When Others Grate On Our Nerves

Today on the plane I had a wake up call about why I allow some people to get to me.

I travel a lot for business (more than most and less than some) and find air travel to be the most tedious part of my job. So I am glad for the small perks like being able to get on a plane first and finding a place for my luggage in the overhead bin.

Today I was assigned a middle seat and dreaded having two large human beings on each side of me. Well and good for the person at the window seat, he was small built and slept most of the trip.

Then came Chuck (I saw his name on his carry on bag).

He was brusque in his manner, sat down heavily, paged through his magazine furiously, and then followed with “man spread” (legs wide open and arms spilling over the armrest on my side.) OK, I said to myself, “I can manage this, just ignore him and make myself small” Then came the headphones and his iPod that shut him out from the rest of the world. I have no problem with people listening to music while they travel, but then he began singing loudly.

By now I was starting to stereotype Chuck. He was reading an engineering magazine and I did what I tell others not to do, I started to label him by saying, “OK, here is an engineer with no social intelligence. He does not have a clue as to how his behavior is impacting his fellow passengers.”

Fast forward. After three hours of “enduring” this insufferable passenger we came to the end of the flight. As we were landing he took off his headphones and I (impersonating a human being) asked him where he was going.

What followed pricked my illusion that I am always a good judge of others. He was soft-spoken, friendly, and showed an interest in me. As I reflected on the incident afterwards I concluded that we often pre-judge people through the lens of our,

  1. Current physical state. There is a saying that I learned from people who attend Alcoholics Anonymous that we are vulnerable to our disease (mine is grumpiness) when we are, to use the acronym, H.A.L.TH = hungry; A = Angry; L = lonely; T = tired. It is easy to cry over spilled milk when we are exhausted.
  1. Past hurts. We all have our ‘hot buttons’ shaped by past experience. When someone ignores my needs, instead of detaching from the situation and not taking myself so seriously,  I can become reactive and not see the person or situation for what it actually is. It then becomes very difficult to disengage from the ‘problem’ person.
  1. Temperamental tendencies. I am an introvert and after a period of heavy involvement with others as my work requires, I just want to be left alone. And that included my physical space. Chuck invaded my personal space, air waves, and generally got on my nerves.

Next time we find ourselves responding with irritation to others we would do well to ask,

“What does this situation say about me?”

Understanding ourselves in that situation makes it far easier to respond without pre-judging, reacting, or coming from a place of prejudice. And with insight self-regulation  becomes much easier.

One of the earliest lessons I learned as a psychologist was to monitor my own feelings, sort them out, and then respond to others. Self-awareness always needs to be balanced with self-regulation.

What do you do when people get on your nerves?

Do you put the blame on them?


Do you allow them to be your teacher?

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Beyond Comparisons

Can you remember the people who really believed in you and gave you the resources you needed to develop that potential?

These are the teachers, mentors, coaches, bosses, and sometimes parents that labeled you as a positive force to be reckoned with.

In many ways they gave you an internalized label.

If it represented your possibilities, it had a positive impact on your life.

If the label implied that you had a problem or worse still, were a problem, you have had a tough path in life.

By contrast, I heard of one professor who gave all his students an A grade at the beginning of the class. He then instructed them to write an essay from the perspective of the end of the semester recounting the ways they worked to achieved that grade. They all earned their A’s.

Unfortunately our highly competitive culture continually compares us with each other,

 You are a B player in our organization

 My stomach is flatter than yours

You are not as smart as your sister

Does this sort of comparison bring out our “A” game? Are we the better for it? Did we not crush the opposition, win the gold  medal, get that coveted promotion, and on and on it goes?

Motivating by comparison never brought out the best in anyone. Comparisons that pit us against each other are a way of saying “I am better than you are” or “I am less than…”

A whole host of negative feeling states and beliefs can follow such comparisons including envy, a scarcity mentality, veiled anger against the “haves” in life, and killing ourselves “keeping up with the Jones“.

Maybe it is time to

  • Give yourself an A,
  • Find people who can encourage you along the way,
  • Define behaviors that you can practice that will help you realize that grade.

All our internalized labels, both positive as well as negative, are human inventions. The good news is that we don’t have to buy into those messages.

What label would you like to have for yourself?

How will it result in personal fulfillment and contribution to others?

Give yourself an A. Then work your tail off to make it so.


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Our Most Read Blogs in Five Years

If you missed reading any of the following blogs you will want to look at them since they are our most read articles in five years.

(Please share them with your friends on the social media tabs below)

The Meaning of Work in Different Cultures


Living with a Narcissist


Expand Your Self-Awareness


The Power of Self-Disclosure


Ten Basics of Cross-Cultural Communication


Moving Toward a Soul-Based Life


Transforming the Destructive Power of Envy


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The Power of Possibility

Two men looked through prison bars,

one saw mud

the other saw stars – Author unknown

A key to whether we see mud or stars is based on what story we believe and tell ourselves. The power of this internal narrative can be illustrated with the placebo effect.

One time I was having difficulty sleeping and a friend gave me a pill that she described as a powerful sleep aid. That night I slept like a baby. The next day I was informed that I had ingested a vitamin C tablet. My internal script about that pill put me to sleep.

Some of our internal guiding narratives are deeply engrained and shaped by our early experiences. Take the whole experience of inferiority. Where did this come from? A person who feels “less than” often had their performance compared to that of others. “Why can’t you be like…?” sets off a chain of judgment and chronic comparison with others.

Sometimes we just make up stories based on cultural factors about what constitutes the ‘ideal’ person or condition. A story line that one is not thin, smart, or worthy enough is a sure fire formula for misery.

How do we change this misery-generating script? We begin by

  1. Recognizing that we are the authors of our own story.

Yes, that’s right, we wrote that misery script (often dictated by others) and by the same token we can change it.

I love what Ros and Ben Zander write in “The Art of Possibility” about the story we invented, “It’s all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that advances our quality of life and that of those around us.”

Question. What story can you make up about yourself that will enhance your life and that of others? (You may as well make up one that works for you and others)

So how then do we edit that misery-producing story? In what way can we reprogram ourselves? We can begin by

  1. Thinking our way into a new way of acting

Inventing a new story involves asking questions like,

“What do I have to do to stay in the moment?”

“How can I make a contribution today?”

“Where can I find an opportunity in this difficulty?”

“What do I have to do to give an inspiring speech?”

Powerful questions such as these set off a positive chain reaction within us that undermines a negative mental disposition. Our thinking can literally be reshaped.

Have you ever watched a champion gymnast mentally rehearsing an upcoming routine? Are they remembering a time when they failed miserably at the maneuver? On the contrary, they are running through the script of a perfect performance. Like the athlete we can reshape ourselves into possibility thinkers.

Question: What empowering question can you ask yourself today?

Now let’s look at the editing process from the additional perspective of,

  1. Acting our way into a new way of thinking.

As a psychologist I treated depressed people. One successful practice for some persons with this struggle was to suggest physical activity that they once enjoyed. The first time out it may have been a walk around the block and it steadily progressed to more extensive exercise. The body behaved in healthy ways and slowly the mind followed suit.

When I was going through a very difficult time in my life about two decades ago I decided to go to a dance class. I found it very difficult to be depressed and dance at the same time.

Question. What life affirming behavior can you engage in to reverse your negative mental script?

I write this just before Easter Sunday. In the Christian calendar this is one of those days when we affirm that no matter how great our suffering and disappointment we can rise again. The symbol of the Phoenix rising from the ashes is another metaphor of a power in the universe and within us and that facilitates the realization of new possibilities.

Imagine a world where you realized new possibilities for yourself.

What would that world look like?  

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Imagine a World Where…..

When I work with leaders on the development of a strategy I ask them to complete the statement

Imagine a time when….

That approach puts their ideas solidly into the future. Some of the best comments I have heard have been from,

An employee at a credit card company who said,

“Imagine a day when we will live in a cashless society and all people will use for financial transactions will be credit cards (now of course it is Smartphones).

An IT person at a major railroad who mused,

“Imagine a day when all of our trains will be operated remotely (the driverless car idea.)

All these thoughts are at different stages of development.

How would you  project your ideas into the future?

Remember, in the words of the fictional TV character Frank Underwood in “House of Cards”,

“Imagination is its own form of courage.”

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Take Down the Wall – Ending Gender Inequality at the Top of Organizations

A big divide between the sexes in the corporate world is evident at senior leadership levels where men are in the overwhelming majority.

Despite the advent of feminism, the fact that there are a handful of women CEO’s in large corporations, and the huge population of highly competent lower-level women executives in every industry, the fact is that women leaders still

Run into an invisible wall that, consciously, unconsciously, and due to intentional ignorance, keeps them from consistently rising to top leadership positions.

How can organizations take down that wall of inequality?

Here are three steps that organizations can take to ensure that woman reach senior levels of leadership.

  1. Get out of denial that there is a problem.

Despite some progress in promoting women in some sectors and the awareness of the problem on the part of certain male leaders, the C-Suite and corporate boards still are mostly an all male club.

When the statistics come in many organizations like Google were shocked to see how women trail in promotion to higher levels of leadership (as well as just working in the IT Industry).

However it is one thing to be shocked by the numbers but there needs to be intensified action in rectifying the problem. And a factor that can spur us on in this effort to end bias is our attempt to build more effective teams.

  1. Examine what makes for effective teams.

The data are in. Teams with more women members are more effective. In an article in the NY Times Jan 15th 2015 Why Some Teams are Smarter than Others” authors Anita Woolley, Thomas Malone, and Christopher Chabris cite studies that indicate that having more women on a team makes it more effective. This was partly due to a second success factor for an effective team, emotional intelligence. The latter is generally found at a higher level in women.

Could the above factor spur on the needed changes by organizations when they

  1. Establish a percentage of qualified women who will be promoted to such positions in a certain time frame?

Some corporations set goals that by a certain date a higher percentage of qualified women will be represented in their senior leadership. This has been a very effective strategy for diversity balance.

Now is the time for more organizations to follow suit and establish a quota system for qualified women.

Other strategies for dismantling the wall of gender bias like court cases and newspaper reports raise the awareness of the problem but generally lead to bad feelings and resistance from corporate leadership.

By just starting with the above three actions a new day could be dawning for women in leadership.

 Burning Questions

When will we see gender equality on your senior leadership team?

What are you doing (or have done) to make this so?  

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Delegation – How to Catch Monkeys

Some villagers in Africa were having problems with monkeys stealing their crops.

One resident devised a plan to place several large pumpkins in the vegetable patch. He then carved a small hole in the thick skin of each pumpkin through which the monkeys could slide their hands to grab the seeds. What he knew was that the monkeys would take a hand full of seeds and then try unsuccessfully to withdraw their hands.

Because the monkey desperately wanted the treat it WOULD NOT LET GO. AS A RESULT IT WAS TRAPPED.

What then do monkeys and pumpkins have to do with delegation?

Delegation challenges often occur when  leaders will not let go of a task where they are very skilled. As a result they do not have the bandwidth to move on to other leadership tasks like devising strategy. Such over committed leaders

  1. View this domain as their primary identity.  They mistakenly believe that they are the only ones who can competently do that job and forget that knowledge transfer is a key part of effective leadership.
  1. Restrict themselves from moving on to other important leadership tasks.  Recently I encouraged a leader to fill his schedule with visits to customers where he would engage them in discussions as to how he could become more of a strategic partner. This would leave him little time to get down into the weeds with his reports in attempting solve their problems for them.

The discipline and skill of delegation is so vital for leadership effectiveness in more senior positions.

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A Case for Silence

Cedric Johnson, Ph.D and Kristine MacKain, Ph.D

Whether we know it or not we need silence in our lives. It is essential for so many things; for example,  generating creative thought, reducing stress, restoring our sense of well-being, and maintaining our sanity in a noisy world….

However since there are so few places on earth where complete silence is available we have to create such opportunities. Moreover, when we find them we need to avoid contaminating them with noise (the 24-hour news cycle, loud music, jet skis, leaf blowers!).

About a week ago, we visited a Monarch butterfly sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico, far up the side of a mountain. This is the final resting place for the annual migration of 150 million Monarch butterflies starting in eastern Canada and ending here, in south central Mexico. For several months, great masses of butterflies occupy this almost sacred forest, leaving visitors breathless with wonder.

Most of the time people observe this amazing phenomena in complete silence. However, on this occasion, there were a group of North Americans sitting on the grass next to us talking very loudly on a topic that seemed so out of sync with this context. One person complained,

“In my lifetime we will never see another US Congress with a majority of its members from the Democratic Party!”

We thought to ourselves:

“In this wonderful sanctuary with millions of butterflies swirling around us right now, who cares about your political opinion? Can’t you just be silent and fully in the moment?”

Having to listen to such chatter when the occasion warranted complete silence led us to reflect on the destructive power of noise.

In life, as in music, when there are no spaces between the notes, all we have is noise. The racket in our world (and in our heads!) is destroying our experience of sacred and necessary places, places where the only sounds are the sounds made by Nature. It is over stressing us and keeping us from deeper thought and conversation.

Burning Question

How can we create conditions where we can slow down the noise inside our heads and outside in our environment so that we can  be quiet? How can we make this a regular part of our lives?


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Experiencing Wow at Work – Follow Your Ball

oaxaca ball

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A wow experience at work is something we all desire.

Remember the time when you came up with a novel idea and then made it happen. Recall your natural high after you delivered an “impossible” solution for a customer.

Are these long forgotten memories for us?

It is more likely that we have those ecstatic experiences as we encounter the wonders in nature.

I felt that overwhelming wow this week when we visited the Monarch butterfly sanctuary here in Mexico. As we observed 150 million of these exquisite creatures in their natural habitat I felt myself on the brink of tears most of the time. How can we rekindle this sort of magic at work?

  1. Recall why we entered a calling in the first place. For me it was a combination of curiosity as to what made leaders great plus my deep sense of satisfaction in helping them realize their leadership goals.
  1. Look for significance in small things. When it comes to inspiration at work we often look to big events like the release of an innovative technology or the publication of our book to inspire us. Enjoying the small stuff is almost a lost art. Celebrating our small daily wins with moments of gratitude is a path to wonder.
  1. Learn to “Be here now.” We live such distracted lives. We go way beyond multi-tasking as our minds go in a thousand directions at one time. It takes practice, discipline, and a quiet mind to be pulled back into the present. And it is in that place of rest and reflection that one can begin to be fully open to wonder and realize our leadership greatness.
  2. Chase your ball. The photograph is of our dog Oaxaca and her ball just before she died. She lived to chase that ball. Even a few days before her death she summed up her energy for one last time to fetch the ball.

What is YOUR ball?

What energizes you to do what you do?

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Managing Fear

Nature has equipped us with an internal red alert system. Fear.

When an out of control truck careens towards our car we get that rush of adrenaline that helps us think fast and take evasive action. Fear saves the day.

However, there are times when the same alarm bells go off and scare us unnecessarily.

Recently a group of university students from the USA travelled to a small town in Mexico. They were there to learn Spanish and supposedly learn about the culture. The problem was that they had been programmed to believe that Mexico is a dangerous place to visit. On the first week of their visit they were alarmed when they heard the loud explosion of fireworks that often accompany local fiestas.

Nobody could persuade them that the explosions were from fireworks and not gunfire. They were terrified and took the next plane back to the USA.

Their fear was real but based on a faulty premise.

Reflect on the following acronym.


E= Evidence

A= Appearing

R= Real

Fears based on false evidence feel VERY real. Your gut churns as much as it would with the runaway truck scenario. Our physical systems cannot distinguish between false or true fear situations.

But our minds can be trained to distinguish between the two.

Here’s how.

Years ago when I worked as a psychologist I learned a powerful strategy Rational Emotive Therapy (RET). Use the ABC’s of this theory to analyze your irrational fears that feel very real to you. Then learn how to choose a more productive response.

A = Activating event. The trigger in this case was the explosion from fireworks

B = Belief. What they believed about the situation, “Those are gunshots”

C = Consequence. Their fear drove them to the airport.

Now did A cause C? Obviously this is not the case.

It was the interpretation of the event that scared them. It was the B=Belief part of the sequence that kicked in.

Let’s continue to follow the ABC process.

D = Dispute your belief. Engage in some reality testing. Do a sanity check with a colleague with a question like “Is it just my perception or should I go to the town square and check out the fireworks?”

E = Establish a new belief. After a thorough sanity check you may receive information that contradicts your belief that they heard gunfire. The fear is then extinguished.

Recognizing and managing the fear factor does not happen overnight. Some of our old hurts and beliefs run very deep. They have morphed into bad mental habits. Don’t stop at C , learn ways to move to E.

 How have you managed your fears?

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