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 632 – The Practical Side of Face-to-Face Contact


sisan pinker 2Should you take time to read Susan Pinker’s book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter? For me, Pinker’s book isn’t a “must read” but fits the “recommended reading” category if you work with people. Last week’s newsletter (#631) introduced the book but here are several subjectively-selected, potentially-practical conclusions. Like most of the book, each is documented by easily-understood research summaries and the author’s face-to-face interviews.

  • Internet training programs can be useful but contact with a skilled teacher is better. Consider this: “Policy-makers get a lot more from parent and teacher training programs than from investing in expensive—highly perishable—classroom technology.” Does this apply to on-line training or college courses? Surely the best distance learning includes conversations with instructors and peers as opposed to watching video lectures passively. [Personal perspective: I have taught both approaches. The interactive courses involve more engagement, more active participation, and undoubtedly more effective learning for both teacher and student.]
  • “Even though we all need face-to-face contact, one approach does not fit all.” What does this say about church programs that expect everyone to grow equally in identical pre-programed small groups?
  • Live human contact has major business implications. There are benefits to letting employees work from home on individual schedules but this needs to be limited. Without face-to-face interaction at work, productivity and creativity go down. Even Google has designed a headquarters where workers have opportunity to ‘bump into colleagues and have real conversations [because without this] innovation and social cohesion take a hit.”
  • When companies cut costs by reducing the number of employees, eliminating training, paying “basement-level wages,” or blocking benefits and opportunities for advancement, profits can drop and customers often move elsewhere. Same with companies where cost-cutting involves “deploying robots or foreign call centers whose agents know nothing about the business and are paid per call so they try to make it fast by passing you off to someone else.” There’s a price to be paid for replacing human contact.

The book has implications for counseling, leadership, education at all levels, marketing, family therapy, ministry, health, stress management and the ability to recover from disasters. You get the point. “Despite the clear advantages of the Internet, if we want to be happy, healthy, long-lived, [productive] and clever, then we need to find ways to spend more time with each other face-to-face.” How does this apply to you? Please comment.


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 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 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 #538 – Connect, Then Lead

“Most of us try to demonstrate competence above all else inLikeability the workplace, but research suggests that the way to influence others—and to lead—is to begin with warmth.” That is the theme of a Harvard Business Review article in an issue focused on having an influence (July/August, 2013). According to the authors, when we judge others we look at two characteristics, in this order: how likeable, warm and trustworthy they appear to be, and how much competence and strength they show. “Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.” Politicians know this but can these principles apply as well to coaches, counselors, educators, and other communicators? Can the principles apply to jobseekers, including young professionals starting their careers? Prospective employers want to know that the candidate is competent but liking the applicant is equally—and sometimes even more—important.

Some research shows that when people emphasize their competence and skills, they might be respected and even admired. But if they lack warmth, these competent people tend to be distrusted, sometimes resented and even feared. “Leaders and others who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting a host of dysfunctional behaviors that can undermine cognitive potential, creativity, problem solving,” and employee engagement.  These competent people who lack warmth are not perceived to be good leaders and over time they are less successful and earn less money.

 In contrast when leaders, communicators and others are seen as being warm and likeable they generate good will. They are more likely to be trusted, open, listened to, and viewed as leaders worthy of our support and cooperation. Of course in themselves warmth and evidence of trustworthiness are not enough to bring success and leader effectiveness. Warm, gracious people who lack competence tend to be pitied and not respected. But when there is interpersonal connection, followed by evidence of competence, we see effectiveness, success, good leadership and even “significantly higher economic gains.”

The HBR writers make a good argument for these conclusions? Do you agree? Have you see the principles from this article demonstrated? Please comment.

Newsletter #426 – Investing in People

Leadership, coaching, teaching and mentoring all have the goal of helping people move from where they are to where they want or need to be. When it’s effective all of our work with people involves building and cultivating relationships. I thought of this last week as I read Steve Saccone’s book Relational Intelligence.

For example, in a chapter titled “The Disproportionate Investor,” Saccone argues that Jesus had a four part strategy for working closely with the disciples. He prayed about the people he would invest in, selected them carefully, spent a lot of time teaching, and then entrusted them with important leadership responsibilities. At the core of this process was careful and strategic thinking about selecting those with whom we would work. Some people are like “purses with holes.” They take our investments in them, but they don’t retain much. They rarely grow and aren’t inclined to invest in other people. Saccone calls them consumers who “devour every ounce of relational and emotional energy for themselves, draining it right out of” those who give it. Much different and better according to the book are the investors. Often they are eager learners who look for ways to apply their new insights and skills to new situations. In the process they energize others, including the men and women who lead, coach and teach them. Saccone urges us to invest in those who have potential and the determination to pass on their learning to others.

Probably most of us spend time investing in other people. We want to make wise choices and focus our efforts on those who have the greatest potential to grow and give a good return on our investment. But why did Jesus select Judas? Haven’t we all had experiences of mentoring unlikely candidates and watching them respond? Sometimes they do waste our time, but others blossom to the surprise of everyone. I prefer working with people who have obvious potential but sometimes I sense God leading me to those who are most often overlooked.

How do you select the people you invest in? Please share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment.