What’s It All About, Alfie?

As far back as I can remember, my father has sung the same line in the same way — and stopped. Whether we were in the car, in an elevator, or at the dinner table, it was always the same thing. “What’s is all about, Alfie” . . . then nothing.

No second line. Nothing.

As a kid, it made me laugh even though I knew the “joke.” It took until I was about 13, and I was playing my way through a book of popular songs on the piano, when lo and behold, there was the theme song from the movie, “Alfie.”

Well, gosh darn it. I didn’t know there was a movie called “Alfie.” And even more surprising, I didn’t know that there were more lyrics. Even a second verse!

One day, after my dad sung his one line, I asked him, “Do you know the next line in the song?” He just looked at me, and said, “No.”

Funny thing is that the joke got even funnier (to me, at least) once I learned that he didn’t know the next line, let alone the rest of the song. The joke wasn’t the song. The joke was the fact that he sang it for no reason, at no particular time, whenever the urge came over him.

I do the same thing–one lyric, no more, without warning. But I do have a reason.

The old adage says that humor soothes the savage beast–basically, it helps to reduce tension and relieve pressure when tempers rise.

Nonsensical actions like singing one line of a song and stopping can serve the same purpose. They can change the trajectory of a discussion in moments, turning a debate into a conversation, or a heated controversy into a creative opportunity.

When dealing with group dynamics, especially conflict, look for the nonsensical action or element. It has the potential and power to lead you forward when the path you are taking may seem to have narrowed or been foreshortened.

 

The 4 Traps of “Crying Wolf” and How to Escape Them

We know the moral to the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf–if you tell lies to get attention, when you are telling the truth, no one may listen.

As a leader, that is a bridge over a chasm–a deep, dark, and unyielding chasm–that, when shattered, cannot be either easily rebuilt or crossed. So, how do we avoid even appearing to “cry wolf”?

Here are 4 of the traps of crying wolf and some advice on how to escape them.

Trap #1: Your Statement Comes Out of Nowhere

I know we are used to great journalists breaking stories that seem to come out of nowhere, but we’re not pretending to be great journalists. We’re leaders, and as leaders, we are in the relationship-building and mission-fulfilling businesses where openness and collaboration are essential ingredients.

If you feel a statement rising in you and it is going to surprise others, ask yourself these two questions. Why now? Why will it surprise them?  Odds are likely that you have overlooked some important steps in these relationships or mission work. Instead identify what work you have to do before saying anything.

Trap #2: The “Is-Ness” of the Statement

Beware of the simple, yet powerful verb “to be” and its related friends like “to do.” They tell us very little about anything. They rely heavily on the subject and object of the sentence which are often limited in descriptiveness.

What do I mean by “is-ness” of the statement? “It was this big” or “It doesn’t work.” Can you picture any part of these statements? I can’t. Which usually means that neither can anyone else, and that can lead exactly where you do not want to go–to conflict–all because no one agrees on what actually was said.

If you gravitate toward using “is” and “do” in your statements, think twice. Choose specific verbs that describe a particular action. Use nouns or subjects with as much detail as you can.

Which leads us to . . .

Trap #3: Vague Words

Whereas trap #2 is sort of about a lack of works, trap #3 is about vague, somewhat meaningless words.

Rehearse what you want to say in your head, and listen carefully. Do you use vague adjectives like “very,” “tremendous,” “enormous,” and “terrible”? The descriptors indicate a lack of detail in the action or the object of the statement. It is the difference between saying, “The man was very tall” and “The middle-aged man was about 6 feet tall.” Challenge yourself to be accurate and precise.

And a James-Bondian corollary: Never say “never” again (and the same holds true for “always.”)

Trap #4: A Lack of Physical Evidence

Okay, let’s state the obvious. If you can point to actual evidence of any kind, it is less possible that you will be accused of crying wolf.

Force yourself to have at minimum of 3 concrete objects or experiences that you can point to to substantiate your point. And the “3” is important. If you only have 1, then you might want to rethink saying anything at all. It could just be a one-off. Three examples demonstrate a pattern and give substance to your claim.

When others look to us as leaders, many accept and trust that what we say and do is right, just, and true. Ensure that their faith in us is well-placed by stewarding our language well, completely, and richly, and avoiding the temptation of all of these traps.

What Control Is and Isn’t

As many of you know, about 4 weeks ago, we were gearing up for the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Congress. (We had a record-setting crowd, and many exciting, unexpected moments including the Archbishop Curley High School drum line and Loyola jazz band.)

If there is one thing that I have learned about managing a project or event it is this: Figure out what you can and cannot control early. Otherwise, you will either try to control everything–and alienate everyone around you–or you will control nothing–and stress out everyone around you.

And then there is this humbling revelation. You can’t really control anything. Not really. You and I don’t hold all of the strings to make anything happen the way we want it to. The most you can hope to do is influence a decision, person, or situation in such a way that the outcome you intend takes place.

A few examples.

At the 1999 National Catholic Youth Conference in the RCA Dome in St. Louis, I was the staff person who had overall responsibility for it, and as we were waiting for participants to start coming into the dome to get ready for a keynote, the wave of people was only a trickle. So, I hurriedly got myself to the main doors, and discovered that the dome security staff was forcing everything to walk up to a higher level, then down again to the floor of the dome, rather than just walk straight through to the floor. After some ineffective back and forth, I just “pulled rank” and said, “I pay the bills. Now open those doors.”

Funny thing is, they could have completely ignored me. I looked about 12 at the time, but they didn’t. Not one of my proudest moments, but one in which I felt I needed to take control.

For the current work that I do, I have a very skilled and gifted team that I work with. And when it comes down to it, I generally “sit in the circle of equals” and contribute like everyone else. It’s a more collaborative experience, and we each respect the knowledge and decision-making authority that we have.

One of the hardest things for me to watch these days is when someone tries desperately to grasp for control of the situation around them and hang on by a thread. By doing so, we often hurt the people around us (intentionally or unintentially), gather to ourselves decisions that aren’t ours to make or for which we do not have the experience and/or knowledge, and put distance between those who are willing to support us in our efforts.

The Gospel for the 1st Sunday in Lent reminds us that God is in control of our lives ultimately. The decisions we make and the control we have is only there because of the gifts that God has given us. When we horde or overstep, we inch farther away from God. As this Lent unfolds, check whatever hunger begs you to grab control. And create or join a circle of equals in your ministry or workplace.

How Loud Is Our Silence?

Most of us are this person, know someone like this, or have been in a situation with someone like this.

An intensive, challenging, vocal, stirring discussion–within the family, at work, in Church, in politics–goes on for a while until there is a lull in the conversation, and one of the people who has said little if anything starts to speak. Quietly, gently, slowly, this person makes an observation or a statement that irreversibly turns the discussion in a different direction or dispels the building or potentially destructive emotions.

Remember the old commercial, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen”? That’s the kind of person we are talking about.

One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to listen. One of the hallmarks of a great leader is one who knows when to keep silent and not speak.

Look around, and I’m sure you will see a number of examples of good and bad, great and worst leaders using this specific criteria. And with one hand you can probably easily count the ones who understand the volume of silence.

One. In 1980 while I was studying in Rome, I was sort of enveloped by the hospitality of the Jesuits. Padre Damiani at the Gesu listened quietly and with a gracious smile to me and my friends as we pattered on in badly-conjugated Italian, and when we stopped, he knew what we needed most–to be welcomed. He showed us the private rooms in the Jesuit residence there with their amazing paintings and told us the history of those who had lived there (at least, I think that’s what he said–our Italian was possibly worse than his English!)

Two. Around the same time, I was spending a lot of time with an Italian youth group at a Jesuit parish. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then superior general of the Jesuits, was preaching at Mass one Sunday, and meeting with a group of adults there. We met and talked briefly for a minute or two. What I remember most is the quiet stillness that surrounded him, this fairly tiny, but wise man.

Three. Within the first couple hours of arriving in California for work and/or to visit my parents, I get to hear the stories. The stories of the dying, the stories of the families, the stories of the caregivers–all from my Mom who is a hospice chaplain. She knows how to listen without expectation, and with compassion and kindness. And she knows when silence is the best consolation in times of tragedy and grief, when no words are even close to adequate.

That’s three fingers I can count so far.

What about you? How many people can you count–including yourself–who know how to listen and let silence lead the way?

It’s Moving Day!

Two of my TV favorites reminded me that New Year’s resolutions are not all about dieting, exercising, doing something more or less, or trying something new.

One of the hardest resolutions to make and keep is the decision to move on.

My husband and I were catching up on season 5 of “Once Upon a Time.” It largely takes place in the underworld where souls are there because they haven’t moved on. They have unfinished business. We came to one of those episodes that is a plot turning point, and it ended with two people both promising to move on regardless of how difficult that might be, especially considering one of them was dead. (Living people among dead people in the underworld. Yeah. Watch the show and it actually make sense.)

And then my treadmill companion, “West Wing.” If you’re a fan, you might remember the end of season 1 and start of season 2 where the president is shot at, but it is actually one of his aides who is badly hurt. The writers give us a two-part opportunity to learn how each of President Bartlett’s staff became a part of the campaign and, subsequently, the White House staff. As these new staffers are trying to contribute to the strategy conversation with then-Governor Bartlett, he says, “What’s next?” but they continue with the same topic. He turns to them and tells them that when he says, “what’s next?” he means “what’s next?”

No more standing still or looking back over your shoulder. No more replaying the conversation and figuring out a better or different way of handling it. No more going back over the same points, looking for a different answer.

Today is moving day.

Take a look at three of the relationships that are part of your ministry — your relationship with your boss (e.g., pastor, principal, director, superintendent), your peers, and your volunteers.

What is one conversation or behavior in each relationship that is stuck or has you stuck? You know what I mean. Things like the conversation you have every month that you can repeat word for word.

What one response or behavior have you never tried? I mean NEVER. I used to get picked on when I was a child, and I did what typical children do–I whined, I cried, I gave back as good as I got. Then my mother finally convinced me to “kill ’em with kindness.” As much as I hated doing it because it felt so false, things changed. I never would have tried that on my own.

Then ask yourself, what’s next? What do you want to be next if you could ever imagine getting over this obstacle? I remember growing in confidence around very opinionated people when I finally decided one day to just respond, “Okay,” when someone challenged me on a decision. Then I quickly followed it with a “so what’s next?” Changed the tenor of the conversation and ultimately the relationship.

A new year is all about newness. Embrace it and move on.

The Twin Problems of Noise and Bias

pebblesEveryone wants to make good decisions. But the “good” part is often the challenge.

We make decisions all the time. Some are terribly inconsequential like which flavor candy so I want, cherry or sour apple. Some are not so inconsequential and can have long-term and long-lasting impact.

October’s Harvard Business Review includes an article on the cost inherent in bad decision-making because of the impact of noise and bias in the process. So, where do we see noise and bias in ministry decisions and what impact can they have?

Let’s start with some basic definitions. “Noise” prevents us from looking at the problem or situation accurately; it creates diversions and scatters our vision and thinking. “Bias” shifts our focus, and it is usually a shift in everyone’s focus.

Some examples? Bias is the committee thinking that we can hire a part-time youth minister because we only see 20 or 30 teens involved when the facts are there are more than 150 teens engaged in various ministries and activities (real life example.) Noise is asking 5 different people what youth ministry at the parish like and getting 5 totally different answers.

How do we correct for these?

Bias tends to reflects what we “know” (or think we know) about people and situations. Letting go of the “thinking that we know” moves us toward a solution. Before making a decision, list what are the things that we think we know about the person and/or situation (think about those assumptions.)  Identify what is irrelevant or prejudicial to making a sound and open-minded decision based on fact. Deeply consider the question, “What don’t we know about this person or situation?” before going any further. What remains is likely closest to the unbiased truth.

Noise is like throwing pebbles in the air and watching them drop to the ground–they fall all over the place. But we can control the noise just like we can control the trajectory of the pebbles by putting them inside one container before we toss them. Noise requires that we ask what the traits, characteristics, or qualifications are that we are looking for. What should be on our checklist of things that would make the decision the right one for this parish or school or organization?

The road to good decisions leads through reducing bias and noise so that we end up with the reasons and needs that are truly at the core of who we are and what we believe–usually our mission or in the service of the Gospel.

“Assuming makes a . . .” (Rule #4)

egg“Assuming makes an . . .” Yes, we have all heard the phrase. And I can attest to its veracity.

With the end of a contentious election season, this particular rule seems to apply more than any other.

Based on what we have seen and heard, there are many assumptions that we can conclude. But are they true?

To avoid the proverbial “egg on your face,” the best path is to test assumptions and inferences that we might make before jumping to conclusions. Ask questions–lots of them. Clarify what the intention is and what the intended outcomes are. Agree on the answers to the questions, the intentions of the actions, and the accountability for the outcomes.

Then start all over again. Our agreements and understandings can quickly turn into assumptions again. Or assumptions about the “next time” or next situation.

Because the truth is, the answers, intentions, and outcomes for each occasion or situation may differ for a variety of reasons, sometimes reasons out of our control. To avoid the potential conflict, keep asking, keep clarifying, and keep reaching agreements.

The energy, especially emotional energy, that you save in testing your assumptions can then be channeled into nurturing successful ministry.

One Tip on Healthy Culture

Blessed SacramentIf there is one lesson to be learned from this political season, it is how silence can breed mistrust and transparency can feed trust.

Catholics have many positive experiences of silence. The pause between an intercession and the words, “We pray to the Lord . . .” Or the grander silences like the incensing of the altar and preparation of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday.

In our secular experience, we often keep silent and do not talk about those things we share in common–“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”–because we do share them.

However, this political year has shown us the high price for not talking about things.

On Sunday when my children’s choir led the music, one of the 6-year-olds looked up at me during the Eucharistic Prayer and asked me what the “round thing” in the priest’s hand was. I said, “It’s Jesus.” He mumbled, “It looks like a round thing.” I repeated it again, “It’s Jesus.” He looked away and the conversation ended.

But I stood there, looking at my eight 6-year-olds, knowing that they would be preparing for First Communion next year, thinking about how easy it was for me to just believe what was happening in the reverent silence, and how hard it was to explain it satisfactorily to a 6-year-old.

His understanding and trust in transubstantiation won’t come through osmosis by silently looking at the elevated host. It didn’t for me–or you. It will take lots of explanation, lots of tumbling around in his brain, lots of conversations and questions before he will be able to trust in our shared Catholic belief about the mystery of the Eucharist.

And if people like me and his parents and his teachers don’t take the time to talk with him about it over the years, he’ll make up his own mind . . . When that day comes (if it comes, please, no!), it will be near impossible for him to trust in any different understanding because those of us around him have been silent.

Bottom line: Information and transparency build trust. If we want to create a healthy culture, we must articulate what we know and believe first–and often–before we can settle into the silence of assumed agreement. And even then, we cannot be afraid to talk about them again and again and again.

Pink Elephants, Anyone? (Rule #9)

elephantDo you remember sitting in a movie theater (or maybe in front of a TV), watching Disney’s “Fantasia?” To a rather klutzy little girl, those dancing elephants in their girly tu-tus gave me hope that the strangest things might actually be possible.

Years later, pink elephants–and the proverbial “elephants in the room” still give me hope that the impossible might be possible.

Do you have any pink elephants in the room–or office or rectory or chancery? You know what I mean. The issues that everyone talks about in the break room or parking lot, by email or text, but no one wants to bring up at the staff meeting, with the boss, or when anyone else is around.

We tiptoe around them like the Fantasia pink elephants en pointe. We try to dress them up in the hopes that anxiety, pain, and tension surrounding the issue might dazzle us enough that we can skate around them without ever having to deal with them.

How wrong can we possibly be?!

When I taught in a Catholic high school, one of the concerns that I had is that we approached participation in Mass the wrong way. Mass was required for all students. It took place in the gym where the girls sat on the bleachers, hovered over by teachers and administrators. The clearest value was obedience. Which squelched any desire to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist.

For three years, while we danced around the subject in department meetings, we indulged in long-winded, exasperating conversations over coffee in small groups of those who held the same opinion.

And as you might guess, nothing changed except that I got more frustrated, anxious, and even angry. I felt so powerless to make any change and every potential encounter seemed like a confrontation.

Hmmm . . . Yes, that’s exactly what happens when we choose to avoid discussing pink elephants.

We knew that discipline was a key issue, but the underlying point we focused on was the value behind it, behind the school’s mission, behind what it meant to be Christ’s people gathered around the Eucharistic table.

Because the school was Catholic, right? And with the word “Resurrection” in our name, didn’t we have an obligation to teach as Jesus did, inviting his followers to the table, to share in the Bread of Life, to be satisfied with His saving Word?

When we started talking about that, the values that we held in common, powerlessness and confrontation slipped away. And the issues of discipline and obedience became logistical details that we had to plan for–which we did. In the end, the administration agreed with us, and let us make the changes we suggested. All-school Masses became optional with certain rooms designated as quiet study AND we would offer weekly Mass in the chapel.

Did it all go smoothly? No. Change never does. But we engaged everyone in the process. We talked to teachers about the best ways to manage those who did not choose to attend. We asked the students to invite their favorite parish priests to work with us, and we formed an “anyone can sing” choir specifically for these Masses.

In the end, it was a major success. All because we took a chance and discussed the undiscussable.

What’s your pink elephant, and how are you going to address it?

Meaning–More and Less

meaningThe word “tremendous” should be banned. Given the context in which it has been used repeatedly, I’m not sure I even know what the word means anymore.

“Awesome” is another one, as in “Our God is an awesome God . . .” My apologies to those who feel strongly about this praise song. It is over-used and the key word has lost its essential meaning.

There is a public lexicon of words and phrases that we default to when trying to describe, especially affirm, those we minister with.

But many of these words are too general or have been emptied of meaning.

So what to do?

Dozens of parish and diocesan youth ministers taught me how to affirm someone well. One simple rule. Be specific–very specific.

With practice, affirmations started to sound less like, “You did a nice job” (what does that mean anyway?) and more like “You clearly prepared that reading. I appreciate how well you conveyed the meaning of the Scripture.” A lot more words, but much more meaningful ones.

As leaders, it is easy to forget that others look to us for feedback of all sorts. When we don’t take time to attend to the specifics of the individual and situation, we may come across as seemingly careless or uncaring, something none of us wants to be.

Next time you find yourself reaching for one of those default words or phrases, stop and “rewrite” your comment. As parents are wont to say these days, “Use your words” — your many words including and especially adjectives and adverbs.