What’s Your Most Important Relationship at Work?

Your most important relationship at work is with your boss. Why? He or she is just one of the many people you interact with on a daily basis. What makes this relationship so important is that your manager/supervisor can change your career trajectory.

If your interactions with the boss are good, he or she will see you as someone they can rely on.  You’ll get more leeway, more benefit of the doubt, projects that you’ll appreciate and opportunities to excel. Your boss will speak highly of you to their superiors and up the chain. Your reputation will benefit from your boss’ support.

On the other hand, if your relationship is not good, your career can be stalled or even blocked. The characterization of you to others by your boss can cause irreparable damage.

What to do if you think your relationship with your boss is not as good as it could be?

First, stop wishing your boss was other than who he/she is. You cannot control their character. What you can control is how you relate to him or her. We all know there are some challenging bosses out there. Some are downright destructive. Hopefully, that is not the situation you find yourself in. If it is, your task will be to minimize the damage on you and your career.

Second, see yourself as an active participant in the relationship. That way you won’t fall into the trap of feeling “victimized.”

Nothing is worse for your career than complaining to others about your manager/supervisor. You could come off looking like a “whiner.” Even worse, if the boss gets wind of your comments, (which he/she inevitably will), the boss will not forget what you have said. It’s a career limiting move.

Many of us have fallen into the trap of offloading our frustrations onto fellow co-workers. It’s easy to do. I’ve done it myself and it rarely brings good results.

Here’s some steps to improving your relationship with your manager/supervisor:

1) Get to know what makes your boss tick. How does he/she like to interact with staff? What is his/her management style?

2) What motivates your boss? Is it fast results? Looking competent? Not rocking the boat? Figure it out and then you can adapt your approach.

3) Find out how your boss views you.  You can ask directly – “what do you want more of or less of from me?” Watch your boss in action – what does he/she reward? What does he/she dislike?

4) Talk to your boss about wanting to improve your relationship. Let him/her know what you are willing to do to improve the relationship. In return, ask for more of what would make it easier for you to do your job.

5) Whenever you get a chance, support your manager. This could be agreeing with him/her when you have common ground or talking up his/her successes to others. This helps build a strong foundation for your relations with him/her.

If things are irreparable, perhaps other choices need to be made. Can you transfer to another department? Do you need to move on and find yourself a job where you fit better? Are there other options?

Remember to ask yourself -“what can I do to improve this situation?” – then constructively put it into action. Having a good working relationship with your boss can have huge impacts on your life and your career. Take it in hand.


(For further reading, I suggest – “What Your Boss Really Wants From You” by Steve Arneson.)

Uncovering Our Blind Spots

Our blind spots are like spiders running for cover.  They hide under couches, chairs, anything that blocks the spider from being seen.

Two psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, developed the Johari Window model. The model illustrates how the process of communication – in particular, receiving feedback – provides us with important information. In the model, the blind spot represents things others know about us that we don’t know about ourselves.

The information people pick up about us is through verbal cues, mannerisms, the way things are said, facial expressions and unconscious signals. It’s our unconscious messages that we send out that can undermine our goals, intentions and efforts.

Here are some examples of people oblivious to how others are experiencing them:

  • Brad thinks he is open minded and wants to hear others ideas but when suggestions are made at a meeting he often rolls his eyes and points out why the idea won’t fly.
  • Terry thinks she’s a good listener but she will often continue talking about herself long after others have signaled that they want to leave or change the topic.
  • Linda sees herself as a good leader but when someone brings up a concern, she defends her decision and says she “wants no conflicts,” effectively shutting down the discussion.

All three of these people are unaware of the unconscious messages they are sending but others see the signals and feel the impact.

Our faces send huge amounts of information to others. Unfortunately, we can’t see our own faces (unless we are looking in a mirror). We humans are constantly reading facial cues, it’s instinctual. We need to know who are friends and who are foes.

Our tone of voice conveys what we are thinking and feeling. It’s not just what we say but how we say it. We are often blind to our own tone.

A dismissive hand wave, a furrowed brow or a sarcastic response are all subtle cues as to what is going on in our minds. We judge ourselves based on our intentions, others judge us by our impact on them.

We collude with each other to keep our blind spots untouched. We withhold feedback because we don’t want to hurt others feelings or start an argument.

One of the best ways to shrink our blind spot is to solicit specific and useful feedback. Asking general questions like, “how am I doing?” is confusing for the person being asked. Where does one begin??

A more specific question like, “what am I doing that is getting in the way of my being successful?” or “what specifically could I be doing to improve how I manage the meeting?” These types of questions will be more helpful. Ask for feedback from trusted mentors and friends.  Ask for honest feedback not just supportive feedback.

Ask someone to watch you in action and give you specifics.  Audio or video recording yourself can be quite illuminating.

However you get information, consider it a gift. It can mean the difference between a successful career or a failed one.


Feedback and Boundaries: The Dynamic Duo



Receiving useful feedback can be life changing.  It’s through feedback that we see how other’s perceive us and other people learn about how we perceive them.  Many of us stumble through life with huge “blind spots”.  Meaning, others can see and be affected by our behaviours but we are blissfully unaware.  It is by being open to growth and learning that we encourage others to give us the feedback we need.

BUT, not everyone is good at delivering useful and supportive feedback.  I remember as a young woman spending hours getting ready to go out on a date and when I emerged from my bedroom my mother said, “You aren’t wearing that, are you?”  As you can imagine, I was deflated.  I can’t exactly remember how I reacted but I’m fairly sure it wasn’t good.

My mother loved me and had my best interests at heart and I knew that so I cut her lots of slack.  Yet, not everyone has good intentions.  What about the colleague whose motives are not so clear?  What about the boss who has a huge “blind spot” and delivers feedback like a freight train? It’s important to be open for feedback but not to be open for having your soul crushed.  This is where boundaries are indispensable. When feedback is coming hard and fast, this is not the time to “turtle” or go into hiding.  As Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen say in their new book, Thanks for the Feedback, “Being able to establish limits on the feedback you get is crucial to your well-being and the health of your relationships.”  Sometimes shutting out the critics and forging ahead to make your own choices, mistakes and plans, is essential.

Stone and Heen talk about three main boundaries:

1) I may not take your advice – with this boundary you are willing to listen and consider what is being said but you may decide to go another way.  By voicing this to the other person, you are letting them know where you stand.

2) I don’t want feedback about that subject, not right now (or ever) – You get to decide when you are willing to hear feedback.  The only concern with this boundary is that you don’t use it to close down a conversation continually as a strategy to avoid dealing with an important issue that needs addressing.

3) Stop, or I will leave the relationship – As Stone and Heen say, “If you can’t keep your judgments to yourself, if you can’t accept me the way I am now, then I will leave the relationship, or change its terms.” This boundary is for when someone’s method of giving feedback is harmful and damaging to our sense of who we are.

When it comes to feedback, it needs to be constructive and supportive.  If the feedback is a character assassination, non-stop, demanding, threatening or manipulative, it’s time for a boundary.

Is “Feedback” a Dirty Word?

I was having a chat with a government employee today and he said that he wanted to have a “culture of feedback” in his department.  His background was investigative where it was common practice to come together as a group, share information and offer feedback to each other.  They would work together so that the end result was greater than any of them could have done alone.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????His idea of feedback is sharing so that the whole team is made better. It makes sense.

Not many of us approach the idea of feedback that way.  We often respond to it as criticism and a personal threat. My sense is we do that because most of us have experienced “feedback” that was hurtful, attacking, a put down, and shame producing. I don’t know about you, but after receiving “feedback” like that, I become less open to hearing more of the same.

Yet, if we aren’t open for feedback, we send the message to others not to give it to us and they won’t.  Soon we are operating with limited information.  We don’t know if what we are doing is working or not working.  We are, at best, guessing. We need to know what others are thinking so we can make adjustments.

I’ve been in a writers critique group for years and I remember in the early days having emotional reactions to the critique of my fellow writers.  Since having learned to manage the critique better, I notice I get much fuller and more specific feedback.  It was like my colleagues knew that I was reacting to their feedback so they filtered what they said to me.  Now I get lots of good feedback and it has helped my writing immensely.

Learning to receive feedback is a skill to be learned.  Here are some tips to help with receiving feedback well:

1/ Remember that feedback is about fostering your own growth.

2/ Seek out people who can give you balanced as well as supportive feedback.

3/ Ask for coaching. You are the most important person in your own growth. Know you’re surrounded by people you can learn from.

4/ When you find yourself reacting to what someone is saying – manage your internal dialogue and become curious.  Remember, you get to decide what you want to do with the feedback you’re given.

5/ Feedback is always about how the other person perceives things.  It is neither right nor wrong.  It’s just their perspective. If you can keep that in mind, you can make choices about how you want to respond. You can listen and enquire.  You can assert yourself and then enquire.  You can listen to some of it.  You can listen and then decide to ignore it.  It’s all up to you.

A book that I highly recommend is “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.  All the best with the feedback coming your way!

She Dies Alone

She gets up clutching the collar of her blouse.  Her companions look at her, questioning.  She waves them off and makes her way to the ladies room.  She can’t catch her breath.  She grabs her throat hoping to dislodge the piece of chicken caught in it.  She tries slamming herself against the wall.  Nothing.  She grabs the sink, sliding slowly to the floor, her mouth trying desperately to pull air into her lungs.  She dies quietly and alone.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????In a class on group dynamics that I recently taught, we were discussing how powerful group pressure is in keeping members from speaking up.  During the discussion, a female firefighter told the group that it was common to get called to restaurants for choking incidents.  It was shocking to her how often the firefighters would come to find women who had died alone and silently in the ladies washroom.  When she told this story to the group, you could hear a pin drop in the room.  We were stunned.

This image stayed with me for weeks.  Women dying rather than causing discomfort for others. Women wanting to avoid causing a fuss. Not wanting to be a bother. Wanting to take care of things themselves.

My heart bleeds for them.  I desperately want them to have a voice – to speak up and say want they need.

Even though we think we have made strides in gender equality – we still have a long way to go.


How I Learned to Appreciate Anger: Managing the Response – Part 2

I don’t know about you but when I get angry I sometimes get swamped with the emotions and the physiological response going on in my body.  My heart races, my face and neck flush, thoughts fly around in my head.  I bet you know what I’m talking about.

When that anger response happens, we know we’re upset.  We know something is off-balance.  We feel the urge to take care of it in some manner.  But, many of us have learned to either stuff it, deny it, talk ourselves out of it or just plain lash out.  In the face of those options, we often do nothing.  We fear hurting the other person or being hurt ourselves.

Anger is giving us the message that a relationship or situation needs to get rebalanced so doing nothing is, usually, not a good strategy. I say, usually, because there are exceptions. If there is a real chance that I can get physically hurt, then perhaps saying nothing is a good strategy, for now.  Later, I can plan what I want to do next when the time is right.

It is often helpful to take time to get clear on how we wish to speak up in a situation, be it at the office or at home.  Here are some strategies that I have found to be useful:

1/ write it down – journaling or writing a letter, which you may or may not decide to send, can clarify things for you. It also stops you from playing angry thoughts over and over in your mind plotting what you want to say.  Once it’s down on paper – you know you have captured it and don’t need to keep replaying it.  Hours can be spent on ruminating.  Get it out of your head and onto paper or onto your computer screen.

2/go for a walkwalking allows your physical reaction to subside.  When your mind is calmer, you can think more clearly and then make decisions.  If you prefer some other physical activity such as swimming, running, or bicycling – they can work as well.

3/ talk to a coach talking to a trusted coach or friend can be useful.  The coach/friend can assist you to see where the imbalance in the relationship or situation is and can help you to decide on a constructive plan of action.

Whatever the strategy chosen – remember that anger can be a potent force that can fuel the desire to speak up to rebalance a situation. It helps us gain our self-respect and gives us the chance of having reciprocity in our interactions with others.  It’s the gift of anger!

How I Learned to Appreciate Anger – Part 1

Alright, so maybe not appreciate it but as I understand it better, I get the importance of it and I get the gift in it.  Yes, anger bestows a gift.

I just finished a wonderful article by Joanne Ellison Rodgers called “Go Forth in Anger”.  It’s found in the April 2014 edition of Psychology Today. In the article Rodgers talks about researchers discovering that anger is a form of social communication.  In other words, we need it to build strong connections with each other. Anger is important because without it we are unlikely to be clear on who we are in relation to others.

While fear, sadness, and anxiety prompt avoidance behaviours, anger fuels us to take on challenges.  Anger, like love, lust, anxiety, sadness and fear, is built in.  We are born hardwired for those emotions.  Nature provided them for survival and growth.

The Purpose of Anger

We are wired to get angry when others insult or exploit us.  Anger gets aroused when, in our estimation, the other person is getting too much and we are getting too little.  When our anger encourages us to speak up and set boundaries, it alerts the other person that there’s an expectation of an increase in valuing and caring for us.  Anger tells us that we feel someone isn’t valuing us enough in relation to how they are valuing themselves.  In effect, anger helps to re-establish the balance.

Let’s say you and I go out for dinner on several occasions and each time you leave me to take care of the bill. Such behaviour will arouse my anger because it’s an indication of lack of respect for my worth.  By standing up for reciprocal cost sharing, I am standing up for myself.  My anger encourages me to set a boundary with you which can then encourage a cooperative and respectful relationship.

Yes, anger is a potent force not to be ignored or denied but used to fuel our self-respect and to gain us reciprocity in our interactions with others.  There is a gift to be had there!


Confessions of a Story Teller



I have a confession.  I’m a storyteller.  I tell stories.   And, here’s an interesting fact, so do you!  In this blog I am going to illustrate to you why and how we’re all born story tellers and how being aware of our stories can change our lives.

Stories are crucial to our evolution.  Stories are what make us human, not in a metaphorical sense but in a literal sense.  Our brains are hardwired to create stories and to respond to stories.

Hers is an example.  A cat sits on the sidewalk and a bird lands close by.  The cat goes into stalk mode and pounces.  He misses the bird.  What does the cat do next?  He shakes himself, walks off and curls up for a nap.  What he doesn’t do is create a story about what happened.

Now imagine this.  A human sits on the sidewalk with his bird catching net.  A bird lands nearby and the human swings but misses the bird.  What might the human do next?  We might hear this – “I’m such a bad hunter”, “I shouldn’t have tried to catch that bird, I knew I couldn’t do it”, “I hope nobody was watching me, they’ll think I’m a total loser”, “Maybe I should take up basket weaving, I’ll probably be better at that.”  The human makes up a story about what happened.

Why do we make stories up?  We do it to makes sense of the tremendous amount of information coming at us continually.  We do it to survive. Our brain is faced with a problem of what to do with all the information coming at us and so the solution is found, storytelling.

As Antonia Damasio says in his book, “Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain”storytelling is something our brains do, naturally an implicitly….It should be no surprise that it pervades the entire fabric of human societies and cultures.”

We think in story. We are constantly seeking meaning.  We are meaning makers.

As Lisa Cron says in her wonderful book, “Wired for Story”, “we are always looking for the why beneath what’s happening on the surface.”  We like to make sense of things and we certainly don’t like being confused.  So, when something happens in our lives, we don’t just look at what happened – we create a story about what happened.  Here is an example:

What Happened

I was away from work and while I was away my boss

assigned a project that I wanted to someone else in the office.

My Story about What Happened

My boss knew I wanted that project.  He purposefully and maliciously waited until I was away so he could give the project to someone else, his favourite.  He wanted to humiliate me so I would quit my job.

After we create our story(meaning), we then operate out of that story as if it were true.  The repeating of our stories to ourselves and others limits our vision of what is possible.  We narrow our scope of possibility.  The more we repeat these stories, the more linked the neural pathways become in our brain.  It’s like we are building a path and the more we use it – it becomes a “super highway.”

The good news in all this is that we can change our stories and change our brains.  Our brains are very malleable and we have the ability to rewire and create new neural pathways and new stories to change the quality of our lives.

When we change our perception – our stories – we can change our reality.

How you ask??

We need to utilize our “thinking” brains – our pre-frontal cortex.  The frontal lobe is the conductor in front of the orchestra.  We have the free will to place our attention where we want.  It requires clear intent.

As Joe Dispenza, D.C. says in “Evolve Your Brain”, “when we use this part of our brain to its capacity, our behaviour matches our purpose, and our actions match our intent – our mind and body are one.”

Some things to consider that will help us write the story we want for ourselves:

1/ Become self-aware.  This requires turning down the noise of our lives and becoming observant to our stories.  Complaints are good indicators of the stories we are telling ourselves.

2/ Make the commitment to change the story.  Don’t let discomfort be a deterrent to change.

3/ Use mental rehearsal to see yourself with the story you want to create.  Do it often.  Mental rehearsal builds new neural pathways.

4/ Fall in love with the idea of a new possibility – a new story – and tell it often.  Tell others and enroll them in your story.

Yes, I’m a storyteller.  Having this knowledge helps me write the stories that can enhance my life and can make dealing with conflict easier and more productive. Hopefully, it can do that for you too.



Why Managing Conflicts Makes Good Business Sense

business team in a meeting

Recently I read an article that talked about the importance of resolving disputes in the work environment. (The article is found in Douglas Magazine, “Why Mediation Should be Part of Your Business’s Tool Kit.) The article talks about how undealt with conflict can negatively impact a business or organization. I have seen many organizations suffer over the years when conflicts are left to build momentum. As one of my clients said recently about a conflict, “it was like a tornado. It started small, gained strength and then unleashed its power all over us.”

Why are conflicts left to gain power? In the above mentioned article, Kari Boyle, Executive Director of Mediate BC, is quoted as saying that “only 13 percent of managers in a recent Canadian survey felt they were effective in dealing with these conflicts.” My experience tells me this is true. Many managers do not feel equipped to deal with the conflict, so they avoid it, hoping it will somehow resolve itself. It rarely does.

Many organizations don’t encourage up front, face to face conflict resolution. Things are left until someone puts in a complaint or grievance and then things turn adversarial quickly, making it difficult to return to a more cooperative discussion.

The organizations and businesses that have policies and expectations that conflict will be dealt with and actively encourage it, tend to fare better. I encourage organizations to train managers and supervisors so that they feel more comfortable addressing a conflict. I also suggest to businesses that calling in a neutral third party facilitator, like myself, can assist with managing the conflict. It is better to call in someone, than to leave it until it is too late and the damage is irreversible.

Reframing: A Life Skill


All of us have challenges and difficulties in our lives. How we handle those challenges is extremely important. As we grow up, we like to give meaning to our experiences. We start creating stories about our lives. If you listen to others (and yourself) you can start to hear the story lines. “I’ve always been fat. It’s in my family genes.” “I never win. I always come out on the short end of the stick.” “I’m a great cook. Always have been.” “So many people in my family are divorced. I knew it was only time before it happened to me. I was right, I’m divorced.”

These story lines or frames affect how our life unfolds. Negative frames create negative patterns. Positive frames create positive patterns. This is where reframing comes into the picture. If you can consciously reframe your experience, you can change how you think and feel about it.

Here is an example – “I’m 65 years old and my spouse of 35 years has left me. I am crushed, humiliated and embarrassed. My life is over.” Now, if this person consciously chooses to think about it differently, actually catches the inner dialogue which is creating the story and pivot to something more constructive, their life will unfold in a new way. “My marriage of 35 years is over. I wasn’t expecting that. However, nothing is forever. I am sad and I will recover. I will start planning all the things I want to do in my life and do them. I will change my focus and see this as an opportunity.”

This reframing process may happen over time. The shift can occur quickly or it may occur gradually but the effect is the same – a conscious shifting of the story to something more life enhancing and future focused. It takes awareness and practice. Here are some steps that will help the process.

Tune into your feelings. Catch yourself feeling your emotions and if they feel negative you know the story you are telling yourself is not a constructive one.

Watch the wording. Listen to how you tell the story in your head (or even out loud to friends and family).

Choose to pivot away from the negative and toward the positive.

Keep at it. Eventually it becomes easier.

Reframing may take time, but stick with it; the effort will pay off. It is a powerful tool to help you create a new story and the life that you want.

Deborah is a writer, teacher, speaker and senior faculty at the Centre for Conflict Resolution at the Justice Institute of British Columbia.