doesn't mean that we should abandon our efforts to help. Rather, instead of relying on assumptions, however logical they may be in our own eyes, we should enquire whether our help is wanted.

Of course, Maxine, for her part, was guilty of an equally serious relationship error. Most people don't know what goes on in another's head, despite the apparently common assumption that love is proved through mindreading! Maxine should tell Tom: "I want you to listen to a story from work- and I really mean listen, without telling me how I should be handling the situation? Will you do that please?"

And by tagging on that little question at the end, she will be avoiding perpetuating a third common relationship error based on a possibly mistaken assumption - the assumption that the other party will comply with a request merely because he or she was asked.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Destroying Trust Via the Express Lane

If there's one aspect of interpersonal relations that's absolutely essential in the workplace, it's trust. Without it, the wheels of business would turn very slowly, if they turn at all.

This is true whether it's a customer trusting that a company will fill and order and deliver it on time, an employee trusting that her boss will reward her for working long hours to meet a deadline, or one colleague trusting that another will do his share of an assigned project. And of course, the same applies in all other areas of life. No one operates in isolation.

"Trust is the social glue that holds things together. It allows us to engage in social and commercial ventures, " points out Professor Maurice Schweitzer, one of three professors at Wharton University who recently ran a unique laboratory experiment, as described in a soon to be published paper called Promises and Lies: Restoring Violated Trust. This experiment was devised to examine what happens when trust breaks down.

"Willingness to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations about another's behavior,"
was the working definition of trust accepted by the Wharton researchers. They started out on the assumption that "trust is like glass" - that is, "fragile, easily broken and hard to repair." But they soon found out that this isn't always the case. Sometimes it is true, sometimes it isn't. It depends.

So what makes the difference?

Prof. Schweitzer explains this with a simple example. Let's say a friend persuades you to lend him a DVD to watch that you, in turn, had borrowed from a rental company. You agree on condition that he mail it back to the company within a week. Then you find out that this friend of yours forgot to return it to the company.

Would you trust him with another movie at some point in the future? You might, especially if your friend showed a modicum of contrition over his unfortunate oversight. All the more so, if he gave you a firm promise that he would never be so negligent again.

Now imagine the same scenario, but with one crucial difference. This time your friend tells you he sent back the DVD. A little while later, you pay him a visit and you happen to notice that very DVD on top on his TV. Would you lend your friend a movie again?

And let's say he apologizes profusely and promises to follow through next time, would your attitude be any different? Probably not.

The results of the Wharton experiment, which involved a carefully and very cleverly designed money game, bore out in striking manner the difference between these two cases - the second case, where the offending party lies about his or her failure to carry out an obligation (or what is perceived by the other side as an obligation) and the first scenario, where he or she does not.

"Trust harmed by untrustworthy behavior can be effectively restored when individuals observe a consistent series of trustworthy actions," wrote the Wharton academics in summarizing the findings of their experiment. Just as one swallow doesn't make a summer, one mistake doesn't necessarily ruin a reputation, certainly when the transgressor can consistently show that he or she has now turned over a new leaf.

On the other hand - so the experiment revealed - when a person's trust is not only violated, but that betrayal includes deception, that trust will be difficult to restore. If you didn't only forget to return your friend's DVD, but on top of everything, lied about it - it's going to be a different ball game.

And quite likely , it's not just that your friend finds it difficult in his heart to forgive you. The point is that there has been a more powerful, more intense, shattering of the trust he had invested in you. Once shattered to smithereens , it's all the more difficult to restore.

Let his be a powerful warning to us. When planning every step in our interpersonal relationships, we dare not lose sight of the close to inevitable consequences of our actions.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Bias Plays Havoc With Human Relationships

When it comes to forming opinions and making judgments on hot political issues, supporters of both the major political parties in the United States don't let facts get in the way of their decision making. At least, that seems to be the conclusion of an interesting experiment by researchers at Emory University, according to a report released last January.

There's a lot we can learn from this fascinating study, and not only, perhaps, regarding how many people form their views on political and all kinds of controversial issues without necessarily exercising their power of reasoning.

I believe the findings also have implications - and not very favorable ones - in the sphere of interpersonal relationships. Yes, it may be nothing that we - at least those of us not in the habit of brushing unpleasant realities under the carpet - didn't know before. Nevertheless, it confirms what we may be loathe to admit concerning the way we often relate to other people.

This was the experiment. Prior to the 2004 American presidential election, a group of Kerry supporters and a group of Bush supporters were each given six statements by their candidate. Next they were given pieces of information that documented a blatant contradiction between their candidate's first statement and his subsequent words or deeds.

At that point, the subjects were asked to consider the apparent discrepancy between their candidate's initial statement and the second statement and behavior, and to rate the degree of contradiction involved. Finally they were given a third statement that might reconcile the first and second pieces of information, and asked to reconsider the degree of contradiction involved.

While being presented with these tasks, the subject's brains were being monitored by magenetic resonance to determine what areas of the brain were most active.

The investigators found that the presentation of the information raising questions about the honesty or consistency of the subject's favored candidate triggered no activity in the areas of the brain normally associated with reasoning. Instead a network of emotional circuits lit up.

When the third statement, offering a possible reconciliation of the first two, was presented, the brain cricuits that regulate negative emotions such as sadness and disgust shut down. On the other hand, those involved in behavior reward were activated, in a manner comparable to that seen in drug addicts after receiving a dose.

"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," explains project leader Drew Westen. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones."

"Everyone from executives and judges to scientists and politicians may reason to emotionally based judgements when they have a vested interest in how to interpret the facts," concludes Westen. And apparently, intelligence had no impact on the subject's responses.

We all have our natural inbuilt biases, which are an inevitable handicap to us in our pursuit of truth. That is, if the truth is important to us at all! Our biases affect us in our dealings with our fellow human beings in various ways.

So much has been written about one particular form of pathological bias. I refer to the classical delusional syndrome of the woman, for example, who marries or forms a close emotional bond with an habitual drunkard, hardened drug addict or "professional" philanderer, secure in the unshakeable conviction that she'll reform him.

The opposite extreme

Sad, but what concerns me more is the opposite extreme!

You have a neighbor, or perhaps she's a fellow worker in the office. Admittedly , you've never had very much to do with her, but from the little bit of contact you've had up to now, you know a few things with absolute certainty. She's grumpy, she's rude, she's a miser, she's a sourpuss, she's a hater of humankind. Well, okay...if that's exaggerating a little, she certainly hates you!

Then she knocks on your door, or pitches up at your desk. She's carrying a beautiful bouquet of flowers, which she presents you with the warmest, most sincerest, of smiles. She's been disturbed, she says, by the negative vibes she feels whenever she crosses your path, and wants to assure you of her esteem and best intentions...

What to you do now? Persuade yourself she's putting up one hell of a big act?

Woe to the misery we needlessly and throughtlessly inflict upon others! Woe to the misery we needlessly inflict upon ourselves!


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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

How Ambiguity Promotes Conflict in the Family

A word, phrase, sentence or other communication is called ambiguous if it can be interpreted in more than one way. With regard to single words, the most problematic are those whose various senses express closely related concepts.

"Good", for example, can mean "useful" or "functional" (That's a good hammer), "exemplary" (She's a good student), "pleasing" (This is good soup), "moral" (He is a good person), and probably other similar things.

If I say "I have a good daughter," can you be sure what I mean exactly? Am I saying she has high ethical principles, or that she's very popular, or that she's in good shape physically, or perhaps something else?

Technically speaking, the kind of confusion I want to talk about is not correctly termed ambiguity, but vagueness. Only since most people tend to think of it as ambiguity, I'll stick to that term. Let's begin with a simple example.

"I'll be a little late tonight," Jack calls out to his wife, Jill, as he picks up his briefcase and heads out the door after breakfast. "Some clients are coming around for a quick meeting on their way home."

On an average working day, Jack gets home around 6.15. On this night, he makes his appearance at precisely 8.08. Jill is furious; she needed Jack to attend to something important that could have been completed in less than two minutes, but could only be done before eight. Jack just can't understand what the fuss is about. Didn't he tell her in advance that he intended to be a little late?

But then, he didn't mention a specific time frame, did he? To Jack, "a little late" meant one thing; to Jill it meant another.

People see things in different ways. A "carefree" attitude to one person may be "irresponsible" to another. What I call "relaxation", you may call "laziness". What's a "convenience" to you, may be "life-sustaining to your spouse; he or she may call "extravagance" what you view as "essential spending". The potential for conflict is obvious.

But even where ambiguity doesn't lead to open conflict, there still can be plenty of room for misunderstanding, confusion and doubt. Consider this scenario:

A usually ravenous teenager sits down at the dinner table. His mother notices he is doing a good job on the potatoes and salad, but is barely touching the chicken.

"Don't you like the chicken, Jim?" asks a concerned mother.

"Yeah, well, um..ah..."

"Why aren't you eating it?"

"Well, because it's white meat and I like dark meat!"

Mother explains that chickens have only two legs and this time his brothers got to them first. Had they been millionaires, she would have bought several chickens, or maybe pre-cut parts. As the reality was, Jim should realize that this was not a five-star hotel....

"It's okay, Mom, "interrupts Eli. "These potatoes are really good and I won't drop down dead if I skip the protein for one meal."

"Quite so, Jim, but by the same token, why don't you eat the white meat just for once? You're getting too picky when it comes to food. When I was your age...."

But Jim didn't hear the rest of the story because something his mother had just said made a bell go off in his head. It was all on account of one sentence he had overheard while she was speaking on the phone a few days previously. He didn't normally eavesdrop on his mother's conversations, but he had just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Jim's parents had decided to have new kitchen cupboards installed and they had just returned from an excursion to the craftsman's showroom. His mother was discussing their exciting experience with a good friend on the phone.

"There were so many different styles on the floor, and about a dozen different shades of wood to choose from," she had said. "I just couldn't make up my mind. My husband got really impatient and said I was too picky. I told him that wasn't being picky - I was merely making a 'preference analysis.' "

So when exactly does the (illegitimate) habit of being "picky" become a (legitimate) "preference analysis"? What's the difference between being choosy with your food and being choosy over a color scheme? Teenagers are pastmasters at spotting ironic inconsistencies. To Jim, this was a glaring example if there ever was one.

We're all human. Is this kind of situation completely avoidable? I'm not sure.

But certainly, we see here once again how important it is that parents (and teachers) strive to be consistent at all times in all their interactions with their children.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Power of an Apology: A Teacher's Object Lesson

We all know it, or we should know it. An apology can be the first step to better understanding in a damaged relationship.

When you apologize, you are saying that you share values with the offended party regarding appropriate behavior towards each other. You are saying that you regret that you didn't conduct yourself according to those values - whether intentionally or unintentionally - and from this point on you'll try harder to live up to your shared standards of behavior.

Of course, you apology must not be faked. A hollow apology, certainly, is worse than none at all. By definition, an apology is a sincere commitment to positive change, not a convenient device to avoid facing the music. And when business people routinely say "Sorry I can't take your call", or "Sorry I kept you waiting", does anyone believe they mean it?

In a book called Healing Words: The Power of Apology in Medicine, Michael Woods, MD, bemoans the fact that the words "I'm sorry!" don't seem to exist in the average doctor's vocabulary, at least when talking to patients. The author advises his colleagues to put into practice his "four R's of apology", which will help to increase patient satisfaction and decrease the likelihood of malpractice lawsuits. (I would hope he sees the latter reason as an added benefit, not the main purpose!)

Even if formulated with doctor's in mind, these four R's are certainly worthy of study by anybody:

I read recently about a very special school teacher who had a very curious and effective method of punishment. The writer of the story, who felt privileged have been one of his pupils, only fully understood the method behind the madness many years later, after his revered teacher had passed on from this world.

I don't know whether it's still so common today, but then a traditional form of punishment for a student who did something unacceptable was to order to him to write a sentence over and over again a number of times: "I will not talk to my friends in class," "I will not throw projectiles," or whatever. Depending on the severity of the transgression, such sentences (pun not intended!) were handed down as an order to write 50, 100, or at a maximum, 500 or so lines.

This enterprising educator, however, would command the culprit to write the assigned sentence seven or eight thousand times!

On the other hand, there was a way out - a very easy way from one perspective, an unpleasant one from another. Any pupil who would come after class and beg forgiveness, would have his punishment waived.

Only long afterwards did the writer realize his teacher's motive. It wasn't sore wrists that he wanted. On the contrary, the excessive number of lines was designed to discourage the offenders from actually carrying out the sentence.

What he wanted his young charges to understand was that they should apologize and ask forgiveness. Only if the assigned task was especially daunting would they swallow their pride and come begging.

What better lesson could any teacher give to impressionable young people in the process of forming habits that will last a lifetime.

Surely, this is education at its best!

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Can Body Language Lead You Off the Track?

This little story is by way of continuation of my previous post. It's also very relevant to another recent post: Are We Listening to Our Children?

At school, little Johnnie loves to do one thing more than anything else. He loves writing on the blackboard. Everybody knows it: his teacher, his fellow pupils, and the whole school. Between classes, after classes, whenever he has the opportunity, he grabs a piece of chalk and starts scribbling.

Up to now, his teacher has been very indulgent. After all, Johnnie is a sweet little boy, and he's hardly five years old. But this morning, right at the beginning of the first lesson, the teacher announced a new rule: the children are not allowed to use the blackboard. She made it very clear that from now on, the blackboard is exclusively the teacher's domain.

The bell rings for recess. Using every once of self-control, little Johnnie runs out to play, and looks for a diversion to distract himself from the burning desire to do you know what! He joins in a ball game with his classmates.

Later, Johnnie returns with the other kids to the classroom, only to encounter the rebuking eyes of the teacher. She is standing before a board with scribblings all over it. "Johnnie, what did I say this morning," she asks sternly.

Johnnie looks down in confusion. Words fail him. How can a five year old stand up to his teacher? His hurt tears speak for him, but they give the wrong message to the teacher, who interprets them as a sign of remorse for wrongdoing.

The teacher's heart softens as the sight of the bitter tears. "Okay, Johnnie, " she says kindly. "I know it's hard for you, and this time I forgive you. But you must try harder next time not to give in to temptation."

Once again, a hasty conclusion has bitter consequences, even though the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. Now, it's very easy to point a finger at Johnnie's teacher. But, whether as parents of children or as friends, colleagues or employers of adults, can we honestly say that we're always free of the same fault?

On this subject, I'd like to make one observation here. Much has been written about the critical role of body language in interpreting a person's moods, feelings, intentions and motivations. Apparently, studies have shown that nonverbal communication has a much greater impact and reliability than the spoken word.

Yet, is body language - or rather, the way we interpret it - really as reliable as many make it out to be? Is it always as foolproof as the pundits would have as believe?

From our little story alone, we see that it is not. As valuable as the gestures of nonverbal communication may be as aids in assessing a situation, we need to be extremely wary of passing judgment on a person on the basis of external signals alone.


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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Danger! Do You Jump to Conclusions ?

Are you in the habit of jumping to conclusions about things other people do? If so, you'd be well advised to look before you leap!

Regrettably, mental laziness leads us to take everything we see and hear at face value. Moreover, it's human nature to be suspicious. We're very quick to add two and two. It's unfortunate that we often come up with five.

And when we make a wrong calculation, someone else can end up paying a hefty price!

Once we realize, if we ever do, that we've been a little bit too hasty in passing judgment, the damage has already been done. Feelings of resentment and other powerful emotions aren't the best thing for anyone's physical or emotional health. More serious still is the damage done to our personal relationships.

Just consider this true story that I read this week.

You could argue that cases like this are so unusual that they don't prove anything. True, such extreme incidents may not happen every day, although I'm not entirely convinced that they don't. But countless less extreme, less dramatic examples of the same syndrome certainly do occur daily.

In fact, probably every minute.

A company that provided courier services had several employees working together in a sorting room. Among the packages they processed were thick and heavily sealed envelopes that held valuable items like jewelry or large amounts of cash. These items were not delivered to the recipients' addresses, but were kept in a locked, secret drawer until the owners came to claim them.

One day, an envelope with a large sum of money disappeared. The managers didn't suspect theft. All their employees were old timers with good reputations. No one else could have known how to access the secret drawer.

After an extensive search, they concluded that the money had been handed over to the wrong party by mistake and were just thankful that such losses were covered by insurance.

But when another envelope disappeared followed by another, management realized they had a serious problem. All the employees were summoned to a lie detector test and with the machine attached, were asked straight out if they had taken the money. What they didn't bargain for was that seasoned liars, apparently, are sometimes immune to lie detectors!

The last to be tested was Joe, the most senior and probably the most highly regarded of all the staff. He was asked if he suspected any of his colleagues. Actually, he did. But since he had noting concrete on which to base his suspicions, he answered in the negative.

Bingo! Joe's "dishonest" response was registered on the machine as a lie!

"So you're the thief!" the interrogator cried. And like lightning, news spread throughout the organization, and beyond, that the mystery of the missing envelopes had been solved.

Fortunately, since there was no actual evidence in black and white, his employers weren't able to fire Joe - at least not yet. But of course, his status in the company had changed. Suspicious eyes followed him wherever he went. Worst of all, his boss even informed his father-in-law that Joe was the prime suspect in the case.

All the while, Joe continued to carry out his duties with total devotion, even as envelopes continued to disappear and the stares of Joe's colleagues and the whispering behind his back became more intense.

Eventually, a private detective was hired. He prepared an enticing envelope packed with green bills. The bills were sprayed with an invisible substance that left undetected traces on the hands of those that touched them.

Sure enough, that very day, the targeted envelope vanished into thin air. The managers rubbed their hands in glee. Next day, the employees were called into the office one by one and asked to hold out their hands in front of a special machine.

Joe was one of the first, but - nothing. The managers looked at each other uneasily. Later that day, six employees tearfully admitted to their crimes and were fired.

And what happened to Joe after that? Did he get a raise, or a promotion? A letter of apology? Anything at all to compensate for the mental anguish he had been wrongfully subjected to?

"All I got," snorts Joe when his friends ask him these questions, "was an extra workload on account of the guys who were summarily dismissed."

Do I need to comment further?

Most people understand what it means to give someone "the benefit of the doubt". Even more, they're fully prepared to put that principle into practice.

The problem is that they stubbornly refuse to believe that there IS a doubt.


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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Restraint in Speech: Why Must You Have the Last Word?

Consider this little conversation. It's imaginary, of course, but we know that caustic exchanges like this are a dime a dozen in family life.

One fine morning, just as Jack begins to tuck into a hearty breakfast, his good wife, Jill, offers the following comment as she sighs deeply:

"I woke up at six o'clock and I feel as though I've already put in a day's work?"

"What?" exclaims hubby, rather unsympathetically. "You woke up at six o'clock? When I took the dog out for a brisk early morning walk, you were still sleeping. That was just before seven."

"So what? Are you now calling me a liar?"

"I didn't say that!"

"But you implied it!"

"Did I really? You know, you're always distorting my words. I say one thing, you claim I said another. I just can't talk to you..."

"What? I'm distorting your words? You can't talk to me?

And so the conversation continues. In circles. But not for long, because Jack has to hurry to catch his bus to work. His breakfast is almost untouched, but who feels like eating anyway? He leaves without as much as giving his wife a parting look, while Jill resigns herself to a miserable day.

Why did Jack feel compelled to have the last word? What earth-shattering consequence hinged on whether or not Jill was wide awake or fast asleep at a certain hour in the morning?

None, of course. But the relevance of the matter was hardly the point. The point is just that we demand to have the last word. We relish pointing out inconsistencies in others. We love winning arguments.

But does anybody win an argument? We don't think so. Arguments only cause tensions to escalate. No winners, just losers.

The overwhelming desire to come out on top at all costs is a very human failing, but a failing nonetheless. When you think about it, it's really amazing how strong is our desire to best even those to whom we feel closest and whom we love the most.

Restraint in speech, constant awareness of the insidious nature of one-up-manship, is a critical prerequisite for marital harmony.

To remain silent in the face of an overwhelming urge to have the last word may require tremendous discipline at times. But look at what you gain!


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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

How to Achieve Greatness in One Hour

What? Achieve greatness in one hour? Are you serious, Azriel - is it possible?

Yes, absolutely. It is possible. Sometimes, in fact, it can be done in ten or fifteen minutes. And sometimes, even children can do it.

Granted, it depends what you mean by "greatness". For many, becoming great is more or less synonymous with becoming famous, or acquiring great wealth. But some more sensitive souls do recognize that there is a greatness that is far more enduring; a greatness that transcends mundane material concerns and earthly values.

Skeptical? Try this little story for size. It's not new; it's well known in certain quarters and has already been published on the Web and been circulated in emails. But I think it deserves wider publicity. And a friend who lived in the neighborhood at the time assured me it is 100% authentic.

The father of our hero originally made this incident public during a very emotional address at a parent's gathering at a school his son attended. It's a school for "special" children - with special needs.

This is what he told the audience. If, like me, you're not an American and ignorant of baseball terminology, don't let that disturb you! The message will still come through loud and clear.

One afternoon he happened to be walking with his son, Shay, past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, "Do you think they will let me play?"

Shay's father knew that his son was not at all athletic and that most boys would not want him on their team. But Shay's father understood that if his son was chosen to play it would give him a comfortable sense of belonging.

Shay's father approached one of the boys in the field and asked if Shay could play.

The boy looked around for guidance from his teammates. Getting none, he took matters into his own hands and said "We are losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him up to bat in the ninth inning."

Shay's father was ecstatic as Shay smiled broadly. Shay was told to put on a glove and go out to play short center field. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay's team scored again and now with two outs and the bases loaded with the potential winning run on base.

Shay was scheduled to be up. Would the team actually let Shay bat at this juncture and give away their chance to win the game?

Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that it was all but impossible because Shay didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, let alone hit with it. However as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher moved a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay should at least be able to make contact.

The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. One of Shay's team-mates came up to Shay and together they held the bat and faced the pitcher waiting for the next pitch. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly toward Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay and his teammate swung at the ball and together they hit a slow ground ball to the pitcher.

The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could easily have thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have ended the game. Instead, the pitcher took the ball and threw it on a high arc to right field, far beyond reach of the first baseman.

Everyone started yelling, "Shay, run to first. Run to first." Never in his life had Shay run to first. He scampered down the baseline wide-eyed and startled. By the time he reached first base, the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman who would tag out Shay, who was still running. But the right fielder understood what the pitcher's intentions were, so he threw the ball high and far over the third baseman's head.

Everyone yelled, "Run to second, run to second." Shay ran towards second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases towards home.

As Shay reached second base, the opposing shortstop ran to him, turned him in the direction of third base and shouted, "Run to third." As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams ran behind him screaming, "Shay run home."

Shay ran home, stepped on home plate and all 18 boys lifted him on their shoulders and made him the hero, as he had just hit a "grand slam" and won the game for his team.

This is how one little boy, whose constant companions were frustration and despair, suddenly came to be feeling top of the world.

And this is how 18 other boys, in the space of a few minutes, achieved greatness. Real greatness.


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Friday, September 16, 2005

Face-to-Face Encounters: A Dying Art?

In these heady days of instant messaging, cellphones, teleconferencing, PDF downloads and much more, what has become of good old face-time spoken conversation?

Communication specialist Loren Ekroth poses this question before reminding us that the human being is, after all, a social animal hard-wired for personal contact, after which he makes some fascinating predictions regarding the immediate future of human conversation.

Good old conversation? Well, among the many technological advances that are threatening to crowd out the more intimate forms of interpersonal communication, pride of place surely goes to good old email!

As a medium of communication, email is surely unparalleled for sheer convenience, but it carries many pitfalls and even dangers, especially in the work environment. We have several excellent articles on the site clarifying the right and wrong ways to use email and explaining why the email messages you send can even sabotage your career!

Until fairly recently, most of the focus on the negative side of email in the workplace has focused on such aspects as email overload, sloppy grammar and spelling and similar things that will reflect poorly on your professional image, the damage and embarrassment caused when messages land up in the wrong hands, or the need to consider the legal implications of what you put in writing.

However, all this could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Some years ago, Albert Mehrabian, psychology professor at UCLA, came up with this classic statistic for the effectiveness of spoken communications:

One writer who was quick to realize the implications of the above figures for email is Ron McMillan, co-author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, who points out that email can be the kiss of death when it is used to communicate anything sensitive, important or complicated.

He was able to see this for himself while spending 10,000 hours observing how companies communicate. Every day, millions of messages arrive in inboxes without the rich stew of nonverbal information - tone of voice, facial expressions, body stance, eye gaze - that we typically rely on to figure out what someone really means.

Why, asks McMillan, are managers and employees relying on email for nuanced conversations which really should be handled face-to-face (or as a poor second but still better, voice-to-voice)?

No small wonder that, according to the feature I pointed to above in this month's Inc. Magazine, employees of at least one company are banned from using email and the like if they plan to criticize one another. And no wonder that the CEO of another has dedicated one day per week as "no email" day.

From Monday to Thursday at Roberts Golden Consulting in san Francisco, email remains the primary form of communication - whether with colleagues, clients, or suppliers. But every Friday, president Sara Roberts, who believes that too much email only makes it harder to build rapport, reminds her staff to give their keyboards a rest.

"People hide behind e-mail," she laments. "For just one day a week, I want us to pick up the phone or talk to someone face-to-face."

For as Roberts firmly believes, in a wired world, it's worth remembering that there's still no technology more powerful than the meeting of minds.


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Monday, August 22, 2005

Come On, Give Our Kids a Life!

Obesity among children and adolescents in New York has tripled over the last 30 years, according to the New York State Department of Health. Apparently, a quarter of New York City schoolchildren between kindergarten and fifth grade are overweight, as are an even greater proportion of the City's high-schoolers.

A columnist writing in The New York Sun saw evidence of this herself while touring a private school in the city. She saw enough "heavy" students to make her think twice about her plans to raise her children in the city. She quizzed the school psychologist about what lies behind the disconcerting statistics.

"I grew up in New York," explained the psychologist in reply, "and after school we used to go to the park and throw the ball around..." In other words, in her day, kids got plenty of exercise. More physical activity, more calories burned up, more melting away of any superfluous fat. And today?

"Today, these kids all have tutors. They finish school, go to the tutor, come home and have dinner, and then it's time for homework and bed."

"Poor nutrition and low activity levels are the most obvious reasons behind childhood obesity," comments Sara Berman, the Sun columnist, "but I can't help but think that for many children in the city, whose parents know all about good nutrition and Little League on Saturday morning, the hours they spend sitting with tutors and in front of computers play a role as well."

Berman adds that when she searched Google for the term "tutors in New York City", she came up with 804,000 results. True, other American cities didn't come even close, but the numbers were significant enough. It seems we have echoes here of the social phenomenon (or should I say aberration?) that I discussed in my previous post. The "superstar" syndrome, powered by an intensively competitive society with a win-at-all-costs obsession, has apparently filtered down to the upcoming generation.

"There is so much pressure on our kids to be great at everything," a local mother told Berman. "When I was growing up, you were good at math or writing or French. It was okay to be bad at something too. That was normal. Today, if your kid is bad at math, you immediately try to find the best math tutor to fix the problem. It doesn't matter that she's also a great writer and captain of the basketball team."

Berman adds that she understands why parents would want to find tutoring for a son who's failing in French, or a daughter who's saddled with the worst math teacher for the second year in a row. "But is it such a problem if your child doesn't get all A's? Isn't there a natural variance in our children's performance? Don't the high schools and colleges expect a range of abilities for each child?"

And even if, she says, parents use the excuse that the competition for college placement is much more intense these days, "the madness of these parents" is partly responsible for that very intensity in the first place.

So what's going on here? Does the way parents drive their kids to higher and still higher levels of academic achievement, much as a jockey goads a race horse to towards the winning post, ultimately produce the productive, polished, well-rounded and well-adjusted citizens their mothers and fathers had prayed for?

I don't know.

Now, if these youngsters are spending part of their marathon spells under tutelage on sharpening their writing skills, I might be inclined to give their efforts my blessing.

According to a report released in June by the USA's National Commission on Writing, state governments spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year on remedial writing instruction for their employees. And that's not all: "It's impossible to calculate the ultimate cost of lost productivity because people have to read things two or three times," laments one of the commissioners, and another adds that he shudders to think how Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence would have read in standard, government-worker bureaucrat-speak.

One suspects that things are hardly much better in the private sector, and that many other countries have similar problems. Clearly, any investment we make to ensure our children will go out into the big wide world well equipped with essential communication skills, written and oral, would be a most worthwhile one.

But leaving that issue aside, are we doing the right thing by our offspring by depriving them of the kind of childhood we ourselves enjoyed? Do we have our priorities right when we allow ourselves to be driven by the compulsion to raise a new generation of superstars? Do the ultimate benefits of placing heavy pressure on the shoulders of our kids outweigh the drawbacks.

It's not only a question of getting sufficient physical exercise, important though that is. Many studies over the past decade or two have demonstrated the negative impact of long sessions in front of a computer screen on the development of a child's social skills and interpersonal relationships.

Perhaps the time has come to give our kids a life.

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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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Monday, June 27, 2005

Expressing Negative Feelings in a Positive Way

The title of this piece may sound like a contradiction in terms, but no, it makes perfectly good sense.

Disappointment, disapproval, resentment, bitterness, frustration, anger. All these are emotions that are clearly "negative", in the sense that, generally speaking, we don't perceive of them as "ideal" states of mind and people don't feel that way by choice. It's just that external circumstances (We didn't order them!) are unfavorable right now and what we feel seems to be an inevitable and unavoidable reaction to these circumstances.

Whether or not that last statement is entirely accurate, there's no denying that these negative feelings are a natural part of daily life. In the world of nature, you can't have heat without cold, light without darkness, nor health without disease. So, too, in the realm of human interaction, we can't expect positive without negative.

What's crucial is not whether or not we have these feelings, but how we express and control them. So crucial, in fact, that this is the likely "make or break" factor in all kinds of interpersonal relationships, and nowhere is this more true than in the relationship between marriage partners.

How do you handle your negative feelings towards your spouse, your children, your friends or fellow workers?

If you express them in an uncontrolled outburst of violent rage, the fallout for you and those near and dear to you is hardly likely to be pleasant - to put it mildly. Even if you give vent to your feelings in a way that's more controlled but deliberately intended to hurt - such as through sarcasm, ridicule or name-calling, the communication will be anything but effective.

But another way of dealing with such feelings is in some respects the worst of all, and unfortunately, it's far too common. That's when you don't express your negative emotions at all but keep them hidden inside you. By holding them in, you think you'll make them go away.

But they don't. In your heart, the tension you've tried so hard to suppress builds up. And builds up. And builds up. Until....

Professional counselor Dr Meir Wikler, in a book entitled Ten Minutes a Day to a Better Marriage, tells a story that I strongly suspect will strike a cord with many who are reading these lines.

Aaron didn't know how to express negative feelings in a positive way. His mistake was that he through he could maintain peace at home simply by restraining them.

But such restraint does have its limits. Therefore, whenever he was particularly upset about something his wife Sarah said or did, his internal pressure cooker would boil over. He would lash out at her with such rage and venom that she would be scared stiff. Next day, he would be overcome with embarrassment and promise himself and his wife he would never repeat such outbursts.

One day, Aaron kept swallowing in every comment from Sarah that he regarded as disrepectful, derogatory or demeaning. Then, as he was standing in the kitchen, Sarah crossed a red line one more time with a criticism he felt was unfair.

What did Aaron do? He "calmly" walked over to the sink, took the bottle of dishwashing liquid and squeezed some of it into the pot of spaghetti Sarah was cooking on the stove. Then he stormed out of the house. Apparently, it took many months to pick up the pieces of the shattered trust between him and Sarah.

Please read for yourself Dr. Wikler's analysis of the mistakes made on both sides and his rules for avoiding this kind of messy situation in your own home. This informative extract from his book, I dare to propose, must be compulsory reading for all who are married or aspire towards marriage, and certainly if you feel your relationship is somewhat shaky.

I've said it often: marriage, like any other worthwhile achievement, is hard work. It just doesn't work to drive our relationships on automatic pilot.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Ultimate Level in Human Relationships

I want to tell you a little story. Not about anything dramatic. Not at all. On the contrary, it's very ordinary.

So ordinary, in fact, that the many onlookers who must have been standing around didn't bat an eyelid when they overheard this brief conversation in a busy butcher shop. Hardly surprising that it made no impression on them because, seemingly, there was nothing to be impressed by.

Except for one highly perceptive soul whose finely tuned spiritual antennae were able to pick up subtle nuances far above the heads of the rest of us. He is a man who often speaks in public, and he was excited by what he had overheard in the butcher shop that day that he just couldn't wait for the first opportunity to share the story with a public audience. And thanks to his fortuitous presence in the shop just at that moment, I'm able to share it with you as well.

A young woman came into the shop and asked for freshly ground beef. The butcher told her that he had just ground some beef and held up a bag for her inspection.

She examined the bag, but rejected it. I t was too white, she claimed. The butcher assured her that the reddest meat turns white in the grinding process, but his young customer wouldn't bite. She remained unconvinced.

The butcher didn't flinch. He held up some red meat for her examination and asked her if it met with her requirements. She confirmed that it was in order, and the butcher put it through the grinder. He politely handed the woman the resulting product without saying a word. It was just as white as the already ground beef he had originally offered her.

As I said, a most unremarkable incident. At this point, if the audience reacted at all, it was only to express their great amazement that the lecturer had seen fit to mention such a trivial incident at all. What was he trying to prove?

But it only took a couple of seconds for the speaker's palpable sense of excitement to infect everybody in the room.

"Look," he said, "what would you have done had you been in this butcher's place. "What would you have said as you handed over the meat and handed the customer's money?"

That answer, of course is obvious. What would any "normal" person have said, if not for something like: "Isn't this just what I told you? When you grind the meat, it turns white."

"And could you have restrained yourself?" asked the lecturer rhetorically. "I could never have restrained myself."

But the butcher did restrain himself.

Now, for most of us, there comes a time in our life when we have to make a choice: do we want to be right or do we want to be loved? When people interact with each other, conflict is inevitable. That's a fact of life we can't run away from. But when handled properly, conflict need not drive the parties further apart. On the contrary, it could bring them closer together.

This is especially true of intimate relationships. Occasional conflict can even promote intimacy.

The truth is that conflict is hardly ever the problem. What tears the heart right out of potentially good relationships is the stubborn streak in the best of us that insists that we are always right on all occasions and in every circumstance. By implication, that means that the other side is never right.

In other words, when something goes sour, our partner is always to blame. And the secret wish of every "blamer" is that the other side will yet wake up one fine morning and say: "Gee, honey, now I understand the error of my ways. You were right and I was wrong. Please forgive me for upsetting you so much!"

Isn't it sad that such a morning never comes?

Now when, through sheer determination, we manage, once and for all, to pull ourselves out of the blame mode that's somehow almost our second nature, that's great. We're well on the way. But we should know that we have not necessarily reached the highest level yet.

Let's take another look at our story. What did our butcher gain by not gently pointing out, as he handed over the goods and took the money, that he was right all along? If he had said it politely and tactfully, the good lady would surely have not taken offence.

But the butcher was concerned with the woman's ego, not his. If, by keeping his mouth shut - even if that ran contrary to plain human nature - he could spare his customer the small embarrassment of knowing that she had been in error, and even if it would have been an embarrassment lasting only a few seconds - why not?

And as we should know, putting the needs of the other party before your own is putting yourself on the fast track of the royal road to happiness.


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Monday, April 18, 2005

When Humor Hurts, and When Humor Heals

For some, it's a familiar scenario. You've been sitting for hours already in the stuffy boardroom. You and other key personnel in your organization have been trying to solve a sticky corporate problem that just defies solution. Nobody seems to be seeing eye to eye. Nerves are already on edge. You've got a life of your own. So have your colleagues. When will you get out of this place?

Then, without warning, one of you says something funny. Everybody roars with laughter. (Or are they just pretending?) Now, there are two possibilities.

Could be that this was just what the doctor ordered. A sudden and powerful release of pent-up emotions. Muscles that were tensed up a moment ago are now relaxed. With renewed vigor, you get back to the business at hand. So you'll get home a little late tonight - so what?

Alternatively, the joke - or perhaps more accurately, the wisecrack - sounds awful funny for a moment, but the status quo quickly returns. The tension in your muscles, and in the air, doesn't dissipate; on the contrary it intensifies. The only one in the room who possibly feels some emotional release is the guy who made the "humorous" comment, and even with him, it doesn't last long. It's quickly replaced by a feeling of emptiness, even depression.

And of course, there could be one hapless man or woman among the audience who not only feels edgy, but positively humiliated.

Life is full of trials and tribulations. We are surrounded by aggravating people, plans that didn't work out the way we intended, situations that challenge our very sanity. We can't always change the facts, but we can change the way we view a certain situation. And to bring such positive changes about, we can surely find no more efficient catalyst than humor.

We know how humor can improve relationships, and if you're, say, a business person, it can even make a difference to your bottom line. Even the healing potential of humor is today openly acknowledged by the medical profession.

A good joke can be a spontaneous response to a certain situation. It doesn't have to be the kind that you see posted all over the Internet or printed in a book. It doesn't need to be funny enough to make people slap their sides in hysterics. If it produces a good feeling in those who hear it, it has achieved its purpose. Nothing more is required.

The problem is that many people fail to appreciate the fine but very distinct line between genuine, healthy humor and cynicism or sarcasm. That is dangerous. Many a school teacher, for example, whether innocently or maliciously, has ruined a child for life with his or her warped sense of humor.

Humor is a wonderful tool that helps to make the world a better place, but we must be careful that our personal brand is not really cynicism in disguise. A psychologist suggests these guidelines to help us distinguish between the two concepts:
May your day be filled with laughter. And above all, may you merit to spread all those positive feelings to those around you.


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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

More Choices, More Misery...And Lousy Relationships!

In my e-book, How to Build Relationships That Stick, I told over a story I once heard in the name of a famous relationships counselor who talks on radio shows. It was claimed to be an authentic account of something that happened in real life, but even if it's apocryphal, I'm very much inclined to believe it could happen.

A man decided to divorce his wife because, he said, he no longer loved her.

Unfortunately, for some technical reason, he could not file for the divorce for six months. Being a reasonable fellow, he decided to make the most of the situation. Just for the heck of it, he would make a list of all the things he would do, if he truly loved his wife.

So he began doing all those things. And the result? He was soon madly in love with the woman he couldn't stomach a few months earlier.

One thing we can learn from this is that love - I mean real, authentic love, not the Hollywood variety - is the product of giving, not of taking. But there's more.

The whimsically romantic notion that love just happens, that Cupid either strikes you with his arrow or he doesn't, is just that. It's a concept that has its place in romantic novels, but it has little to do with real life. I'm not denying, of course, that chemistry is often an important component in relationships, but at best, it's only part of the story. Anyone who's interested in a lasting, satisfying, "sticky" kind of relationship, the kind that may lead to a lifetime of bliss, knows that he or she has to work hard.

Darned hard. On the first day, the second day, and every day thereafter. Period.

A professor of psychology recently wrote a book with an intriguing title: The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. In an article explaining his rationale for writing the book, Barry Schwartz alludes to the stunning array of choices available to people in modern Western society, in every sphere of their lives.

Just walk into the average supermarket in search of hair-care products, and you may have 300 or more shampoos, conditioners and the like to choose from. In countless areas of life in which we used to have few or no options, we have to make continuous choices. And of course, the present day "explosion of tolerance" for "alternative" lifestyles has given us a further set of choices unknown to our grandparents and which have far reaching implications.

But if it seems logical that having more to choose from should make us happier, in fact the opposite is true. Schwartz quotes the findings of respected researchers that "increased choices and increased affluence have, in fact, been accompanied by decreased well-being."

Now read the story of the guy who wanted to divorce his wife again.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Scourge of Gossip: Why We Are Fast Asleep

In my previous post, I cited a story that showed quite dramatically how a group of youngsters had lost their sensitivity to the horrors of violence, thanks to the negative impact of TV, the movies, and perhaps even the books and newspapers they were in the habit of reading. But then, what's new? Nor is this phenomenon confined to people in their formative years.

That's why I referred to the media as a kind of mental anesthetic. But what we really need to ask ourselves is this: Exactly how potent is this anesthetic? Is a normal person's natural aversion to extreme aggressiveness all that it kills, or does its desensitizing power reach further, to less obvious, more subtle, but equally important areas?

As a first step, consider this brief imaginary conversation around the office water cooler in one of the most popular articles on our site, Tracy Peterson Turner's How to Put an End to Office Gossip:

Ted: Bob, did you hear about Tim? He got a great promotion.
Bob: Really? What for?
Ted: Apparently he did a job for the boss and the boss liked it; so Tim got the promotion. I think they're friends, and that probably helped.

Tracy correctly points out that as soon as Ted put in his own speculation about the reason Tim got the promotion, Ted crossed the line between sharing Tim's good news and gossiping. Yes, it's a line that's sometimes extremely fine, but it's a line you cross at your peril, and worse still, at the peril of your victim (and "victim" is a word that's appropriate in this context) and even of all those around you.

Tracy's excellent article explains in detail why, and how you can tell when you're about to cross the line. But why is there a need to write such an article at all? Why, nowadays, is talking about other people in a depreciating way so common in the workplace and everywhere else?

Yes, the inclination to gossip is nothing more or less than basic human nature. Always was, and doubtlessly always will be. We can't run away from that. On the other hand, the mark of a cultured human being has always been the the ability, and more importantly, the will, to control his or her urges. The head rules the heart.

So why do folk in our generation have such a hard time restraining themselves from conduct that may be pleasant in itself, but which they know deep down is harmful to themselves and harmful to those among whom they live, work and play?

Of course, the reasons are many and varied, and I've no intention of trivialize the complexity of the issue. All I want to do is to draw attention to one aspect, which at least might shed a little light on the subject.

Which brings us back to the media. Let's take a closer look at your typical newspaper, online news source, magazine or other medium offering political or social commentary.

As I mentioned last time, a major function of the media is to act as the public watchdog against injustice, corruption, bad government, and similar things. In the course of so doing, it has to uncover what it has to uncover and reveal what it has to reveal.

Fine. But why must every "respectable" news outlet, whether in print or on the Internet, have a column or section that is openly and blatantly labeled "Gossip"?

And we, frail mortals that we are who are deeply influenced by what we see and hear - is it any small wonder that we're falling asleep at the wheel of life, so to speak, that we're casting off whatever remains of our sense of healthy shame, and speedily losing our sensitivity to all things sacred?


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Sunday, March 13, 2005

Social Anesthesia: Media's New Role?

Yes, I know that's a rather cryptic headline, but just one minute, and I'll explain...

In one of my articles on the site, I referred to an eye-opening classroom experience that former teacher John Andrew Murray wrote about in Teachers in Focus magazine. It's worth repeating here.

Murray was teaching English at a private American school and he was using the old television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents to spice up his weekly lessons on plot development. After a few weeks, he decided to stop the show before the end and let the students write their own endings. The kids liked the idea so much that they wanted to read their work aloud in class.

Murray was happy to agree, but after the first three or four students, he put a stop to the reading aloud. Why?

Because what the teacher has heard had horrified and sickened him.

Once he had recovered a little from the initial shock, he began to discuss with the youngsters the highly explicit imagery of violence he had found in their papers. They insisted that media violence didn't affect them because, after all, the graphic scenes they saw on TV and the movies were "fake." Murray then asked them how they would feel if they saw a dog on TV getting riddled with bullets.

"How horrible!" they cried out in unison.

Murray concludes that unlike the human carnage they regularly witness on TV, his pupils found animal deaths appalling precisely because they had seldom seen it.

For the first time, they realized how desensitized they had become to violence.

Now you'll perhaps understand why I refer to the media (and I use the word in the very broad sense: newspapers, magazines, books, TV, computer games, email, Internet, the works...) as the anesthetics of modern society.

It's a funny thing. When I was a little younger, a major function of the " press", as it was then called - a term later largely replaced by "the media" to embrace more modern forms of communication - was perceived to be a public watchdog against corruption and social injustice. In other words, a red flag, a siren to rouse you from your slumber, to alert and sensitize you to communal and social maladies that need addressing.

Hopefully, the media, or part of it, still serves that role. But we see from the above story how the media can do exactly the opposite.

We see, in fact, a numbing effect that can really put us to sleep.

In my next post, please G-d, we'll examine whether the power of this anesthesia is confined to our natural aversion to violence and similar phenomena, or whether its effects reach further to far more subtle areas.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Shame Should Be a Badge of Honor

In my article Your Self-image in the Workplace , I mentioned the interesting confession of an educator friend who has years of experience in teaching, and only at the best schools.

"Usually," my friend had lamented with a big sigh, "a small child arrives for his first day of school with an excellent self-image."

"Great - so what's the problem, then?" I had asked.

"Well, very often, that's the end of the story!"

The following incident, which I read of recently, may be an extreme example, but it surely represents the type of thing my friend had in mind.

A certain teacher asked her pupils to open the homework they were supposed to have prepared the previous evening. She noticed that little Suzie failed to open her book, and asked her why.

Suzie turned red and managed to stammer: "I...didn't ...do the homework. I...I...forgot about it."

Thereupon, the teacher took a small coin out of her pocket, glared at the object of her anger and snickered: "Suzie, do you see this penny? Well, Suzie, I can tell you, it's even more than you're worth!"

I don't know what our teacher had hoped to achieve, except perhaps to imbue in the poor girl a hatred of learning for the rest of her school career. The only thing we can be certain of, is that it's past time that this lady looked for a new profession.

If what she had intended was to instill in her pupil a sense of shame, that's a kind of shame that's clearly very, very destructive. But it must be said, and said very clearly, there's another kind of shame that's very, very constructive.

And it's nothing less than a tragedy that in today's so-called civilized society, we've all but lost that sense of constructive shame. And as a society, we're destined to pay very heavily for it.

What inspired me to write this post was an excellent article by Dr. Joyce Brothers entitled Shame May Not Be So Bad After All in Parade Magazine of Feb. 27. I urge you to read it, and think about it deeply.

A world in which a woman boasts openly on a TV talk show about seducing her sister's husband, a man on a reality show confides his plan to humiliate an unsuspecting teammate - "knife him in the back" - a world in which songs about the joys of beating up women are openly aired and new computer games where the mission is to kill John F. Kennedy are openly sold on the market - is this a healthy world or a very, very sick one?

Carrying around the "baggage" of shame only makes people bad about themselves, say some pseudo-psychologists. But as Dr. Brother points out, rather than increasing our self-esteem, the suppression of shame can do just the opposite.

"Positive shame," she asserts, "occurs when we see ourselves as we really are - perhaps too involved to notice that our spouse needs our help, perhaps too scared of what others think to stand up for someone in trouble, perhaps too resentful of the past to allow a wound to heal..."

Negative, destructive shame is something we can all do without.

But bringing back the positive shame of years and generations gone by is what may yet save this world.

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

Caution: Are You and Your Doctor on the Same Wavelength?

Hi and welcome! This is the first of my informal postings on issues relating to effective communication, interpersonal relationships and similar topics we deal with on Your Communication Skills Portal. Some of these observations may the be nucleus of future full-length articles.

Most important: please add your own comments below each post. Only your participation will make this blog work!

In my article How Invisible Communication Barriers Kill Productivity, I wrote about how disturbances of various types - both real and psychological - interefere with the way messages are received. On this subject, I often think of a joke that was going the rounds some while back - only now I'm wondering whether it's perhaps more than a joke...

The story goes that a fellow walked into a doctor's office and the receptionist asked him what he had. He said, "Shingles." So she took down his name, address and other personal particulars and told him to have a seat..

A few minutes later a nurse's aid came out and asked him what he had. He said, "Shingles." So she took down his height, weight, a complete medical history and told him to wait in the examining room.

Ten minutes later a nurse came in and asked him what he had. He said, "Shingles." So she gave him a blood test, a blood pressure test, an electrocardiogram, told him to take off all his clothes and wait for the doctor.

Fifteen minutes later the doctor came in and asked him what he had. He said, "Shingles." The doctor said, "Where?"

He said, "Outside in the truck. Where do you want them?"

OK...That's the product of a fertile imagination and a healthy (pardon the pun!) sense of humor. But what do you say about this - apparently - true story cited in a revealing newspaper article posted on the website of the Faculty of Medicine of Dalhousie University in Canada.

A guy went to see his doctor about his painful skin lesions. "It's trichophyton," the brisk young physician told him. "It's a bad case . You've probably got six weeks, seven at the most.."

The patient, a 56-year-old building contractor who prided himself on his toughness, didn't flinch and didn't bother with the prescription the doctor scribbled down. He summoned his four sons to his home, grimly announced that he was dying and exhorted them to be brave as he handed out copies of his will.

Fortunately, the youngest son was a pre-med student and he asked what he had been diagnosed with. His Dad pronounced the strange term to the best of his ability and the young man split his sides with laughter.

"Dad," he finally gasped, "That's athletes foot. Didn't he tell you?"

While this is clearly an extreme case, almost everyone, concludes the writer, "has had the experience of leaving a doctor's office dazed, worried, or just plain mystified at the scrawled prescription in their hand. Most physicians admit they often miss the chance to educate their patients."

Maybe it should be the other way around: perhaps it's time for us, as patients, to educate our doctors? Check out this article on our site that handles this topic very well: How to Communicate With Your Doctor .

So what do you think?

Some of our other articles on the issue of problems arising from defective communication:

The Importance of Closing the Feedback Loop
Poor Communication: Cause or Result
The Myth of the Communication "Problem"
Communicating Effectively in the Workplace


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