How startup founders use cognitive behavioral coaching to master their toughest conversations.

Executive coaching was developed to help people make the most of their abilities, gain deeper self-awareness, build people skills and resiliency for mastering the challenges of work life. Startup founders, senior management or leaders with significant responsibilities enlist coaches to help them bring new insights and skills to their relationships and broader life picture. 

 Coaching startup founders through crucial conversations isn’t just serving as a sounding board while they pitch investors, work through co-founder conflict and make hiring and firing decisions as their company scales. Founders undergo a great deal of personal transformation on this journey. They are also responsible for elevating early employees into leadership roles in which they likely have little to no experience. When founders use coaching to learn evidence-based cognitive behavioral tools for personal growth and in their management practices, they internalize a coaching mindset. This leadership style positively impacts the overall health and stability of the organization’s interpersonal climate.

This week while working with a client on communication skill building, she asked me:

“Why are crucial conversations so much harder for some people than others? Giving negative feedback to my employees is the least favorite part of my job as a CEO.” –Startup founder

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Here’s a truth I’ve learned from having thousands of therapy and coaching sessions with people about their toughest crucial conversations: everyone experiences heightened, uncomfortable emotions. So unless you’re a psychopath (which is a different article!) it’s not realistic to expect to remain emotionally unchanged when facing high-stakes, crucial conversations. Humans evolved to experience this ‘Fight or Flight’ Response as a survival instinct in the face of perceived threat. When we anticipate having a high-stakes conversations, our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective responses. Without developing a practice to manage effectively this pattern, founders are at high risk for making poor management decisions and eventually burnout. 

The premise of Cognitive Behavioral Theory is that our emotions are triggered by automatic thoughts that serve to alert us to the possibility of imminent danger. People’s perceptions occur as spontaneous thoughts, which directly influence their emotional, behavioral, and physiological reactions. Our perceptions are often magnified or distorted when they are distressed, making it difficult to see things objectively. By examining our “automatic thoughts” and identifying the factual evidence that refutes them, we are more capable of seeing a view that more closely resembles reality. With practice, our distress will decreases considerably, allowing us to make behavioral choices with higher functionality.

 

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Billionaire investor, author and co-founder of Oaktree Capital Howard Marks discusses risk assessment and the psychology of investing on The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish. He attributes his success with high-stakes decision-making to his ability to confront the evolutionary emotional programming that automatically drives human behavior. He shares that by adopting a mindset of ‘dispassionate observation and examination of thought‘ before acting, people can learn to accept the impossibility of predicting or controlling the future with 100% accuracy. This mindset reduces the risk of making decisions that overshoot a situation, out of instinctual enthusiasm or fear. In essence, putting cognitive behavioral tools at the helm of his investment decision-making. Founders can use this approach for their toughest, crucial conversations to stabilize their emotions, conserve mental energy and improve the odds of a successful outcome.

How to Use Cognitive Behavioral Tools in Crucial Conversations:

Practice writing out evidence-based thought records to dissect past situations that have lead to uncomfortable feelings. This simple but powerful exercise trains your brain to re-examine how your thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all interconnected.

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Practice observing behaviors and listening for the ‘content versus conditions’ of a conversation as a way to spot the risk of a conversation turning into a conflict. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation (a hostile condition), the interaction is no longer about the original purpose (the content)- it is now about defending oneself, further escalating emotions.

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Our emotional responses naturally turns into a ‘storyline’ or narrative in our head when we perceive hostility that feels like an injustice, shaping how we ‘make meaning’ of the person’s actions. Look for the factual evidence that supports your storyline and identify the emotional response tied to it.

With the understanding that rarely is any situation 100% factually true, look for the evidence that does not support your ‘story’. Practice questioning your conclusionslook for evidence that supports other possible perspectives with the goal of identifying multiple perspectives.

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Keep practicing the habit of identifying your emotional response and stories, developing a more balanced point of view rather than accepting your own without question. Learn to understand and take into account multiple perspectives before engaging in crucial conversations.  This mindset will translate into more effective exchanges in your relationships, and ultimately help you become a more successful, well-respected leader.

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Assuming positive intent- the secret weapon to surviving the holiday season.

The holidays are coming, or as people in the tech industry like say ‘seasonality‘ is approaching. During this time of year most of us will face a series of negotiations and decisions with people across our professional and personal lives. Conversations will unfold with co-workers and loved ones as we work to sync calendars, discuss budgets for spending, solidify holiday plans, and account for the differing needs of others during the busiest time of year. When differences of opinions arise, the urge to ‘be right’ is an irresistible response that heightens our emotions and can fuel conflict with others. (To every family member of mine reading this bear with me as I illuminate the small yet significant insights you’ve inspired over the years. Thank you for being my experimental group! Signed, Dr. Know-It-All.)

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‘Assuming positive intent‘ can help us move past our need to ‘be right’ and ‘win the debate’ and instead, cultivate a conversation where both parties are invested in finding effective solutions.  While the following tips won’t necessarily ‘feel right’ or reinforce your hard-won identity as a debate champion, it will help you avoid the emotional drain of gridlocking with others committed to their point of view.

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How to ‘assume positive intent’

The act of trying something new with a lightness of heart can be referred to as a ‘lark’. How to assume positive intent when conflict arises with others using my L.A.R.K. approach:

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  • Listen for their story. When we hear an opinion from someone that contradicts our understanding of a situation, we tend to stop listening because we become preoccupied with changing their mind until they agree with us. When we stop listening, we not only signal to the other person we aren’t interested in understanding them, we literally cut ourselves off from hearing critical information that could help lead to a mutually agreeable solution.
  • Acknowledge their point of view. Our tendency is to jump to conclusions when someone does something differently than we would, and assume the worst. Because humans are hardwired to perceive threat in instances of conflict, we focus on finding ulterior motives in those who disagree with us. Make a genuine effort to understand the premise of their opinion based on the information they have, and acknowledge their right to see things differently than you do.
  • Respect their difference. When we assume another person is misinformed, wrong or has malicious intentions, our tone of voice and non-verbal micro-expressions can turn negative. This can be read by others as an unwillingness to respect differences of opinion. Guard against communicating unintentional disrespect by modeling the response you would like to receive from others when it’s your turn to share your opinion.
  • Kindness cultivates generosity. Now when you feel yourself gunning to ‘prove your rightness’, take a step back and remember that when you preoccupy yourself with changing someone’s mind, you are reducing the likelihood of them responding with generosity, and increasing the likelihood of them responding with animosity when it’s time to generate possible solutions. Your job is to listen, acknowledge, respect, and convey kindness before moving on to explore possible solutions that could be mutually agreed upon.

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Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, describes learning to assume positive intent as the best advice she’s ever received:

My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.” So “assume positive intent” has been a huge piece of advice for me.

Recognizing a different opinion doesn’t mean you are admitting fault, that your point of view is inferior, or that your opinion should have less value than others. Rather, assuming positive intent gives the other person the benefit of the doubt in order to set the best possible tone for generating solutions. It doesn’t mean you agree with their opinion, but it does allow you to see with more clarity where bridges could exist.

So when your co-founder, team mate or significant other holds an opinion that is entirely different than yours, aim to identify their operating system before trying to change it!

Give yourself the command “Tools > Clear History” to rid your mind of cutter that obstructs your ability to listen with less judgement. While we may never truly ‘know’ another person’s underlying motivation  behind their point of view, we can aim to convey a willingness to respect their difference.  Our mutual bandwidth for problem-solving is increased when we assume positive intent, so all parties gain more data points to generate viable solutions.

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How startups use psychometrics for leadership development can make or break them: 4 major principles to follow

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management estimates that at present, 18% of companies use psychometric testing for a range of purposes, most commonly recruitment and hiring.  According to Harvard Business Review, skillful application of cognitive and personality tests (also known as psychometrics) help companies avoid hiring and managerial mishaps, which are estimated to cost a company at least one year’s pay.  Poor management can be especially fatal for startups, making skillful leadership critical to a startup’s early growth and success.  Ray Dalio founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world managing $160 billion discusses the value of psychometric use for leadership development in his widely recognized bestseller Principles: Life and Work.  Dalio and his employees use psychometric observations and evaluations to identify and minimize derailing behaviors among high potential leaders.  In sum, leaders who lack self-awareness and fail to learn from their experiences contribute to their own derailment.  Honing self-awareness is the prevailing objective among clients in my executive coaching practice aiming to mitigate the derailing pitfalls that new challenges bring.   Applied research findings in this area reveal the most common derailments among faulty leaders:

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  • Problems with interpersonal relationships
  • Failure to build and lead a team
  • Lack of self-awareness
  • Inability to learn from feedback and experience
  • Trust/integrity issues
  • Inability to change or adapt
  • Poor composure under stress
  • Over-reliance on strengths

Unfortunately, many organizations choose the wrong psychometric assessments to use in their leadership development efforts, or use them in the wrong way.  Expert application of psychometrics can be a costly investment for small startups.  Typically the luxury of employing an esteemed management company like McKinsey for psychometric use in leadership development is far outside of the budget of early stage startups.

My professional experiences teaching and utilizing a range of psychometric assessments and later coaching tech leaders through challenging transitions provide a framework for offering these guiding principles on how startups can optimize psychometrics for their leadership-development.

Four major principles to follow:

Consider applicable laws.  Stay in legal compliance whenever employing psychometric tests. in your organization.  Anti-discrimination laws apply to psychometric assessment tools (particularly cognitive tests) stating they must be job-relevant and demonstrate internal and external validity.  The Americans with Disabilities Act provides specific guidelines for using psychometrics within organizations- they must respect people’s privacy and not aim to “diagnose” potential hires or employees in any way.  Historically organizations have used clinical psychometric assessments like the MMPI-2 for employment decision-making, though it was designed for the purpose of diagnosing mental illness and identifying traits common in those with personality disorders.  Because the MMPI-2 was developed for use with psychiatric and prison populations,  some employers have been taken to court for using it in their organizational decision-making and lost.  Using psychometric tools designed for use and application in industrial/organizational settings is a safer bet for company decision-making.

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Choose your tests wisely.  Aim to build an evidence-based approach for evaluating leadership growth and performance, with specific purpose in mind. If using psychometrics for hiring, aim to demonstrate that your hiring tools predict how you’re defining ‘success’ in a given role using rigorous statistical analyses.  Relying on interesting but random psychometric outcomes will at best waste time and resources, and at worst lead managers to make faulty decisions.  If using psychometrics to increase self-awareness in leaders, select assessment tools designed for this purpose, proven to be scientifically valid by experts in the field, and have demonstrated utility in identifying and redirecting problematic behavioral patterns.  Whenever possible, get support from experienced organizational consultants to help your company select appropriate tools for your company’s specific needs.

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Follow test administration protocol or risk invalidating outcomes.  “Proctoring” assessments ensures they are being taken according to the test’s protocol, either by having people take the assessments in front of an informed test proctor, or through video conference monitoring if they are remote.  Be sure that test takers are given clear directions according to the test developer or risk invalidating test results.  Be aware that some people may feel compelled to influence their results in order to appear more competent for a particular role, or may be more guarded in their responses as a way of presenting themselves in the most favorable light to potential employers.  Some psychometric tests have built-in measures that indicate whether a candidate’s pattern of responses reflect an effortful attempt influence their test outcomes, or if their responses are inconsistent with one another.  Using outcomes from multiple psychometric tests (referred to as a ‘test battery’) can help to gather a more accurate, comprehensive testing profile.

Leadership development initiatives with opportunities for privacy and self-directed learning enhance engagement.  When participants are allowed to maintain a sense of privacy over their psychometric assessment outcomes, they are more likely to engage in deeper, lasting growth.

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This practice provides a safer space for leaders to do a deep dive into understanding their own personal challenges.   Innovative venture capital firms like Alpha Bridge Ventures are investing in startup founder success with an on-boarding process that uses psychometric surveys to determine leadership style, then tailors support through an inter-disciplinarian team of coaches and wellness professionals.  Other venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz recognize the limitation of time and resources executives have to spare for developing their own employees.  Outsourcing leadership skill-building through founder retreats, externally facilitated consultation groups modeled after Stanford’s T-groups, or providing a broad and deep alumni support network à la Y-Combinator are all ways startup founders are achieving leadership success.   Larger organizations are investing in employee development through bespoke leadership programs like Potentialife, which provide participants access to strategic, self-directed leadership growth modules through the convenience of an interactive app.

Startups that invest in their leaders self-awareness will benefit from the long-term gains that self-knowledge delivers.  Appreciate that no matter how much progress we make, there’s always more to learn.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

– Albert Einstein

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Settling down in Silicon Valley, just another impossible unicorn to chase?

A recent article published in The Washington Post titled “Why Silicon Valley singles are giving up on the algorithms of love” illuminates the struggle single people face, even while living in one of the countries wealthiest and most educated urban areas, attracting young, ambitious people from all over the world.  While the San Francisco Bay Area remains a high ranking city for adventurous singles, others find themselves tired of FOMO-driven dating sprints and casual hook-ups and start to crave the intimacy of a committed romantic relationship.  To be single and searching for ‘the one’ in the Bay Area is complicated according the wide range of people I encounter through my executive coaching practice with entrepreneurs and other high performers in the tech ecosystem.  The single women are far outnumbered by single men making the odds good for heterosexual women, but they’ll quickly tell you the “goods are odd”, describing tech guys as low in EQ and difficult to navigate with through early stages of dating ).  Even with the odds stacked against them, single men in Silicon Valley are more selective in their search for a romantic partner than literally, anywhere else in the country.   These findings are completely consistent with the feedback I get from the millennials I work with in tech.

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Back in 2014 I penned an article for techcrunch.com titled #Love: Hacking Social Isolation, bringing attention to how the increasing reliance on technology is making it more difficult for millennials to form and maintain authentic relationships with others.  Not unlike Silicon Valley startups whose valuations promise more than they actually deliver, millennials continue to rely heavily upon dating apps, an investment that is more likely to lead to user fatigue and burnout than to the relationship promised land.  This is a new kind of failure, and Silicon Valley hasn’t come to grips with it yet.  You can’t swipe right for automatic intimacy, you have to build it.  Slowly and unpredictably, at least for now.

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Winning together: conflict resolution tactics for startup founders

As a executive coach I support startup founders, CEOs, senior executives and other tech leaders in their pursuit of entrepreneurial success in Silicon Valley.  Their leadership development goals prioritize enhancing emotional intelligence, improving interpersonal communication and honing conflict resolution skills for managerial effectiveness.  The startup life is often grueling as co-founders face high pressure, high stakes decision-making during the rapid growth of their company.  Harjeet Taggar, former Y Combinator partner, once wrote, “The relationship between co-founders is usually the single biggest risk to a startup in the earliest stages, it’s certainly the most common reason for failure we see at YC.”  According to Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, successful conflict management requires skillful self management, and the ability to separate self-interest from winning solutions “You have to be prepared to see the better idea when it arrives. And the hardest part of that is often discarding your old idea.”

Seasoned entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley recognize that it’s not just the idea, product or timing of a startup that sets the stage for success, but arguably the founders’ ability to work together to tackle emerging problems as a company scales.  It means working through differences aligned in partnership rather than at odds with one another.  Just like the honeymoon phase of romantic relationships, early startup success can mask a lack of effective conflict management skills between founders.  When things are going well, it’s tempting to believe that major conflicts can be avoided.  While the gambling spirit is worn like a badge of honor among successful entrepreneurs, this is one gamble they can’t afford to lose.  Without practicing conflict resolutions skills early and often, they risk losing time and resources battling each other instead of leveraging their collective strengths when they need them most.  Gary Tan, former partner at Y Combinator shared with TechCrunch “Successful co-founders actually embrace conflict, and are constantly in the process of resolving it. If you can’t argue and arrive at the best solution, you’re not doing the work to actually have a real, healthy working relationship.”

So what works?  Evidence-based strategies like those developed by psychologist John Gottman are applicable beyond marital relationships, and have been successfully utilized by other respected startup coaches in Silicon Valley.  Gottman’s research has a proven track-record for both relationship success as well as predicting relationship failure with scientifically rigorous precision.

1.  Aspire to ‘win’ as a team, not as individuals.  

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When your team is busy arguing over every minor detail your competitors are busy winning, and your company is busy failing.  

There’s a saying in Silicon Valley that it’s better to have an A team with a B idea, than a B team with an A idea. Dedicate yourself to operating as an A member of an A team.  Each member of your A team has lived their life aspiring to win on an individual level, using tactics that work best for them as individuals.  The hardest part of submitting to a team is accepting others’ differences and shortcomings gracefully, and carrying on with your best work ethic and respect for others regardless of who’s slowing company progress.  You think “I never would have made that mistake!  This problem could have been avoided if they’d listened to me.”  When oversights, insufficient planning, unclear communication, failed efforts, personal problems, and fatigue set in, they can lead to setbacks in your combined efforts to succeed as a team.  Adopt the mental framework that ‘winning’ is modeling cooperation and flexibility, ‘losing’ is fighting to get your way all the time.  Winning is practicing humility and accepting constructive feedback because it sets the best stage for improvement.  Are you using tactics to succeed as a team or are you using tactics that are better suited to individual success?  Are you willing to do whatever it takes to make progress as a team?

2.  Recognize that company success is tied to your team’s willingness to trust one another.  By working as part of a founder team, you are acknowledging you are better off working together versus alone.  If you agree to build something with someone you are agreeing to rely on them, and you must also be reliable.

Founders of a company are gambling on each other, and there is no way to gamble without trust.  Partial trust begets mistrust.

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Can you trust that your cofounder has the best interest of the company at heart? Are you both committed to making the relationship work and the company successful?  If you are not all in, you introduce risk to the foundation of your company.  Trust functions to give team members a “reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”  By agreeing to work with and rely on one another, you’ve accepted that each person adds important value, unique insights, and specialized abilities that compliment yours.  By giving this to one another you maximize the time and attention you have for your own contributions instead of using your energy to raise doubts or second guess others’ work.

 

3.  Attempting to track and keep score of who’s working harder or contributing more ‘worth’ wastes time, fosters animosity and reduces positive synergy. 

Everyone’s best effort looks different, so spending time making comparisons rarely produces progress for the relationship or the company.

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According to University of Illinois psychologist Brian Ogolsky and Texas State University’s Christine Gray, people who keep score in their relationships damage their potential for healthy relationship maintenance because the very act of counting implies a lack of trust, rigidity, and negativity.  Co-founders and team members should aim to delegate responsibilities based on ability and expertise, and if a continual imbalance in the workload emerges, plan to discuss this as a team to solve for more efficient allocation of tasks that factors in individual strengths, resources and availability.  Avoid placing blame when ever possible, and focus on actionable solutions that are tied to current circumstances.  The potential for success is maximized when everyone’s strengths are being efficiently utilized in real time.

 

4.  Create space for differences in opinion- exploring these differences will generate the most ingenuous solutions.  Aim to facilitate a wide range of possibilities, and take an objective approach to problem-solving.

Even if you don’t agree with a particular solution, it’s more effective if everyone shares their vision how this solution could result in success or failure.

This style of debate fosters constructive involvement and reduces power struggles.  If you oppose a decision, it’s not sufficient to point out a suggested plan’s low probability of success.  Research and prepare an outline of alternative action-oriented solutions to share with the team.

5.  Pay attention to people’s feelings.  Conflict will naturally give rise to emotional expression that can work in your team’s favor.  Strong emotional overtones are bound to emerge during a heated debate- take this as a sign that people care deeply about the work, about the team’s success, and that everyone at the table wants to avoid pitfalls.  Identify what people are feeling and why.  Let their answers inform how to proceed based on the expressed ideas.  If the discussion doesn’t lead to an agreed upon direction, rely on people’s primary areas of expertise as a guide for who has the most insight for the final call.  If the plan doesn’t work as out, take part in supporting a change in course quickly to minimize stalled productivity.

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6.  Ignoring reoccurring bad vibes between team members will only lead to bigger problems- resolving conflict is one problem startup founders CAN control.  The sooner you address them, the sooner you can get back to business.

Lastly, if all diplomatic efforts fail, agree to seek outside advice. I always recommend that founders and executive teams establish a range of outside resources (experienced mentors, business advisors, legal counsel) to give your team the insight it needs to resolve conflict.  Having an outsider broker your disagreement will end the gridlock- it’s like couples therapy for co-founders.  This might be what saves your startup from sinking.  Your team should agree in advance to take the advice with the goal of moving past this stage with finality.

 

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And don’t lose your sense of humor!  At fast-growing startups, the sheer magnitude of work should be complemented with some light-heartedness.  Laugh in solidarity at the crazy, silly things that you face together as a team- it will help lighten the mood.  When you look back at this time in your life, those are the things you’ll remember with a sense of gratitude and character-building strength.

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Improve your health and performance with Learned Optimism and you will win at life

What is the difference between someone who consistently performs to the best of their ability and someone whose performance is unpredictable?  What allows someone to effortlessly tap into their peak performance and reach their goals and what compromises a person’s ability to access and sustain it?  One word- outlook.  Martin Seligman‘s groundbreaking research on learned optimism reveals how being optimistic is consistently related to improved health and longevity.  A US study of nearly 100 000 students found that people who are optimistic are less likely than those who are pessimistic to die from Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) or from any other cause over an eight year period.  On the other hand, pessimism has been linked to chronic stress and poor health functioning such as high levels of inflammation, a weakened immune system, increased pain perception, and other signs of physiological and mental dysfunction.  Optimistic people appear to manage stress more efficiently than others so that their stress disappears at a faster rate than those who don’t utilize optimism in their outlook.

Seligman developed a test to help people identify their outlook style (which you can take here.)  If your base level of optimism isn’t very high, don’t panic.  In fact, it means that you are at the level where learned optimism can be the most beneficial!

Executive coaching can be an effective way to learn and adopt optimism to improve your overall functioning and sustain peak performance in all areas of your life.  I typically work with high-achieving young adults in the tech community of the Bay Area/Silicon Valley.  Working with a coach is great for healthy people who are motivated to change what isn’t working, but need some guidance on how to execute strategically and efficiently.

The following tactics outline the basic tenets of Learned Optimism.  Keep in mind that our first reaction to something will always be automatic and happen instantaneously – that’s normal and to be expected!  We can acknowledge our initial reactions to an event without this becoming our permanent outlook on the matter.  That’s where Learned Optimism comes in.  We can cultivate this skill by identifying our first reaction, clarifying how this first outlook might impact our overall ability to problem-solve and perform, and challenge ourselves to adjust our outlook in order to optimize our performance and goal achievement.  With practice, we can improve our mental toughness, which is what helps a person cope with difficult situations, persevere and succeed at a high performance level.

Our outlook is shaped by our individual explanatory style, a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experienced a particular event, either positive or negative.  There are three components to this:

  1. The permanence of an event – how long someone thinks it will last
  2. The pervasiveness or scope of an event – whether the person sees the event as specific and contained, or global and all-inclusive
  3.  Personalization of an event – whether the person views the event as something that was caused entirely by oneself, others or external factors

Learned Optimism tool # 1 – Adjust TIME outlook for an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as temporary:

  • “The next fiscal quarter will be better.”
  • This is a short-term setback.”
  • I’m having an off day today.”

Find ways to view a positive event as enduring and reflective of personal ability:

  • “I’m on a roll now, because I’ve worked hard, practiced, and now have a winning strategy.”
  • I know I can handle challenging things because I’ve already overcome so much.”
  • “I’ve created opportunities for myself in the past, and am capable of creating more.”

Learned Optimism tool # 2 – Adjust SCOPE of an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as specific and contained to one situation:

  • The next event will work out better because of what I’ve learned this time around.”
  • “I won’t let this personal rejection or difficult co-worker get in my way or stop me from reaching my goal.”
  • Things at my company are rough right now, but my personal life is going well.”

Find ways to view a positive event as global:

  • “Earning this promotion has gotten me on the right path to developing as a leader in the company.”
  • “My management style is more effective since I’ve made an effort to be more approachable and generous with my time.”
  • Taking social risks has been challenging but I’ve learned that overall, people respond well to me when I reach out first.”

Learned Optimism tool # 3 – Adjust PERSONALIZATION to contain one’s responsibility, recognize which personal strengths were utilized, and which external circumstances influenced the outcome of an event.

For negative events, identify your personal accountability, then factor in others’ contributions and the role of external circumstances:

  • “I can see how I contributed to the fight my spouse and I had.  I want to clarify my expectations and work on finding some middle ground so the next time this issue comes up we can avoid a blowup.”
  • “I reacted without communicating beforehand with my team members, which led to a break down in our overall progress.  I will suggest a few temporary solutions until we can figure out a more inclusive strategy.”
  • My company is going through major layoffs, and in spite of the contributions I made that demonstrated real utility, I’ve been informed it’s time to find my next position.”

For positive events, recognize which personal strengths you utilized to bring this event to fruition:

  • “I stayed focused on my goals and was willing to work harder when other people were frustrated and fed up, which helped me move forward and achieve in spite of facing real adversity.”
  • “I’m more comfortable and experienced speaking in front of others than my co-founder, so I took on the responsibility of pitching our idea to investors and now our startup has seed funding.” 
  • “I’ve worked on building up my tolerance for discomfort in social situations, which I believe gave me the confidence to ask out someone I’ve been interested in for months.  Even if it doesn’t work out, I feel good about stepping up and taking initiative.”

Bringing it all together- learned optimism is a winning strategy to get through challenging or unfair situations by shining a spotlight onto where there is opportunity for improved coping, positive progress and effective solutions.  Our initial response to a situation may not be the most effective way to navigate it successfully.  The key to adopting an optimistic mindset is to acknowledge the inherent choice we have in our response.  Learned optimism is not an exercise in avoiding responsibility or ignoring dire circumstances either.  Adopt an outlook that encourages personal accountability, and supports your performance growth in every area of life.  From your education to your work to your health, it is your outlook that predicts your level of success above all else.

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How to kill it at your new job- proven strategies for getting ahead in a cutthroat culture

So you recently landed a job that lines up well with your career goals.  You’re feeling confident.  Maybe you already have a great track record of achievement- top SAT scores, a stellar graduating GPA, glowing letters of recommendations from past employers.  Your time to shine has finally arrived!  But after settling into your new role, you realize this new work climate is no easy read.  Communication with your boss or co-workers leaves you feeling unsupported, and you start to worry that taking this job was a mistake.  What should you do?  You’d like to avoid moving on prematurely so your resume stays on track.  The following tips will help you kill it at your new job with some proven coaching strategies, even in a cutthroat culture.

Working with an executive coach is a great way to skillfully steer this situation back in your favor.  One of the first things I ask my clients to do is to describe their personal career vision to me.  Outlining one’s career goals helps to pinpoint the various skills and experiences that are necessary to achieve this vision.  Does this job afford you an opportunity to make these gains?  (In all likelihood yes,which is why you sought out and/or accepted the position in the first place.)  Some jobs require you to change more than others- a process which is often unpredictable and frustrating as you figure out how to succeed there.  An executive coach can help you prepare mentally and strategically for this.  Together you will generate lasting and effective solutions to keep you on your personalized track to success.

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Reframe how you’re thinking about the ‘problems’ you’re experiencing at work.  Learn to embrace this job as a purposeful choice you are making for the sake of experience and skill building rather than an oppressive situation that is happening to you.  Remember no one is holding you hostage there.  Ask yourself “Am I ready to adapt to a different way of thinking and operating?”  No one said changing perspectives would feel easy, or that you wouldn’t face major obstacles along the way.  Either stay in the game and take ownership of the experience, or prepare to move on.
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Rise to the occasion: successful leaders search for ways to improve and strengthen themselves in difficult situations, inspiring others to do the same. They are often unflappable and well respected, even in hostile work climates.  That’s what makes them so effective in senior positions and invaluable to a company or organization.
  • What personal strengths do you have that helped you overcome past obstacles?  What did you do to persevere?  Some of my younger, especially gifted and fortunate clients have moved through life with relative ease, so dealing with an uncontrollable work environment can feel especially demoralizing.  Others have come through relative adversity, but realize past coping strategies are no longer sufficient.  If the cultural climate of your new job seems unwelcoming, petty or even combative, you may find yourself avoiding interactions altogether.  I encourage my clients to see this as a chance to learn how to read, respond to and handle a variety of people.  The more versatile and challenging, the more prepared and effective you will be in handling future challenges.
  • Anticipate people’s behavior so you can prepare to respond with efficiency rather than let negative emotions take over.  For example, instead of allowing others’ tardiness to be a constant source of frustration, learn to use this extra time to your advantage by completing simple tasks while you wait, organize your schedule or review to-do lists.  Does your boss constantly place blame on others or set unrealistic goals?  Learn to respond with positivity and an eagerness to improve and support.
  • Aim to view other people’s behavior as a reflection of the setting and their ability to cope with it rather than taking it personally.  Criticism is often a relative opinion.  It doesn’t matter that you were your boss’s favorite employee at your past job.  Learn to view criticism as an opportunity to better understand what others expect instead of getting defensive.
Learn to predict and manage your emotional style so that you are not just reacting, but thoughtfully responding to difficult people and situations with strategy.  You’ve heard some people described as ‘running hot and cold, moody, or unpredictable.’  That’s rarely a good thing in work settings.  Anyone who’s served in a leadership role will tell you that managing difficult people or emotionally charged situations is a necessary part of the job.
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  • You’ll find that working with others is much easier if you are well liked – which means you will be more successful during your time there.  I encourage my clients to step outside their comfort zone and find ways to show interest and demonstrate kindness towards others they might avoid in their personal life.  Almost without exception there will be people we don’t like that we need to work alongside.  Whether or not they are truly reprehensible is irrelevant:  not ‘liking someone’ can quickly erode your working relationships and productivity, and get in the way of your professional goals.  People we don’t even like are not worth that sacrifice!
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  • Identify your emotional and social style, and zero in on what tends to trigger you during times of stress.  How can you build upon this style so that you remain better balanced under pressure?  It’s not uncommon for people to become rigid and/or less effective in their emotional style when distressed.  Rational-leaning people who are valued for their even-keel disposition and logical problem solving may become hyper-rational and avoid attending to emotional information even when necessary for resolving conflict.  Emotionally sensitive people who are skilled at reading others and interpreting social climates can become overtly emotional and lose track of logical solutions when overwhelmed.
  • Appreciate your natural interpersonal style and how it affects others, and challenge yourself to practice more versatility in your social interactions.  Soon others will experience you as highly perceptive and effective in your role.  As a general rule of thumb, be patient and observe social patterns before jumping to conclusions, avoid gossip, and express gratitude and appreciation for others whenever possible.
  • Respect other people’s seniority regardless of how effective you deem them to be in their role.  You can always ‘be right’ silently in your own head (but beware of resting bitch face!)  Take care to demonstrate flexibility and supportiveness and pay attention to how problems are resolved among others.
Maintain a safe distance between your work identity and YOU.   You are a multi-faceted person who exists with needs outside of your career.  Take a break, catch your breath.  The learning curve of new jobs can be draining, so self-care is crucial to your long term functioning.
  • Taking care of yourself is easier if you adopt a consistent pattern of paying attention to your needs, even if it’s with small gestures.  Doing so will have a cumulative effect which will allow you to get back in the game with endurance and motivation.  As time passes, you will develop increased resiliency, perseverance, emotional self control, and things will seem more manageable.

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  • Remember this job is a finite experience, it’s not forever.  These days it is very respectable to stay in any given position for a year or more before moving on to garner other experiences.
Track and summarize what you are learning and how you are growing as a person, not just for the sake of your career.  No one is going to do this for you.  Check in and swap stories with people outside your place of employment.  Commiserating with others is a good reminder you are not isolated nor the only one going through mine fields.  Only the strong survive!!!
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#Squadgoals for grownups: how to build your social crew with confidence

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The Bay Area is home to a large number of people who relocate here for improved work or educational opportunities.  After settling in, most find themselves wanting to establish new local friendships, set up a social community, and increase their sense of group inclusiveness.  Many could benefit from developing their social crew with confidence, a.k.a. #squadgoals for grownups.  For some, building new friendships in an area brimming with overachievers in tech can feel intimidating, and lead to a sense of social isolation and loneliness.  Others who feel more comfortable in high achieving social contexts may find networking for professional purposes easier, but feel uncertain about how to read social cues outside of structured work settings.
One of the first things people can do is aim to understand the role they typically take on in group settings.  Most people can look back to childhood and notice re-occurring patterns in their social lives.  What influential experiences or people shaped your beliefs about friendship growth?  How did you come to understand yourself in comparison to others in a group dynamic?  Taking historical inventory can help people better understand and reflect upon their unique social development.  Why did some groups feel enjoyable and easy, whereas others felt uninteresting or even toxic?    Here are a few examples of young millennials working through social challenges:
29 year old  Jason “I’m bummed that some friends who said they’d do a 10k with me a few months ago ended up flaking- it felt pretty rude.  One person basically said they’d go if another mutual friend was going, but not if it was just me.  I feel like my social value in the group is lower than I thought, and now if I don’t go, it just proves I don’t have much influence.”
25 year old Sunako “I feel nervous in group settings, even when everyone in the group is a friend of mine.  I get worried that I don’t have anything interesting to contribute to the conversation, and I feel like everyone is smarter and funnier than me.”
28 year old Kiaan “I haven’t found a group of friends like the ones I had in NYC- I used to have a group of friends I could just hit up for random stuff, you know, grab a drink or a bite, shoot some hoops, whatever.  I can do that with work people here, but it’s just not the same, you know?  I don’t really connect with people here in the same way.”
Around the same time I decided to pen this article on #squadgoals for grownups, my daughter (who’s in the 3rd grade) hosted a sleepover for ten of her friends.  There’s nothing like watching a group of kids resolve social predicaments over and over as a way to examine the social nuances of group functioning.  As someone who’s well liked by her peers, makes new friends easily, and has successfully welcomed newcomers into her friend group, I wanted her to weigh in on what can help people feel confident in social situations.  I was hoping she’d give me a few basic points of reference to build upon how and why friendships grow stronger, and how to best enjoy social groups.  (The secret is out- multi-tasking parents are not opposed to having our kids do our work for us whenever possible!)  She offered the following tips in plain language, pointing out the most important tenets of developing friendships and navigating social groups.  These universal concepts are timeless, and I truly believe apply to all ages and social strata.  As we get older, we can overcomplicate things, take things too personally, and assign unnecessary value to social roles that undermine our confidence and ability to enjoy others.
  • If you’re feeling shy but would like to make new friends, it helps to remember: no one wants to play alone.  Everyone likes the feeling of being included.  By being part of a social group you can enjoy things differently than when you’re alone.  A group is only fun if people in it are getting along well.  How you can help this happen?  There are different ways you can be included in a social group.
  • If you want to build a leadership role within a group, you have to gain other people’s trust that a suggestion you have is going to go well and be fun.  Some people really like coming up with new ideas for the group, and other people like to add their opinions to a new idea.  A good leader pays attention to other people’s opinions and preferences when they’re coming up with suggestions for the group.
  • Everyone feels good when their idea is used for a group activity, so it’s good to take turns and let other people suggest ideas.  Be enthusiastic about their idea, and pay attention to how they’d it to go.  They’ll probably invite you back to do stuff with them again.
  • Move on from an activity that isn’t working well and don’t take it personally.  Focus on paying attention to what people find fun, and accept that some times an idea doesn’t go as planned.  Just let it go, and do something else.
  • It’s ok if you don’t enjoy coming up with ideas for the group- other people will still really like including you because you make a point to enjoy their suggestions.  They’ll keep including you because by participating you add to the fun of the group, and you’ll become closer friends with others that way.
  • Sometimes you might want to do an activity that other people in your group don’t want to do.  You have to decide what’s more important to you in that moment – doing the activity you had in mind, or doing something with the group.  If other people aren’t interested in joining you for this activity, you should focus on the reasons unrelated to you to that have probably influenced their decision.  You should not take it personally.  Just move on and stay focused on having fun, what ever you decide to do with your time.
  •  If you decide to do something different than the group, you can always meet up with them later, you don’t have to feel like you’re not part of the group anymore.  By getting together with the group another time, you get a chance to do different things, and other people can do the same.  If people in a group get mad anytime someone wants to do something different for a change, it’s probably not going to feel as much fun in the long run.  The best groups should still be able to have fun when people come and go at different times.
  • Most new friendships are established and reinforced because people enjoy doing the same types of things- even doing them alone these activities are fun, but by sharing the experience with other people, it adds to the fun.  In the beginning maybe you don’t feel that close to someone new, but as you do an activity with them, you end up feeling more comfortable and closer to them.  Before you know it you’re very close friends.
She makes it sound pretty simple, right? 🙂
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Relationship goals: when to invest in relationship growth vs separation

Yesterday I spent my day coaching 7 different young adults through completely different stages of their relationship development.  All of them have proven to be tremendously capable in their chosen professional field.  Even in the teetering tech market of Silicon Vally they’ve earned impressive merit based raises, gifted pricy vacations abroad with company funds, landed on prestigious lists like Forbes Top 30 under 30, deemed essential in corporate leadership, and set trends in the startup world of the San Francisco Bay Area.  All of them are navigating the perilous task of determining who to invest in for a long term romantic partnership.  These are people prone to approaching goals with a steely pace and scrupulous plan for a high success rate.  Yet interpersonal relationship development and decision making doesn’t easily succumb to this style of problem solving.  How does one successfully determine when to invest in relationship growth versus separation, especially in the face of elusive feelings like ‘attraction, chemistry and connection’?  How much compatibility is enough?  How much compromise is too much?   This article aims to offer some guiding points to lead you in your decision towards continuing in the relationship or breaking things off with the hopes of finding a better fit.

  • Predetermine what matters most in ANY sort of close, long term relationship.  Do this exercise.  Pretend you’re searching for a new platonic best friend, based on what has proven to be the most essential qualities you’ve enjoyed in other close friendships.  Make a list of top 5 descriptive traits you believe would be most important for the friendship to be awesome.  I asked people with various types of personalities to share this with me, in order to get a sense of what people prioritize when they decide to invest in growing a relationship.  I was actually surprised by what some people said! (I won’t list any here because I think it’s more effective to create your list without external influences.)  Now ask yourself ‘How can I find out if this person has enough of my 5 most valued traits?  What will I look for? How long will it take?  Does this person demonstrate these traits consistently with me as well as other key people in their life, or are they sporadic?’  Are the qualities on my list part of how I’ve identified and maintained ‘chemistry’ with people in the past?  If you find yourself dating someone who doesn’t exhibit these qualities consistently with you, chances are it’s just not going to work.
  • Is there considerable evidence that this person adds measurable value to your life right now?  I ask this because many people decide to invest in relationships based on factors they believe will be valuable at some future point.  Nothing is wrong with considering things like compatible achievement/financial goals, similar hypothetical timelines for marriage, or believing someone would make an amazing parent.  The problem with this focus is that people lose track of evaluating how much they actually enjoy the relationship in the here and now.  I can’t tell you how many people come into my office stating “my problem is that I tend to date two different kinds of people; one is super hot and we have great physical chemistry but not a lot in common/we can’t stand each other outside the bedroom, and the other one has a lot of what I want in a life partner but I’m just not as attracted to them physically.”  Choices, choices people!  Here’s the bottom line.  If someone doesn’t currently hold your interest enough for you to exclusively focus on them on a day-to-day basis, chances are you’re going to be so focused on an upgrade it’s bound to fail!  It does not matter that their potential is great, or the timing is off, etc.  Move on.  But accept this:
  • THERE IS NO HOLY GRAIL of a partner.  It doesn’t even matter how much of a catch you are (tragically!)  Don’t believe me?  Do this: find an older person who describes their early relationship as having exactly the experience you’ve always wanted- that feeling of butterflies and fireworks going off, sitting and daydreaming about when you get to spend time alone with them again, listening to them talk in awe of how amazing/intelligent/funny/interesting they are, doing stuff with them is so easy and fun, the physical attraction is there, ‘this is THE ONE’ feeling is there, the feeling is mutual, etc. etc.  Even when this whole ‘madly in love’ experience remains unwavering for years between two people, they will STILL tell you that eventually the honeymoon phase does end (You’ve heard this before.  Still, you long to be impervious to this truth, so you avoid it by chasing new honeymoons with different people).  So this is when the hard work of committed relationship compromise begins, in order for you to enjoy the reality of a long-term relationship beyond the honeymoon phase.

Now if you’ve managed to make a connection with someone to even consider any of the above questions, you’re off to a decent start.  These days in the dating world it’s a challenge to even get beyond the right swipe of a dating app, let alone past the cutting room floor of a first date/hang out session.  Think about how you want to address the idea of investing in this next period of relationship evaluation.

  • Clarify the deal of commitment.  Even though these conversations are awkward, if avoid it you’ll have no idea if investing more of your time makes sense.  First figure out what you want.  Would you prefer if the two of you are only dating each other in this next phase?  Or dating other people but sexually exclusive?  Do you know if marriage is something they want for themselves, and if so, how soon do they imagine being ready for marriage?
  • Spend time thinking about where you are and are not willing to compromise. The other person may need more time to feel it out.  Many people operate under the belief that “compatible” people start out wanting commitment changes to happen at exactly the same time.  This couldn’t be further from the truth, some people just need more time to process their thoughts and feelings.  It is your job however, to decide whether the discrepancies that exist between the two of you are just too big to establish and maintain a fulfilling relationship.  How you ask?
  • Notice the patterns that exist between you:  Are routinely important habits in their life persistently difficult for you to bear?  Do you see a feasible way for you to accept these things, even if they never change?  Can you communicate while problem-solving without spiraling into attack or stonewalling mode with each other?  Do you set each other off in consistently destructive ways?  Is the emotional toll of engaging in this relationship negatively impacting other important areas of your life such as your ability to work effectively in your chosen path?  Are you able to maintain the relationships you’ve determined are important to you while you’re dating this person?
  • Make a clear decision about the relationship for a specific period of time and execute towards that plan, rather than spending days or even months going back and forth about whether to stay in the relationship.  ‘Should I end this relationship?  Yesterday I struggled with thinking I should, but today I feel like I want to make things work.’  This type of deliberation can be paralyzing and spiral into even bigger problems, like anxiety and depression, which exacerbate the situation.  You’re not going to move forward in either your relationship or personally if you remain plagued with indecisiveness.  By not committing to a concrete plan, you are not actively working to gain resolution.  The irony of staying in a relationship with one foot out the door is that you neither benefit from the comfort of intimacy nor gain the necessary closure for moving on with your life.
  • Accept that even the happiest couples have perpetual problems.  Manage conflict with the understanding that not all problems can be permanently solved.  If I learned anything from studying the work of John Gottman (the leading expert on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations) it was this- you are setting yourself up for failure if you approach all your relationship problems  with the expectation of permanent resolution.  Perpetual problems stem from fundamental differences in your personalities or lifestyle habits, and can lead to gridlock when attempts to communicate and compromise fail.
  • Learn to practice effective conflict management.  Enlist emotional intelligence skills and aim to avoid toxic communication styles.  Create a system of shared meaning in your relationship that fosters collaboration and friendship in order to bypass power struggles.  What matters is not solving perpetual problems, but establishing a dialogue that communicates acceptance of your partner with humor, affection, and even amusement, to actively cope with the unresolvable problem without it tearing down the relationship.

If all else fails, seek professional help to help you figure out how to effectively invest the time and effort necessary for building and maintaining a healthy relationship.  Work through your breakup story if that’s the route you take, but move on so you can benefit from the invaluable rewards of love and intimacy.

 

Dr. Christina Villarreal’s Focus on Women’s Sexual Health, Empowerment & Wellness

15 years ago, I completed my doctoral dissertation examining cultural and gender influences of sexual risk behavior among Latino women. I’ve enjoyed educating women on how to embrace their sexuality, overcome obstacles to safe sex practices, and empower themselves for a lifetime of sexual wellness. I’ve served as a Relationship Expert on social media websites like GuysAskGirls.com, and written a range of articles on dating and relationships, with media publications and interviews in popular media sites such as techcrunch.  This week I orchestrated what turned out to be an amazing educational workshop for nearly 40 women on Navigating Sex, Relationships, and Dating in San Francisco. I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to do this important work. Thank you to all those that participated, there will be more to come!  In the coming weeks I will be recruiting a diverse group of men in various stages of their dating life and relationship experience- from single to married.  These men will form an expert panel for an open Q & A session for an audience of Bay Area women who’d like to better understand why guys do what they do!  I will facilitate an honest and respectful dialogue that will surely be insightful, informative and instrumental in improving dating and relationship experiences for all.

Here are a few candid snapshots from the event on May 27th, 2015, we had a great time!

Hosting my first workshop on Women's Sexual Health and Wellness
Hosting my first educational workshop on Women’s Sexual Health and Wellness

With Rebecca Alvarez of Bodyfeminina- she is a Sexual Wellness Expert and Women's Sexual Health researcher

With Dr. Lina Hannigan, a Clinical Health Psychologist practicing in the Bay Area, SF.
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