Newsletter 642 – Connecting Across Cultural and Age Barriers

baguette 14Last week’s newsletter brought this thoughtful response from Sheryl Bullock who is a life coach: I am not particularly good at crossing cultural and age barriers to develop relationships with others. I would love to hear your stories about the people you mentioned…. What questions did you ask them initially? How did they respond? At what point did you know you had made a good connection with them? …There is a huge need for this information. People love stories and I think you still have many to tell!

Here are some observations that I’ve had to this point:

  • Ask God to lead. Sometimes when I will go into a church service, fitness club or restaurant I ask God to open a conversation that might be of value. The previous post mentioned friendships arising from casual conversations with a grocery checker, a waiter, and a stranger at a conference book table. These contacts seemed to arise spontaneously. Did they? Be available and you will be connected.
  • Cultivate the attitudes that characterize all good cross-cultural conversations: Be friendly, sensitive, willing to learn, respectful, authentic, not paternalistic (looking down on others), flexible. It’s amazing how people respond positively to attitudes like these.
  • Resist your biases. (We all have them). If you disapprove of people who differ from you, this will be picked up quickly. That stifles connectivity.
  • Express genuine interest in others. Ask open-ended questions. Then listen. Recently my wife and I moved into a condo community where we didn’t know anybody. Doors have opened with statements like “Hi, my name is Gary and we’re new here. Tell us about you.” Ask others about themselves and they usually respond. This works with visitors to your church, for example, with people you meet in the fitness club, or even with busboys who pick up your restaurant dishes.
  • Respect boundaries by avoiding personal questions or asking about confidential information.
  • Expect that some people won’t respond to your overtures. This may reflect shyness, discomfort with your friendliness, or cultural differences. What works where I live will need to be adapted elsewhere.

Previously I mentioned a good friend who is French. He jokes that his countrymen are like baguette bread: hard on the outside but very soft once you get past the crust. This takes time, patience, and sensitivity but the benefits are great. How have you connected across age and cultural gaps? Please comment.

Newsletter 641 – How to Be People Builder

In 1976 a book appeared that has sold more than any of the others I‘ve written. How to Be a People Helper was an introduction to counseling written mostly for church people, including pastors, when professional mental health services were less popular and accepted than they are today. The book still sells even thoutwo men 10gh it’s way outdated. The publisher was not interested when I suggested an updated 40th anniversary edition but in many ways my focus has shifted from people helping to people building. This is a focus on walking with those who are going through transitions, decision-making and other life events that are less in need of counseling and better served by friends, encouragers, mentors and trained coaches.

There are few books or courses on people building but, for what it’s worth, here is some of what I’ve learned:

  • If you want to make an impact as a people builder, open your eyes and ask God to show who you might influence. I have connected with many people in my neighborhood, community, church, and classes. One example is a brilliant graduate student who arrived as an undocumented immigrant and checked out our groceries in a supermarket when he was a teenager. Another is a biracial waiter with dreadlocks and a passion to succeed as a pop musician. He was our server in a local coffee shop. There’s also a native Parisian, pastor in Paris, author and specialist in multicultural marriages. We met informally at a conference. Today these are among my closest friends. We build one another.
  • Show a genuine interest in the people you meet. Ask about their backgrounds. Listen to their stories. Expect to be surprised at what develops.
  • Recognize that each of us has a personality and a place where we have been planted. For me, striking up conversations with strangers is easy. I live in an apartment building, still teach, and regularly go to a fitness club. Remember the cliché: bloom where you are planted. Focus on the people who surround you. Let God work through your circumstances and personality.
  • Expect to make a difference. Legacies or resumés don’t interest me but I know what I want to leave after I’m gone: people whose lives and careers I’ve helped to build. Whatever our ages, we still have time to: Be a People Builder!

Please comment about your experiences as a people-builder or about people who spent time building you.

Newsletter 631 – Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters

Susan PinkerIn 2004 following my only experience as a surgery patient, the doctor made a prediction that proved to be accurate. He said that I’d make a complete and relatively speedy recovery. In addition to good medical care he commented on several positive signs, including my overall good physical shape based on consistent exercise, the “spirituality” that he saw, a determination to get better, my sense of humor (it beats complaining), and the social support that came from family and friends. At times I thought of this while reading psychologist Susan Pinker’s fascinating book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter.

This is not a self-help book built on inspiration and subjective opinions. Pinker does include captivating illustrative stories but, in addition, she reports on her interviews with a variety of experts and ordinary people, plus references to an impressive body of scholarly research. For example, the book documents ways in which face-to-face contact contribute to athletic success, language learning, brain development, overall health, longer life, stronger marriage, spiritual growth and better recovery from surgery like mine over ten years ago. Pinker’s work demonstrates her wide knowledge of brain functioning and neurophysiology as these relate to everyday behavior, stress-management and life fulfillment. The Village Effect is written by one of those rare scholars who is able to engage readers, write clearly, and make empirical evidence interesting and relevant.

Here are summary conclusions adapted from comments on the book’s cover:

  • People with tight circles of friends who gather regularly are likely to live an average of fifteen years longer than loners.
  • Social contact at the beginning of life helps us cope with stress later on.
  • The lowest rate of dementia appears in people with extensive face-to-face social networks.
  • A hug or a pat on the back lowers one’s physiological stress response, which in turn helps the body fight infections.
  • Women with breast cancer who have large networks of friends are four times as likely to survive as those with sparser social connections.

This is an impressive summary of what most of us suspect or know. But in what practical ways does this book’s message relate to your work, career, relationships and lifestyle? We’ll have more on this next week. Meantime, please feel free to leave a comment.

Newsletter 609 – Can the Blue Like Jazz Guy Impact Us?

Have you read Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz? Probably most of Scary Close 1my friends would answer yes, especially those who are younger. This might be described as an easy-going book on Christian spirituality written by a young guy who definitely was not traditional. I read the book when it first appeared and followed up by reading most of Miller’s subsequent volumes. I gave away copies of his Million Miles in a Thousand Years and most who read it liked it.

Last month when I read Miller’s latest book, Scary Close, it was clear that the now 43-year-old writer had matured. I missed the laid-back nature of Blue Like Jazz but was inspired as the author chronicled the journey leading up to his recent marriage. This is an honest book about one man learning what it means to grow in intimacy. For quotations from the book do an Internet search for Scary close quotes.

Donald MillerIn the midst of my reading I watched a video interview with Donald Miller and discovered that he has become a businessman, running seminars about how to tell good stories and use stories on websites and in business. His web site ( even offers a free ebook titled How to Tell a Story. Miller believes that stories can strengthen whatever work we do and enable us to be better communicators. Recently I’ve been learning that good teaching, counseling, coaching, leading, and probably ministry often are about using stories and helping others to rewrite the stories of their lives. Scary Close really is a book about personal and engaging stories that can have an impact. This author who originally challenged and amused me has changed into more of a teacher who can guide us all. He makes references to the Bible and is not afraid to write about Jesus.

Please tell us how stories have impacted you or your friends. If you’ve read Scary Close or other Miller books please let us know your reactions by leaving a comment.

One last thing: A big thank-you to all who responded to my request for input last week. If you intended to comment and did not, there still is time to shoot me a message. I’ll give a summary later.

Newsletter 605 – A Psychological Analysis of Encouragement?

Be a People HelperIn terms of sales, my most successful book has been a little volume titled How to Be a People Helper. I wrote it in a week (usually it takes many months or even years) after a series of talks that I gave to seminary students. The book has been translated into a number of languages and still is in print. For years my work centered on people-helping and teaching others to be counselors. But like every other field, counseling has changed over time and the people-helper book and cover artwork have become outdated. The publishing industry also has changed. So have potential readers of this book. So have I.

My interest in people-helping persists but today I’m more focused on people-building, focusing less on counseling and more on coaching and journeying with emerging students and leaders. Encouragement is at the core of this work, and the Bible even describes encouragement as a God-given spiritual gift that some people have in abundance (Romans 12:6, 8).

No such analysis appears in a article titled “The Psychology of Encouragement.” Published in The Counseling Psychologist (February, 2015), the author defines encouragement using psychological terminology: it’s “an expression of affirmation…to instill courage, perseverance, confidence, inspiration or hope within the context of addressing a challenging situation [challenged-focused encouragement], realizing potential, ”or reaching a goal [potential-focused encouragement]. The article describes how encouragement might be measured, related research findings, its diverse manifestations (individual and group encouragement, for example), and proposes something called a Tripartite Encouragement Model that can be used in counseling and in other settings like teaching, family therapy, leadership or coaching.

Analyzes like this can be useful, but might we over-scrutinize something that is such a common way for expressing support? Over-analyzed or not, probably encouragement needs to be a more prominent part of our people-helping and people-building practices.

As a footnote, I apologize for not yet responding to those of you who commented on the previous two newsletters. Thanks for your responses. And can I encourage you to respond again and leave a comment about this post and your experiences with encouragement?

Newsletter 583 – Why We Need Heroes

I enjoy reading Relevant magazine with its focus on people in theispider_man_2 3r twenties and early thirties. Many of the articles stretch me, keep me aware of new trends and sometimes surprise me. Consider the cover article on our need for heroes published in the July-August 2014 issue. This was not about mentors or well-known celebrities. It’s about comic-book characters, Batman, Superman, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It describes the appeal of these superheroes, especially among young people looking for their identities. The article shows the biblical origins of many superheroes and what they can teach us about our calling.

As I read, my mind went to the heroes I had as a kid and to some of my biblical heroes. Many are invisibles (see last week’s newsletter) or individuals who make brief appearance in Scripture–people like Caleb, Esther, Barnabas and Gamaliel.

Remember Gamaliel? He appeared as a voice of reason in Acts 5 where the religious leaders were violently jealous, with out-of control anger and determination to murder two apostles. As we read about Gamaliel in this setting we see a genuine leadership hero who was:

  • highly competent–an admired scholar
  • calm and respectful of leaders who probably did not deserve respect
  • sensitive to the emotions in his audience
  • without an attitude of angry confrontation or attempts to manipulate
  • aware of the facts surrounding the current situation
  • articulate and able to present possible outcomes and scenarios
  • willing to step back and let others reach their own decisions without interference.

I once taught in a graduate school where the faculty was known for their sometimes-raucous disagreements. One faculty member would listen silently and then make a comment that set everything in perspective. He never leapt tall buildings or dressed like a comic book character but he became one of my heroes because of the characteristics he modeled. The Relevant article argues that some of today’s “Hollywood marvels” show admirable traits and demonstrate ‘truth in unexpected places.”

It’s a cliché to say that we don’t have many widely-known heroes today. Maybe that’s why people in the movies or video games are so widely followed. But to somebody, each of us is a hero, maybe in the form of a parent, teacher, leader or neighbor. Who looks to you as a superhero and what kind of a hero are you becoming? Please think about this and leave a comment.

Newsletter 581 – Are Micromanagers Coachable?

In April, 2014, Harvard Business Review published an article titled “Coaching the Toxic leader.” The author, an executive coach and psychotherapist, discussed “four pathologies that can hobble an executive and bring misery to the workplace.” He described narcissist (the most common and most pathological), manic-depressive, passive-aggressive, and emotionally-detached leaders.

Initially I decided not to mention the article in this newsletter but I did assign it for my coaching students and sent a copy to one of my clients who does executive coaching. Most loved the article and my coaching client described her experiences with all four pathological types. Then she suggested that the most harmful leaders are the micromanagers. These men and women need to be in control. They want to know every detail about the employees or projects they oversee. PuppetStrngsThey watch others closely, want communication or decision making to flow through them, fail to trust others to make good decisions, and are reluctant to let people do their jobs. As employers or supervisors, micromanagers often dictate how subordinates should do their work, whether or not this is the most effective or efficient.

Usually micromanagers feel insecure in their leadership roles, doubting their own competence and overwhelmed by their responsibilities, although they fail to see or admit this. They want to appear capable and decisive but instead they can look like fearful people who won’t let go. They tend to dismiss the opinions of others and sometimes make decisions that are unwise and even destructive. Eventually they lose competent employees or partners who feel squelched, unappreciated and controlled – like puppets on a string.

Micromanagers can be of different types, including the overtly aggressive or the passive-aggressive who ignores or isolates others but then breathes down their necks. But micromanagers are not necessarily pathological. Their numbers even include coaches who control their clients. Often micromanagers are well-intentioned individuals who want to be successful. They resist anyone who criticizes their micromanagement but they need help in learning to trust people, to listen, to let go of the reins and to allow others contribute to their goals. Coaching can help them realize that controlling others is an ineffective leadership style. But are these people even coachable? Some executive coaches believe that micromanagers are too insecure to change, especially when they work in pressured environments.

What do you think? Can micromanagers be coached successfully? Please “comment” with your observations and experiences.

Newsletter 570 – Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life

HBR Cover Balance 1
Can anything fresh be said about balancing the challenges of work and life – and thriving in the process? Apparently the Harvard Business Review editors think this is worth the several cover stories in the March 2014 issue. Maybe the cover is a tip-off to what follows. The image of an elephant balancing on a ball is above the words “Forget about balance – you have to make choices.”This reminds me of the (easily retrieved) Balance - ElephantInternet image of an elephant balancing on a small ball above the words “Balance is the Key to Life!” Do you agree?

  • Balance is impossible if we mean consistently planned and preprogrammed time slots at work and apart from our jobs. We all know that life can be surprising and disruptive. Sometimes family crises demand attention, as do deadline-controlled periods at work. The goal is balance over weeks, months or years, not on a daily basis.
  • Home life and work life can each benefit the other. Partners at work and spouses or friends elsewhere can both bring emotional support, encouragement and fresh perspectives.
  • One large survey found that “leaders with strong family lives spoke again and again of needing a shared vision of success for everyone at home.”
  • Neither of these two domains (work and non-work activity) should be allowed to dominate the other. “Mixing these spheres too much leads to confusion and mistakes.”
  • Watch out for the destructive power of always being plugged in to communication technology including cell phones and computers. Twenty-four hour availability can hamper initiative and erode performance in individuals and in organizations.
  • The HBR articles only discuss life at work and life away. But how much of this applies to people, maybe in the millions, who have successful careers but who also are devoted to writing novels, making music, or fulfilling other avocational pursuits? How do I help a friend who has a relatively successful career but longs to spend more time working on a fulfilling hobby? Where do these fit into the balance mix?
  • Perhaps the overarching conclusion is to set realistic boundaries and keep flexible.

What do you think? How do you find balance or help others do the same? Please comment.

Newsletter 569 – Hardest Word for Most of Us To Say?

Just say no 1It is not a vulgar word or a long word like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious of Mary Poppins fame. A Wall Street Journal article (March 11, 2014) calls No a “tiny word, but tough to say.” Many years ago former First Lady Nancy Reagan had an anti-drug campaign with the slogan “Just Say No.” Sounds like a great idea but it’s very difficult to comply when any of us is surrounded by peer pressure urging us to say yes.

Saying no is especially difficult when the request is legitimate or when we want to please the person who asks. When asked to help with a worthy cause, donate money to charity, or help a friend – or even a stranger, many of us say yes because we feel uncomfortable or guilty if we decline. We value kindness and being helpful. We don’t want to reject others or risk hurting a relationship. Some of us are people-pleasers who want to be liked so we make ourselves available to anyone who calls. These may be admirable characteristics but they can create problems. I have a friend who rarely sets boundaries. He revels in the opportunities and projects that he has been offered and accepted. This is affirming and ego-building. But periodically he gets overwhelmed because he failed to say no. Sound familiar?

None of us was created to meet everyone’s requests. Even Jesus set boundaries (e.g. Mark 1:35-38). Each of us hasJust say no 2limited time and energy. These need to be rationed. Saying yes to one thing means that we are forced to say no to another. Our families, closest relationships and health all suffer when we let other people set our agendas. How, then, do we say no?

  • Set your priorities. I don’t accept committee assignments or speaking invitations apart from my specialties.
  • Clarify your values. Never agree to something that you think is wrong or unwise.
  • Delay your answer. This gives you time to think how to say no.
  • Avoid peer pressure situations.
  • Give reasons for saying no, but avoid debates about your decision. These often lead to more pressure.
  • Don’t say “Maybe later” unless you mean it. These words insure that you will be asked again.

What would you add? How do you help yourself or others to say no?

Newsletter 564 – Why Do Smart People Make Stupid Decisions?

DecisionsLast week’s Newsletter (#563) reviewed Philip Yancey’s new book The Question that Never Goes Away: Why. The book alerted me to the number of Why? Questions I was hearing from my friends: “Why did I spend thousands to get a degree and now can’t find a job?” “Why was my application for graduate school rejected without being read?” “Why did my cousin commit suicide this week?” Yancey shows that God never answers the Why? Questions but he permits tragedies that mold us. He wants to see how we respond. To use a cliché, do we get better or bitter? Do we acknowledge the grief or loss and then try to move on? Or do we wallow in misery and bitterness but never recover?

Have you ever pondered how tragedies and disappointments so often lead to unwise decisions and actions? To rephrase the title of this post: Why do otherwise rational people make irrational–sometimes self-destructive—decisions in times of stress? We see this prominently when politicians, people in ministry, and others make unwise decisions, sink their careers and destroy their families. Reasons include these:

  • The brain responds to intense emotion—fear, sadness, strong sexual and other arousal—by temporarily shutting down the cognitive, rational, thinking parts of the brain. This heightens our sensory system and narrows our cognitive focus so we are better able to detect stressors. As a result we make decisions with a narrow focus, miss the bigger picture, and take actions that are regretted later.
  • We lose perspective when we face trauma. For example, we dwell on the losses and fail to notice what might be positive in tough situations. Dwelling on the negative can lead to the destructive bitterness that counselors encounter and the Bible cautions against (Eph 5:31-2.)
  • We are influenced by people who pull us down and encourage us to take unwise actions while we’re in the midst of emotional overload. Involvement with a supportive community or caring friend can help maintain a more balanced view.
  • We see no reason to hope so we throw caution to the wind and move forward with unwise thinking and actions. Here is where our core values and belief systems become important. There’s a difference when one’s “hope is in the Lord.”

What would you add to this list? When we know reasons for unwise decisions in times of stress, we are better able to help others.  Please respond.