“Random” Acts of Kindness

I was going for a walk around my neighbourhood today. A pretty typical thing to do especially when you work at the computer. I needed to move the bones around and get the blood flowing. I was less on my phone and more present with my surroundings when I noticed the gate and the car. The two were trying to coordinate their dance of maneuvering and entering, and it was not going so well. I happened to walk by so I held the gate for the car, that is to say, for the gentleman driving the vehicle. We were both shocked. He was astounded that I had helped him (it’s not like I was busy doing anything else!) and I was surprised at how shocked he was. After our “thank yous” and “your welcomes” came to end, I continued on my walk and my musings.

Why should seemingly random help from strangers surprise us so? Do we always need to be in a give-take relationship with someone in order to help them?

What about that wonderful concept of the Universal Bank of Services? I first read about it in one of Paolo Coelho books. Simply put, the Bank of Services is an infinite, cosmic web of people helping people. And those people don’t necessarily know each other or have any particular ties to each other besides their shared humanity (FYI that’s already a big tie, hehe). Simply, we do good for others when we can. In return, when needed, we can also receive help in return. And we won’t always receive it from someone we know or thought would help us… sometimes it’s a random act of kindness.

To me it feels pretty freeing, and oh-so enjoyable.

Plus – when I’m on the receiving end of seemingly random kindness – I’m so much more willing to accept and invite it in. Because I’m regularly paying into the Universal Bank too. Maybe I haven’t helped or been present for that specific person who’s helping me, but I have for someone else and…. the cycle continues. It’s fun to think of how my brain is completely incapable of comprehending the vastness of this web!

Speaking of being present in the moment and simply doing what needs to be done, that does remind me of The Muddy Shoe post (flashback to Haiti! #ayitichéri)

That’s all for me. A miracle indeed that I was able to curb my ramblings to a relatively short post 🙂 I might consider that a random act of kindness too 😉

Judgment detoxification

Folks, I think it’s high time we stop it. We need to stop this foolishness. Judgment. Why are we judging each other constantly? Why am I judging myself constantly? When I know – and I know it deep down – that I am doing the best that I can every day. Yet I’m requiring more, asking more, thinking I should be more, comparing myself to others more… and it’s exhausting. I can barely breathe.

Today I feel like I’ve been trudging up this judgment mountain and I reached the peek. And I’m glad I’m here and I can see out around me but hell I have no desire to climb this mountain ever again. I’m done. This is done. I’ve had enough.

I have no desire to judge anyone any more. I don’t even want to pretend that I think I know why you are doing what you are doing. What the hell do I know? I’m not the one living in your skin and in your head and heart every day. I don’t know if walking outside and going to the supermarket has been the most trying task for you today, or whether it was easy and you didn’t think about it twice. I don’ t know where you’ve been and what you’ve been experiencing. I don’t know who or what you’re grieving for. I couldn’t tell you what the last event was that brought you joy. I don’t even know you. Yet here I sit with judgments about you flitting through my mind. Enough!

And do you know HOW I know that I don’t know you? Because I spend 24 hours a day WITH MYSELF (and have done so for several decades) and I barely know myself! My own reactions, thoughts and daydreams startle me! I recently experienced a panic attack, and that was a new experience. Heck, I even discovered a new vegetable last month (chicory) – ha! So if living in such close proximity to one human being – aka, me – is already rife with so many mysteries, discoveries and question marks – how on Earth can I pretend to know you?

…and don’t get me started on when I think I know what is best for you (inserts snorting laughter here)… because I have all my sh*t together, right? (ha!) and here I go telling you how to live your life (shakes head)…

The dictionary tells me that judgment is “the ability to judge, make a decision, or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively, and wisely, especially in matters affecting action; good sense; discretion“.

I want to take that word ABILITY and throw it off the mountain top and lose it forever. Right now I’m thinking we can replace it for a while with the word DISABILITY. A crippling disability that we need to receive support for in order to overcome it.

The support system for our disability would also teach us 3 magic words: “JUST LIKE ME”. They would teach us that these need to be added as an afterthought to every judgment in order to nullify the negative effects of judgments.

Example:

“Wow – that guy is always on the go!”…and adding at the end “just like me

“Crikey, it looks like the government has no idea what its doing”…(clears her throat), “just like me.”

“That lady looks lovely, and she’s obviously been working out,” … (winks to self), “just like me!”

At the end of the day this disability called judgment is probably here to stay, much like covid-19, rats and paying taxes. Except in the case of this particular epidemic we are all already infected. There is no vaccine and there are only two known cures.

1. Stop yourself mid-act while passing judgment on someone else (you’ve got to be really quick on your toes for this one!)

2. Once you do judge… just add the 3 magic words… “just like me”

…and at least that way you’ll be reminded of your own folly and wonder and your humility will stay in check as you remember that hey, you too, are most likely just as messy, fascinating and unpredictable like all of those other people.

Oh yeah, and those three words will help to soothe the heartache. Because when we judge we separate ourselves from others. Did you know that?

Ok. That was quite the mountain-top soapbox speech. I’m done now. I can breathe again now. I’m climbing back down to humans once again now.

Once I’ll get there I’ll have a green juice and I’ll make it official: I’m on judgment detox.

*featured image courtesy of BBC.

I am well. I am here. I’m willing to help if needed. YOU need only ask.

It is time to write to you again. If I have remained silent in the last while it is because the turbulence of things got to me too.

I have made it through my own small storm to settle in the peace on the other side. And that peace is acceptance of what is. And gratitude for all of the miracles continuing to manifest.

Firstly, please know that I am safe and sound in a small hamlet near Gap, in the French Alps. I am more than OK, I am thriving. With nature, the forest and the mountains at my doorstep and the windows of my little hut which welcome in the Eastern morning sun – I am blessed. I am with a good family, and I have children around me, and WOW children are so much more practiced than most of us adults at living in the present moment. My previous volunteer exchange (more info here on how I create mini-retirements for myself) has simply been adapted to the new circumstances. I’m staying for longer than initially planned. It’s spring here so there’s plenty to do!

I help out in the housework and the garden-work as needed, and since the girls can’t go to school or to their regular extra curricular activities, I help when I can with teaching them English, piano and guitar. I was taught music in the anglo-saxon way (A+ major, D- minor and so on) and so I don’t know much about do, re, mi, fa, so, la system used by the French, but we make do. Rhythm is universal. So is slowing down and taking apart the more difficult parts of a musical piece before putting it all back together again. Staying disciplined and moving forward step by step is also the international language of learning. And so, day by day, we are finding our own new tempo of life. We may also be creating our own family theater production.. but more on that later 🙂

In terms of material tools I have everything that I need. Yummy, nutritious food, oodles of fresh bread and cheese (ha! the French!) and a warm, cozy bed. A wood-burning stove for when the evenings get chilly. A great Internet connection allowing me to feel close to loved ones. Books galore, paper to draw on, paper to write on, tissues to cry into if needed.

Internally, I also have everything that I need. Every retreat, every meditation, every yoga practice, every spiritual book, every single time that I have had the courage to be comfortable with the uncomfortable is now serving me more than ever. Oh yes!! My online habits of learning and creating and money-earning also serve me well. My travel and other work plans pre lock-down were disrupted, yes, and once I made my peace with these changes it feels like it’s back to square one.

And square one is also answering, yet again, the question: What can I do to serve others?

It turns out I’ve got quite a few skills and perspective-altering practices to share with you. Do you need these skills? Do you want to learn about them? Do you know how you want to experience this home-isolation? Do you want it to be a time of creativity? of peace?  of learning? or are you letting yourself get carried away in the panic and media frenzy?

Here are some topics that immediately come to mind:

1. Self-knowledge – understanding your inner world. Let’s connect about:

  • starting a meditation practice
  • starting your own yoga practice
  • what is mindfulness and how to practice this
  • managing difficult emotions (such as fear, anxiety, etc.)

2. Learning online. Chat to me about:

  • what do I want to learn and how do I find the course
  • how to stay motivated and disciplined
  • how and why online courses can add to your skillset (both professional and personal)

3. Earning money online. I’m happy to share about:

  • what is upwork.com and how does it work
  • what kind of work can I do online?
  • is working remotely for me? why or why not? (personality types and compatibility)
  • pros and cons of working online

4. Working remotely from home for the first time:

  • balancing structure and flow in your day – how to do this?
  • staying motivated and self-disciplined
  • keeping the feeling of connection with colleagues and direct-reports strong
  • using technology to aid (and not to hinder) you in your work

Why me? I’m a certified yoga instructor and coach. I’m also a manager and an entrepreneur. I move between many worlds and cultures (private sector, NGO sector, freelance online work) so I have a pretty good understanding of different professional and work contexts. I have over 10 years experience learning, practicing and implementing points 1, 2, 3 and 4 above. Because I am willing to share and I want to share this with you. Because I’m deeply committed to wellness and to compassionate leadership.

This is what I can do. It is an open offer – take it or leave it – it is OK either way! I have experience in these fields, and it’s something I naturally share about with the people I meet, all around the world, all the time. Except that recently my social gatherings got squished to zero 😉 (as did yours, I know) and so now I’m opening this up to the online sphere. I’m also aware that many of you have had less practice with the above topics, and you may need a hand. I get it. I really do.

FYI – I also work in Polish and in French. My Spanish is a bit rusty, but I’ll make an extra effort 😉

So please also share with your international friends.

Contact me. Message me here or on Linkedin or via my website. Send me an email (jestemat@gmail.com) and let’s connect.

What do I ask for in exchange? That you spread the word. That you come with an open mind and an open heart. That you open up to the idea that there is a friendly soul over here in the French Alps who would be happy to share with you. If demand is high enough I’ll organize free webinars to have groups come together with like-minded interests to learn together. so – PLEASE – share!

This is NOT some kind of money grab. I am sincere in my offer of free advice. Yes, I also charge for my coaching services. If you eventually become interested in hiring me as your coach, then we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. This post is not about that. It’s about waving a virtual hello and letting you know that you are not alone.

With peace and blessings.
p.s. Folks, it’s true that there are few, if any, guarantees in life. But I’ll tell you this – we will get through this. As a human family, we will be OK.

Stay strong. Remain in your inner peace. Connect with your own heart. Pray for everyone. For we are all, in one way or another, affected by what is happening.

With a full heart,
I bid you a very fond farewell for now, from the mountain top,
Katalina

In Praise of Mini-Retirements & How YOU can go on one too

I first read about this idea of mini-retirements in Tim Ferris’ book called the 4-hour work week. The idea stuck and I’ve been taking breaks between work contracts to travel and volunteer ever since. I for one do not want to wait until I’m 65 to enjoy discovering different activities and parts of the world that I wouldn’t normally have the chance to do and see!

The result has been amusing and educational. And, incidentally, I also get to spend a lot of time with older people (because they are actually retired). Positive because:
1. I can question them on their life decisions and what they feel they did well, or not so well – aka, garner new wisdom
and
2. they are chill older people, much like me, so no pressure to drink/party etc. I like my dancing but I’m not much of a night-clubber.

There are numerous ways to plan a mini-retirement for yourself. You can plan it around one of your hobbies/passions (aka. you’ve just discovered salsa dancing and you’re heading to Colombia to immerse yourself in this for the next 3 months) or around a great, new place you’ve been meaning to discover.

How?
Check out websites such as WWOOFing networks (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) where in exchange for room and board you help out farmers with their various organic farming activities (this has led to rather random and funny situations in my own life, such as my temporary hiring of Bolivian soldiers who weeded the garden story) and Work Away (workaway.info) as well which works much like WWOOFing but involves a whole myriad of work and volunteer activities that go far beyond farming. I really enjoyed my first workaway trip where I got to teach yoga in Morocco back in 2018.

Side note: for anyone reading this who has children – YES many WWOOF and WorkAway hosts will welcome in families to stay and volunteer with them too.

Then we always have couchsurfing, AirBnB and WarmShowers network (for you cyclists out there)…

and you ALSO have friends who can take you along on a fun cruise or trip (or you can invite yourself to them).. then by all means bike along the Danube or check out an Ashram in India and go on an Ayurvedic cleanse. Thank you friends !!

Of course there are all of the allures of being a global nomad and finding freelance work, such as using the platform upwork.com – you can also take some time off between major work contracts and have a bit of a side hustle on the side – either to keep yourself and your mind busy and engaged, or to make some extra cash, or both.

Either way, for the sake of leading interesting, diverse and balanced lives, why on Earth (if we can allow ourselves this luxury) would we immediately jump from work contract to work contract? I advocate for taking some downtime, but ultimately what I see in myself and in others is that down-time does not necessarily mean doing nothing and lying belly-up on the beach (sometimes needed, but not always), but rather it means changing drastically what you’re doing and where you are.  Mentally, it feels like more of a holiday. Taking some distance from your normal life and activities can give you a breather, change your perspective and rest the parts of your mind which are preoccupied with those activities. I don’t think we necessarily need to stop being active BUT we do sometimes need a change of scene and change what we are doing.

FYI – there are other benefits to this also.
Being cross-disciplinary and poking your nose into other worlds that you previously knew nothing about (ex. organic farming, goat-cheese making, natural horsemanship, woodworking, etc.) can be very beneficial to your core work and to your brain:

  • builds creativity and fires up your imagination
  • is literally healthy for your brain (Thank you medium.com, and I quote “your brain needs novelty to grow”)
  • can bring in great new inspiration and ideas (in fact, according to Harvard Business Review, some of the best ideas come from outside of our own industries)
  • not to mention travelling to a part of the world where you can brush up on the foreign language you’re learning

Three cheers for the diverse life and the life-long learners!!!

(and after you’re done cheering, please feel free to leave your thoughts and feedback below) <– especially if you’re a practitioner of mini-retirements too!

A major cause of work stress…and it’s not what you think

Mental stress is defined as how events in one’s external or internal environment are perceived, resulting in the psychological experience of distress and anxiety (source). The question of perception and of our personal capacity to adapt and to welcome uncomfortable events and feelings means that different people can react to the same external or internal environments very differently. What matters is not necessarily what you are experiencing but rather how you are reacting to it.

Side note: I’d like to share one of my favourite life quotes:

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”
Charles R. Swindoll

The pop-culture understanding of mental stress brings up images of frazzled people running around, hurried for time, barely breathing and trying to fit in even more items into an overloaded schedule.

Potentially with one eye popping out of its socket. See cartoon below:

The truth is, however, that most of us don’t actually have a problem with rushing around a bit. Hustle is not the issue here. Remember that hobby project you’re working on which absolutely absorbs you, and you forgot to eat dinner because you were so consumed by it? What about how you were feeling tired this evening until your best friend called you and now you’re super keen to go out with him? Because when we want to do it, when we’re passionate about it, we will happily go the extra mile and maybe even forego basic needs like food and sleep.

But why?

Why do we expend energy on a beloved hobby, and feel energized, and turn around and dedicate the same amount of energy to a task that feels like a chore and feel depleted?

The answer is simple: heart.

When the heart and the head are disconnected – and especially when this becomes a chronic state of being – we are quickly depleted. Our to-do lists become heavy burdens, and every effort to move things forward on a path which doesn’t feel right feels gargantuan.

And what, pray tell, can reconnect us with our hearts?

While we all have different passions and desires, I believe that human interaction, compassion and sense of belonging are a big part of the heart-nutrition we are hankering for these days.

You’ve had our fill of dog-eat-dog competition. You’re over the idea of “keeping up with the Jones’ “. Actually, by now you’re far more keen on being more than on having more.

Cheer up. There is good news. Whatever work that you are doing, whatever the industry, or the location, whether it is in an office or remotely based.. you are very probably interacting with humans.

…and interactions with humans are RIFE with opportunity.

This means you have constant opportunities to interact, to share a sincere smile, to show compassion for someone else’s struggle and to make authentic connections. And these interactions have the incredible power of changing your perception about the work that you are doing.

Yes, but what about my stress levels?

I’m arguing that it’s not about your task-list, or your boss (to whom you can also send loving-compassion, FYI, even if she makes your life a living hell most of the time, lol). It’s actually about how well you take advantage of your opportunities to share goodness with others. I’m arguing in favour of looking at your job – dare I say, at everything that you do in life – as one, long, never-ending, glorious excuse to love people.

Yes, I’m going to say it again.

–>Everything I do is really just a pretext to love on people.<–

Because, ultimately, it is not how busy or unbusy you are which will determine how stressed you feel, but the quantity and quality of heart-connections that you are experiencing. Your mind alone can never bring you full satisfaction and fulfillment at work or in life. Only your heart can do that.

Look at the following two states of being as a major energetic underpinning of discomfort and dissatisfaction at work (and in life). You’ll also find that they are very connected to each other. And it is this discomfort and heart-disconnection which makes the rush and frazzled state we experience as stress become so unbearable.

A) my work does nothing to nourish my heart and soul

Your work in and of itself may or may not have profound meaning (you can work for an NGO, build water wells in African villages etc.) OR you can give it meaning yourself in your approach to yourself and to people. Some people need that feeling of direct impact on a community in order to feel at peace with themselves and their work (and as someone who spent 6 years working in Haiti and Senegal I certainly had my dose of this too!), and I fully respect that approach. But let’s not negate all of the tasks and structure needed to make our world go round, from the baker baking the bread to the electrician fixing your power cable. That being said, the second approach, of giving heart-meaning to your own work, regardless of what that work may be, is also very valuable. Simply put, human beings and human trials and tribulations are present all the time. Who you are and what you do to spread compassion and peace around you is relevant always and everywhere.

The reason we feel so stressed? Not only are we running around trying to be as efficient as possible and checking off items from our to-do list, but to add salt to the wound, what we are doing in the first place doesn’t feel purposeful or in alignment with our heart. Sometimes we know what our heart is telling us, sometimes we are searching for it still. In the meantime we can bring serious meaning into any work that we are doing by asking ourselves how we can bring in more understanding, open-mindedness and tolerance into all of our interactions and projects.

B) I’m really focused on myself and on my own success

I write about self-care and relaxation and now I’m saying that we’re overly focused on ourselves? Ironic. Ultimately, what it all comes down to is balance.  Yes, care for yourself, yes, look after your own needs too, but when the scale tips away from service to others, don’t be surprised that your feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment diminish.

To quote this article from Psychology Today,  “science shows that we are actually wired for compassion, not self-interest.”

No need to get extreme here. I’m not suggesting that you abandon your career plans and dissolve all healthy boundaries between you and others. Stay you, and stay true to your path. However…

Try it. I dare you. Do something nice for someone at the office. Pay attention what people say and then get creative on how you can help them to reach their goals/dreams. It really is incredibly enjoyable to turn your thoughts away from your own issues to helping to solve other people’s puzzles. These don’t have to be big or expensive gestures to be effective in connecting you with your goodness and with other people. Even something as simple and quick as forwarding an email about flight discounts to your colleague who has mentioned planning a trip to Europe this summer shows that you care about them. When you’re feeling stuck or blue turn your self-pity around and get really curious about what is bothering or hurting other people around you. Ask yourself: “I wonder how I can make his/her day better today.” Feeling under the weather today? At least you can muster up a little bit of strength for a friendly smile. People expect you to take care of your friends and family. You expect you to do that too. But what if you also extended your caring to your colleagues? To the barista that gets you your morning coffee at Starbucks? Or to the cleaning lady AND the CFO at the office? Might you feel differently about your work and about work-related stress if your heart was overflowing with compassion for others?

Pay close attention to yourself and get curious as you explore this.

The Subtle Art of Relaxation

I gaze at my candle, at my sacred images and objects, a mishmash of cultures and references that are all significant to me. There’s a quote from the Little Prince, my recent Osho card drawn from my deck, a photo of me when I’m four years old laughing over something which was obviously hilarious. There’s a heartfelt letter from me to me up there too (more on writing letters to self coming soon!). And there are other important objects present on the simple, wooden platform that serves as my alter. A Ganesha button from my yoga teacher training, a beautiful rock with purple crystals from Senegal gifted to me by my best friend. A maple leaf coaster lies underneath the candle and incense gently snakes its way around it all while filling the room with the bitter sweet fragrance of palo santo. Kora music plays from one of my favourite Youtube recordings (check it out here, especially the piece that unfolds starting at 38:38!).

I feel myself smiling, relaxing and breathing deeper. Finally, the stresses and overstimulation of the day melt away. Much like the candle flame is slowly melting away the wax.

And I take a moment to muse about the subtle art of relaxation.

So normal for some of us, and so foreign to others. As anything, it is a question of practice.
In my travels I have found that in general (and yes, this is a major generalization), the people and cultures of the South (I’m thinking latinos, the Caribbean, Africans) are far more relaxed than their colder, Northern counterparts. In some ways they are also further along the Zen path of simply being and accepting what is (and goodness do I admire folks like that!) Granted, the heat has something to do with that, because, let’s face it: when it’s hot all you want to do is lie next to (or in) a pool and sip sweet drinks with umbrellas sticking out of them. But what about when we find ourselves far from a pool, in the cool of winter, and in our “daily grind” and with no time or thought allotted to relaxation?

I truly believe that relaxation is as essential to our well-being as good, nutritious food, quality sleep and loving relationships. And yet, how many of us really work at honing this art of relaxation? How many of us can afford to take a moment to breathe deeply, settle into the here and now and enjoy the sights, smells and sounds (and thoughts!) that soothe our souls?

We talk about experimenting with different diets to see what feels good in our bodies. We’ve opened up the dialogue sexually to explore what brings pleasure to ourselves and to our partners.

But what about when it’s just you, and you have some time, even if it’s only 15 minutes, and you want to relax and unwind. Are you able to do so? Honestly, sometimes watching yet another movie or TV show just doesn’t feel right. Certainly, perusing my phone for the 30th time that day and opening Instagram does not feel relaxing at all. Not when something essential inside is prodding me to take time for me, truly to be with me, and to relax and ease my way into an evening.

You may tell me that you are too busy for this. That relaxation is a luxury reserved for few. And indeed, our high-speed modernity has turned anything time consuming and enjoyable into a sought after commodity. Yet, I argue that relaxation, and its art of enjoyment, has its place in our wellness regimen also.

As this on-point article about slowing down to reduce stress from Psychology Today points out: “Many people live in a constant state of high alert and high anxiety—sympathetic nervous system arousal—even though there’s no immediate threat. Three of the recognized causes for this are our fast-paced, never-enough-time-to-do-everything lifestyle; sensory overload (exacerbated by multitasking); and the media’s distorted but relentless suggestion that danger lurks around every corner. The parasympathetic nervous system—the system that produces a calm and relaxed state—is underactive. By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, we can restore the balance. With that balance restored, we naturally slow down our pace of life.”

Relaxation does encourage us to slow down. It doesn’t mean that if we slow down we’re going to suddenly do everything slower. Fear not, your go-go energizer bunny self can still re-emerge the following day. But in order for bunny to keep giving.. give it a chance to unwind, to breathe deeper, and to allow your whole system – body, mind and soul – to recharge.

Can you visualize that whirling download spiral that spins around when you’re downloading a large file? The one you gaze at absentmindedly while waiting for your document/video/zip file to save into Downloads. Yup, that one. Take a moment to recognize that your system – your mind and body – are also downloading and processing everything that you’ve been thinking and doing and the people you’ve been interacting with during this past day and week. It takes time, you need some time. Ask yourself if you can give yourself permission to slow down, even if just a little.

–> Recognize that every time you take time for you, and for your own self-care, you are also serving the other people around you, those that you take care of,  that look up to you, the ones that need you. <–

Relax. Breathe deep…and start honing the subtle art of your own relaxation practice. Please also take the time to report back and let us know how it goes!

p.s. want to hear about one of the amazing side-effects of slowing down and relaxing? When practiced regularly it opens up space inside of you and welcomes in creativity. Creativity is much like water.. it needs some space and room to flow and move. Relaxation provides that necessary space. While relaxing you may find yourself reaching for your pencil crayons and doodling. Your hips may move involuntarily as you begin to dance. You may want to sing a song. You may reach for your notebook and write down some new ideas for that work project you’ve been stuck on.

Or, lo and behold…

you may reach for your laptop and start writing… which, in case you were wondering, is exactly how this post came to be! 🙂

*** image courtesy of Pxhere.com

Is it criticism or feedback? 3 ways to find out

We love talking about growth mindset inside of our companies, right? Growth is necessary, and yet growth can also be painful – because it’s human nature to resist change, even when it’s good for us! Giving and receiving quality feedback is a key component of this growth. Others see us often than we see ourselves. We know this, and yet, are we all truly clear on what the real differences are between providing feedback and criticizing others? Because when it comes to providing “negative” or “need to improve” feedback.. the lines quickly become blurred.

Let’s first define the terms:

Feedback: according to http://www.dictionary.com is a term most commonly used in electronics: “the process of returning part of the output of a circuit, system, or device to the input, either to oppose the input (negative feedback) or to aid the input (positive feedback).” and in human terms what we’re referring to as feedback is “a reaction or response to a particular process or activity.” In both cases it’s about a return of information back to the source of that information or communication. 

Criticism: “the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.” as well as “the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging (…)”. Notice how there’s no mention here of a return of information.

This is because, in a perfect world, feedback is shared and given to someone in the spirit of being like a mirror for them, to help them to see their strong and their weaker points because they too want to better understand their offering, and to improve and grow to be better. Criticism on the other hand is a one-way street where the receiver of our judgment is subject to our unpleasant point of view. Criticism rarely invites dialogue, but it is certainly breeding ground for defensiveness and resentment.

Thankfully, there are steps that we can take to perfect feedback loops within our teams. Take a moment to check in with yourself on the following points:

1. Intention

The intention around feedback is for the other person’s growth. When we understand that others’ growth is a support and a blessing to us (not a competition to engage in) we naturally celebrate others’ successes and are able to gently point out their weaker points. This attitude stems from an abundance mindset, in other words: success is not a zero sum game. The more he wins, and she does well, the better off you are, the better off I am, the better off the whole team is.

Criticism does not share this same intention but often stems from righteousness (my Truth is better than your Truth) and from ego. To criticize others openly and actively is to create separation and divisiveness. The more we criticize the more we forget about our own humanity and weaknesses. Sure, you may be on your game today, but that’s not always the case. It is easy to criticize others and then see the same weaknesses within ourselves. What’s more, zeroing in on critique often makes us blind to seeing other people’s strengths and skills.

2. There’s a method to the delivery

We are taught to be wise in delivering our feedback. Ever heard of the sandwich method? I sure hope so. Tapering the “let’s improve this” feedback with two pieces of “this was really well done!” around it makes the landing much softer for the recipient. We are all sensitive to so-called “negative” feedback exactly because of its cousin-like relationship with criticism. Again, remember about point no. 1 and check in with yourself around your intention for providing feedback before you ever open your mouth to give it.

3. Make it a two-way street

Feedback is also different from criticism in that it often invites reciprocity. A manager can provide feedback to her direct report.. and then that employee can certainly provide feedback for the manager also. This can be a very valuable tool in learning to understand team members as well as their styles of communication and motivation. Feedback can be provided not just to critique work performance but also to reflect back on communication and management styles and encourage self-awareness: for example, a direct report can let their manager know that they communicate better when exchanging ideas via voice messages instead of text when working remotely. Feedback reciprocity can provide a safe place for managers and team members to get to know each other and their respective working styles.

Image courtesy of RescueTime Blog.

Beware of the “He said, she said”

Dealing with human beings means dealing with a myriad of our emotions and egos. Let’s try to remember that we are all playing the main roles of the films that we call our lives – and we are each one of us the star performers. When we talk about everyone having their own truth – we’re talking about situations involving multiple people and their emotions and perceptions. The result is that each one of us comes out of the exactly same situation with a different perception of what has happened and how we feel about it.

This is because our perceptions are tainted by who we are, our mood, our emotions and many other factors.. likely including what we had for breakfast that same morning 😉

In my opinion this the real reason that gossip is such poison and offers such tainted and incomplete information of others – even if our intentions are seemingly good (for example, to warn someone of something dangerous, etc.)

…and this is why the “he said, she said” of elementary school days is to be avoided at all costs – in life and at work!

A friend tells me of a work scenario where she, the manager, is coordinating an activity and a secretary interrupts her to alert her to a small expenditure problem. My friend prioritizing her current work tells the secretary that she will look at that specific problem later. The secretary leaves, aghast that she was thus treated because she feels the problem is huge, and then proceeds to tell the owner that my friend, the manager, had “shrugged her shoulders” in an “I don’t care” fashion around the expense issue. The owner comes to see my friend with this story and claiming that she shows little to no concern about the businesses finances. My friend feels hurt and confused because her actions, from her perspective, have been seriously misinterpreted by both the gossiping secretary and the owner.

The truth is that small (and bigger) misunderstandings such as these are a common occurrence in business and in life. Unfortunately, this is true. We are all of us constantly misjudging others and being misjudged by others. We are all dealing with incomplete information.

Now, let’s look at this situation from the owner’s situation since, in the example above, she is our leader placed in the position of authority.

I’m not sure that we can ever completely avoid misunderstandings but we can, as managers and owners, practice the following:

1. Give your team member, the one accused of a wrongdoing by another team member, the benefit of the doubt. Realize that the problem you have been alerted to is one that you learned of via gossip – that poisonous, all-too-human tendency to talk about others. Unless you witnessed the event for yourself you will never have your version of the story to base yourself on, and therefore you will need to carefully hear out others in their Truth to arrive at your own conclusions.

2. Approach the “accused” to ask about the event in as neutral a way as possible. You could say “I noticed an expenditure problem this morning and I’m curious if you’ve seen it also.” See how you didn’t even mention the secretary? Ideally, you won’t need to mention her at all. It’s irrelevant who you heard about the problem from, the important thing is that you were alerted to the problem and now you’re seeking out the core information to the get to the bottom of it. What you need to ensure is that your manager really does care about cash-flow and expenditures. After your chat, it turns out she does care, and she explains to you that she was wise to the issue, had been busy with other matters and had meant to return to solving that particular problem in the afternoon.

3. The accused gets suspicious and asks for particulars? Make it sound that you found out about this problem on your own. Pointing fingers at such and such for reporting information to you is a big no-no and can pit colleagues against each other instead of building a strong, trusting team. Just tell the manager that you were perusing all of the accounts in general that morning and that you came across the expenditure problem. Voila. Besides, there is nothing like building a reputation for yourself as an “eyes and ears are everywhere” sort of manager anyways.. right?

4. Thank the “accused” for taking the time to share his or her version of the Truth and ensure them that you trust the quality of their work and that you are simply ensuring continued alignment and good communication.

Folks, we are social and group creatures with specific social needs of belonging and trust…and I’ll never stop highlighting this. Gossip is poisonous because it takes an individual’s power to explain their own story away from them and it creates fictitious stories in the minds of others based on limited perceptions and judgments which are always, by definition, incomplete. In a group setting, a manager needs to cut through gossip and see it for the incomplete information that it is. If it is hinting at a real problem then you’ll need to seek out the sources of info to get to the core of the matter – all the while – accusing and judging others as little as possible.

Easy? Nope. Necessary? It is if you want your people to trust you and to feel safe. You’re in the leader’s seat now and what you say and how you treat others sets the tone for how they will work together, collaborate together and trust (or mistrust!) each other.

Featured image courtesy of needull.com

The 4 biggest differences when working with the French (and Francophones)

French is the official language in nearly 30 countries around the world. France was busy colonizing many parts of the New World and Africa…the remaining effects of which are the spreading of France’s language, culture and mentality to many nations around the world.

It is my pleasure and honour to have discovered several Francophone (meaning French-speaking) countries and regions while pursuing diverse personal and professional projects. Today, I continue this discovery while living and working in Dakar, Senegal. You could call me a true francophile (meaning one who loves French and French culture).

I started learning French in school when I was about 12 years old. The first time I actually found it useful was when I was 15 years old, on holiday in the Caribbean, and able to converse in French with a cute boy from Switzerland! Perfecting and fine-tuning the language began in my early 20s when in 2008 I spent a semester abroad in Bordeaux, France. Since then I’ve worked alongside both Quebec and French nationals in work, volunteer and personal projects in Canada, France, Haiti and Senegal. While these countries and regions are unique they all share a common ground, that is they are francophone – French-speaking – and thus influenced by France (and colonization) not only through language but also through culture, mentality and approach.

Indeed, there are many aspects of French culture that I adore. The obsession with good food, for one (reaches for café and croissant…) and an emphasis on participation in social and political movements, as a second. The Frenchies also have a love of culture and the arts which I find inspirational.

Nevertheless, I’m in more of a complaining mood myself now and in the need to point out what is different, and in my opinion, outdated and bothersome, in the French.

Arguably, complaining is also a French quality 😉

In any case, I’ve highlighted 4 points below in the ways of thinking and doing that are quite different from Anglo-saxon English-speaking Canada where I grew up (yeehaw, Calgary!!). Here, my observations. These are centered around work since my main experience with Francophones has, up to now, been in my studies and in the workplace.

If you also have experience shifting between Anglo-saxon and French work cultures – I’d love to hear your opinion.

1. Looks matter more than your results

In general, I find that my francophone colleagues pay more attention to the presentation of their work (fonts, colours, pretty folders) than they do to the real content of their work. Not to say that the quality of the content is necessarily poor…rather that when given the choice between a polished idea and a polished binder…they go for the binder. My Anglo-saxon reared self is more wired for efficiency and a get-things-done-right-at-the-core-no-matter-the-potential-messiness. As a manager, I’d much prefer to receive great content with some formatting to fix up.. rather than the opposite! Like cutting into a bright, red shiny apple which you later find to be a bit rotten at the centre… I prefer the slightly-bruised-on-the-outside, perfectly tasty and whole apple on the inside.

This adherence to image is also reflected in length of writing. On the one hand French, a language of diplomacy, is much more wordy than English, a language of science and efficiency. Then, also, there is a general fondness among Francophones for being long-winded and roundabout in their writing (or speaking, presenting, recording) approach. I was taught in my Anglo-saxon upbringing that the capacity to be succinct and express complex ideas in short, simple phrases is golden – and to that I hold. I find that some Francophones disagree.

It is easy to see other manifestation of the How over the What, the Form being more important than the Result in other aspects of life – for example, in fashion. I like to dress well, as much as the next woman, but I don’t swear by it. If I’m in the mood to step out in my pajamas to buy some staples at the shop on my street, I do it! I can understand and sympathize with the hypothetical American millionaire that goes out for a coffee in L.A. in their sweatpants. I think it’s OK and even commendable – a sign of being sure and confident in oneself without requiring outside approval every minute of the day. But this hypothetical billionaire would never do this were they of true French or francophone culture. In Francophone culture, image must reflect your quality and your social status, always.

This is the single, biggest cultural and professional difference for me coming from an Anglo-saxon approach into a francophone environment.

As Professor Higgins once rudely sang in “My Fair Lady” about the French and their obsession with proper French pronunciation “It doesn’t matter what you say…as long as you say it properly”.

Well, as in every cultural jibe…there’s some truth in this one too.

2. Being “diplomatic” tops being direct

In English-speaking Canada as in the USA good communication is understood to be direct and clear communication. We pay attention to verbalizing comfortable as well as uncomfortable truths so that everyone involved can have a clear understanding of the situation. We can be tactful – yes – while remaining direct. We think that good management and leadership includes these qualities of clarity, brevity and direction.

Here in the French-speaking world, yet again, form outweighs result and being diplomatic is often seen as more important than being direct. To be diplomatic though can be both helpful and harmful. It can mean the kind of diplomacy that helps to handle a delicate situation where many points of view and beliefs have to be respected, and it can also mean evasiveness, false flattery or outright lying. In Senegal, where people are conflict-evasive, this means that people will tell you exactly what you want to hear, while looking you straight in the eye…while never once having the intention to follow through on their words. Needless to say, this is tiring, confusing and undermines trustworthiness. The weight of our words is not viewed equally.

3. Reprimanding over rewarding

Perhaps I’m mistaken here… but I find the French management style singularly different from the American or Canadian model. The first places emphasis on highlighting mistakes and potential improvements while the former takes time to emphasize work well done and right attitudes. (Sarcastically) I have the distinct feeling that all the studies surrounding positive reinforcement, reward systems and motivations are made by the English-speaking and American community and remain there. Personally, I find it way too discouraging to continuously plod along in a cloud of could-have-been-better (of course things can always be better!)…I prefer to choose positivism, encouragement and reinforce in myself and others what has been done right.

 

4. Titles, diplomas and hierarchy

Here is another biggie – the idea of institutions and certificates firmly defining the personal or professional trajectory. Studies, titles and a properly planned career are fine… and so is the self-made man (or woman). The American dream lives on and its key component is the belief that time and energy invested towards an objective, any objective regardless its perceived outlandishness, reap the greatest harvests, always. My own journey of wildly changing career paths and interests in my 20s confirms that I really can do anything I put my mind to, whether or not it’s a field I’ve previously worked or studied in. In short, schooling, titles and career-climbing are OK, but it’s just one among many models for success and not the one true path. Here, Francophones are more rigid in their approach and prefer a traditional model. Titles are scrutinized and years of study and experience praised.

So, voilà. Feel free to agree and disagree, this is certainly a very personal list, nor is it necessarily complete.

If you too have had experience with working on the one hand in Anglo-saxon or English speaking cultures and also in a Francophone ones… would you agree with the above observations? Is there anything that you would add here? What do you find to be the biggest difference for you, the native anglophone, when working alongside the francophone?

Thanks for sharing – au revoir et au plaisir de vous lire!

Praise in Public, Correct in Private

Simple practices that make human interactions more respectful, and management more manageable. The title statement or idea is something I learned (intellectually) in my early 20s, but it’s not until I started practicing it later in my career as a manager that I fully understood its true weight.

Let’s make it clear that this phrase applies particularly to managers and their direct reports. If you’re working horizontally with your fellow managers  and you’ve a strong trust established between you then you’ll certainly want to engage in healthy conflict and share your ideas or opinions very openly.

So here we’re talking specifically about managing your direct reports.

The premise is simple: when you have something positive to say about someone or their work, praise them for it in front of others. That lets them fully feel the joy of their success. On the other hand, if something has been done poorly, or you’ve noticed a lack of integrity or a behaviour in a colleague which makes collaboration challenging… talk to them about it in private.

In this case, the opposite IS NOT true. It is NOT a good idea to reprimand in public and praise in private. It can be very damaging for someone to be reprimanded or corrected in front of their peers. Why? We are social creatures and social belonging is part of our DNA. When we are shamed or made to feel foolish in front of others it undermines our basic feelings of belonging. It’s actually irrelevant who is “right” and whether or not the person fully deserves to be corrected or punished. In fact the more they deserve it, the more they know deep down that they deserve it, the more they will appreciate a manager or a colleague calling them to accountability and doing so in private. Fail to do this and it can later lead to resentment and embarrassment within an individual. The kind of nasty feeling that can sink its claws into a soul and psyche for a long time and create those subtle emotional pollutions that make life and work uncomfortable and awkward. Just keep it simple. Talk to your direct reports about the uncomfortable stuff in private.

Funny enough, the opposite on the praise spectrum is also not good. I’ve done this before when I’ve praised someone for a job well done and no one but myself and this person are present in the room. It’s not a bad thing, certainly, but it sure doesn’t have much spice or kick to it. If you’re really wanting to show appreciation and to give a boost to a team-member who has made a particularly important contribution – do it in front of other team-members and peers. That’s the only way to get that wonderful, fuzzy feeling of accomplishment and belonging. It’s a powerful force.

I also quite enjoy this blog post about the same topic.

Featured image courtesy of Quote Fancy.com