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You Never See it Coming

I woke up in a reflective mood this morning as I’m preparing for BOTH Easter and Passover this year and thinking about the challenges faced by our ancestors.  For some reason I was reminded of a woman I met on a long plane ride several years after 9/11,  Anna was a portly woman, probably in her early sixties, possibly older.  We were coming back from Los Angeles, so it was going to be a long flight and I welcomed the diversion of some light conversation.  Also, being a writer, I’m always looking for opportunities to hear a good story.

After the usual introductions, I asked about her work. She replied that it had changed significantly over the past several years. Previously, she was a project manager with an office in the World Trade Center.  Now she was in a different building closer to where she lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  I couldn’t help but ask where she had been when the planes hit.

She said she was at her computer when the announcement came to drop everything and move to the stairwell.  No one told her why she had to leave her office. Confused, she joined the rush of people making their way down the forty flights of stairs.  Rumors spread.  She began to realize something terrible had happened, but exactly what wasn’t clear. Her mind started to race, even if her feet could not.  She decided that she had to get to safety.

Suddenly, the exodus came to a halt.  Although the group had arrived at the lobby level, the guards in charge were instructing people to stay in the stairwell.  This did not make sense.  She squeezed her way through the crush of bodies and out the stairwell door.  People yelled for her to get back into the shaft.  Instead, she sprinted across the lobby while the guards shouted after her.

Most of the exits to the outside were locked, but one of the doors remained open.  Without hesitation, this overweight, out-of-shape, sedentary woman began running — all the way from the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan to her apartment on the Upper West Side of the city.  She never looked back, never stopped running until she was home on 79th Street and Broadway – more than 6 ½ miles from where she’d started.  When I asked what was going through her mind, she said she couldn’t believe she had left her favorite red heels under her desk.  Not her laptop, not her phone, not any files, but her sexy, red-spiked heels.

I was impressed.  This matronly woman — without any information and acting on only gut instinct — saved her own life.  The others in her group who obediently stayed put were crushed when the Towers came down.

The Takeaway?   Just when everything appears to be going well, a plane will suddenly appear in the sky and slam head-on into either your life or career or something else you value. You won’t see it coming but be assured; it happens to us all.  Marriages end. Careers derail.  Fortunes are lost. The people you counted on suddenly disappear.

When the calamity arrives, what will be your response? Will you sit there stunned, unable to move, and scream at the moon that it’s all unfair?  Or will you refuse to be crushed and instead take action to regain your life, as Anna did?

A few years ago, when I was staying at the Westin in Philadelphia, the fire alarms went off in every room and all the hallways with instructions to head to the stairwells.  My heart raced as I remembered Anna.  Hotel guests were standing in the stairwells waiting.  I couldn’t.  I pushed my way through the throngs and sprinted down the stairs and out onto the street and safety.

I found out later it was a bomb scare.  The bomb squad found it and dismantled it.  Fortunately, no one was hurt.  But I assessed the risk as well as I could and acted on my own behalf, the way Anna did.

When life challenges confront me I remember Anna and take action rather than allowing circumstances to control my fate.  And I always make sure to have my red stilettos somewhere safe. 😉

Best Practices Growth Health and Wellness Human Resources Management

What If Your Dream Came to Life?

What if you could breathe life into one of your dreams?

What follows is step by step guide to help if you’re really interested in achieving your wish this year, set aside a block of time for the next few days, get yourself a notebook or open a file on your computer and give yourself the luxury of reflecting and seriously considering what dreams may come. 

How to Fulfill Your Dreams

1. Select a Dream:

Think about the different dreams you have.  In your imagination, step into each one of them, one at a time and experience what life would be like when you realize that dream. What do you see? Hear? Feel?

  • What changes?What’s good about it?
  • What’s not as good as you hoped?
  • How might you change it for the better?
  • After you explore the impact of having those dreams, pick one that you’d most like to bring to life.

2. Analyze what you need to do to make that dream come true:

  • What skills and strengths are required for your goal?
  • Which do you currently have?
  • Which do you need to acquire?  How can you acquire them?

3. What hurtles might present themselves:

  • What might get in the way?
  • How can you problem solve those potential obstacles?

4. Find a champion:

Find folks who can listen and respond, who can provide an outside perspective as well as cheerlead you.  These may be people you know or you might join a local or online meet-up of people with similar goals. Or start your own meet-up. Set up meetings with them to discuss your dreams and bring them to life.

5. Create a Plan:

Just like making a business plan, create a reasonable,  step-by-step personal plan with tasks, actions and deadlines along the way.

6. State your intentions publicly.

By sharing your dream out loud with others, you magnify your cheering squad many times.  It’s like telling people you’ll stop smoking.  The success rate rises dramatically because there are many others beside yourself that you want to avoid letting down.

Similarly, if your goal implies a new capability or accomplishment, start referring to yourself as such.  I’m Jane the artist; Jim the author; Jen the marathon runner; Dan the pianist.

7. Find a partner to hold you accountable:

Meet with him/her in person, by phone, online at least weekly to review the actions you’ve taken and refine your plan on a regular basis.

To learn more about creating and achieving your personal and career goals click here.

Best Practices Human Resources Management Marketing Personal Development Women In Business

Why Every Business Needs a Personal Brand

Over the past several years, personal branding has become a hot topic across the business world.  That’s because it’s tough out there with the competition increasing daily.  Not just for businesses but for individuals as well.  Just consider the statistics.

In the United States there are currently: 1.3 million lawyers.  1.24 million accountants.  659,200 management consultants.  There are nearly 28 million small businesses in this country, more than 800,000 of them in New Jersey.  Yet the competition is so fierce that 50 percent of these firms including 80 percent of all restaurants fail before their fifth anniversary.  In 2018, more than 3800 major retail stores closed their doors.

What can you do to ensure that you don’t become one of these statistics?  The first step is to recognize that the way to successfully market and promote your business has changed dramatically over the past decade.

Today, the number one way that people find new companies, products and services is by accessing your website through the Internet, primarily by using Google Search.  The majority of those searches are done via smartphones.  When someone arrives at your website, you have approximately ten seconds to capture and hold their attention.  If you don’t, they’re off to one of your competitors.

The initial challenge is to get people to your website.  One way is by utilizing online advertising.  The problem is that online advertising is expensive with costs rising 5x faster than inflation.  The average small business effectively using Google advertising can today spend as much as $10,000 per month on their online advertising campaigns. That’s $120,000 per year.  Another problem is that consumers just don’t trust advertising. In a recent survey, less than 1% of Americans said that advertising had Influenced them.

That’s the bad news.  Now here’s the good news.  Unlike online advertising, social media is not only inexpensive but highly effective.  It’s also highly personal with almost half of all Americans reporting that they have had meaningful interactions with companies via social media.  Most importantly, social media gets people to your website — not by tricking them into clicking on a link or an ad, but by building a personal brand that generates trust and credibility for your business.

What is a personal brand?    According to Amazon CEO, a personal brand is what people think and say about you when you’re not in the room.   It’s what differentiates you and sets you apart from the competition.  It’s not simply a logo or a website — although both of these are important.  Instead it’s what you say and do that resonates with your target audience.  It’s the articles, the videos, and the photos that you post.  The advice you give and the ideas you support.  It’s what makes you special and unique.

So the next time you need to set your business apart from the competition, consider personal branding and social media.  Together, they’re a powerful combination that will help you not only survive but prosper and grow.

Best Practices Growth Human Resources Management Personal Development

How to Clarify You and Your Clients’ Goals

Coaching helps people with their goals.  But as simple as that may seem, it’s not always clear what their goals are or how that goal might improve their lives.

When a new coaching client comes in for a consultation they usually have a stated goal in mind.

It’s important to help them assess the viability of the goal based on their strengths and skills as well as understand what that goal will give them.  In a sense, what’s the goal behind the goal?  Why is getting to this goal important?  What will it bring you in a positive way?  How might your life change because of it?  Have you considered all the pros and cons?

There’s an illuminating model that has been used in the Navy’s Human Resource

We can ask the following . . .

1. What are you trying to achieve? Or, what do you want that you don’t have?

2. What are you trying to preserve? Or, what do you want to maintain that you already have?

3. What are you trying to avoid? What don’t you have that you don’t want?

4. What are you trying to eliminate? What do you have now that you don’t want?

This is a powerful assessment to help your client think through their potential goals. Just ask them to fill in these questions and use it as fodder for your coaching session on the goal. Suppose your client is interested in becoming a Professional Coach.  Here’s how the conversation might go . . .

Sharon: You said your goal is to become a professional coach.

Joe: Yes

Sharon: What might that give you that you don’t have now?

Joe: I’d feel like I was contributing to society while also making a living.

Sharon: How is that giving you something more than now?

Joe:  I get to work with people but I don’t really have an opportunity to help them move forward in their lives?

Sharon: Why might that be important?

Joe: I make great money at my job, but sometimes I feel bad that I have all these relationship building skills that are wasted.

Sharon: And . . .

Joe:     I’m at a point in my life where I feel grateful for what I’ve achieved and want to give back.  So it’s a win win.

Sharon: Great.  And what do you want to maintain that you already have?

Joe: Well  . . . my standard of living!  [He laughs]

Sharon: Uh huh

Joe: And the recognition and respect I currently enjoy in my career

Sharon: Great.  And now, what is important to avoid in this career move.  That’s to say what don’t you have that you don’t want?

Joe: I don’t have money worries and I really don’t want them!

Sharon: And what do you have now, that you’d prefer to get rid of

Joe: Well, I don’t punch a clock but it feels like I do because of having to be at my office regardless of my work load or my preferred times when I’m more productive and less so?

Sharon: Tell me more

Joe: I have to drive in rush hour twice a day, which is tiring and frustrating on a daily basis, while I’d prefer to have a lot more flexibility with my hours.  I have great energy early in the morning when I can get a lot done, but then I’m dragging my mental feet in the afternoon when I’d love to be exercising or taking a long hike and then returning to work.  I COULD do that as a Professional Coach

So let’s take a summary look at what we learned about Joe’s goal with our 4 element model 

Goal – I want to become a Professional Coach

Don’t Have                           Currently Have

WANT                      ACHIEVE – Satisfaction of helping others     PRESERVE – $$$$

DON’T WANT    AVOID – Money Worries.     ELIMINATE – Rigid Schedule

You can conduct this type of analysis with any goal. Why might you want to become a Professional Coach?

What might it help you achieve, as well as how does that goal stack up on the other factors? Good food for thought, right?

NEXT TIP heading your way tomorrow

Thinking about getting certified as a Professional Coach? Want to talk about it? Or any questions you have about professional coaching? Let’s talk and see whether or not it makes sense for you to become a certified professional coach.

Learn more about our upcoming Fast Track programs in NYC and Dallas in March

Warmest regards,

Sharon 🙂

Dr. Sharon Livingston


603 505 5000 cell



Best Practices Entrepreneurship Management Personal Development

How Coaching Helps Handle Challenges at Work and With Others in Your Life

One of the reasons people come to a coach is because they lose perspective.

As they’re attempting to move forward, particularly into a new realm – new career, new relationship, new living arrangement, they feel challenged, stressed and often forget what worked for them in the past. Or, they think they have to do something new.

Here’s a little story from a supervision session I had with one of my coach clients. She works with her clients to help them with diet and exercise and makes health recommendations about wellness and supplements.

As were talking – it was a phone session – I heard her sniffing and clearing her throat. I interrupted the discussion we were having on the use of paradoxical interventions. [Will explain that in another tip, you’ll love it.]

Sharon: How are you feeling?

Amy: OK.  Just have a bad cold. [I hear her sigh] Annoying

Sharon: That’s crummy.  What are you doing for it?

Amy: Not much

Sharon: Not much?  You’re not taking anything?

Amy: I just got involved in other things and have been so tired.

Sharon: But isn’t that what you do with your clients, make recommendations for things they could use?

Amy: Well, yeah . .

Sharon: So, what might you recommend to one of your clients who had similar symptoms

She’s silent for a minute:

Amy: Well . . . There are a number of things. (She seems to be thinking and then I hear what sounds like opening a cabinet door.)

Amy: Lysine – 4-5000 mg; Vitamin C 2000 mg a few times a day for the first couple of days and then back to 1-2,000 for the duration of the cold; they can also use Olive Leaf; zinc; garlic . . . . drink lots of water.  And of course get plenty of rest.

Sharon: But you’re not doing the same for yourself?

Amy:  Uh . . . I have been drinking tea with lemon and honey…. [She hesitates]  It’s what my mother used to give me. I miss her.  When I was little, I’d get into her bed, she’d bring up a tray with a pretty cup of tea and some toast.  She’d tell me stories, cuddle me . . . She’s so far away now.

Sharon: Hmmmm.  So what have you done in the past as an adult when you’ve gotten a cold
that works for you?

Amy: [Laughing ]. I do really well with Lysine and Zinc and a garlic extract called Allicin.

Sharon: Do you have any?

Amy: Mmm hmmm.

Sharon: So . . .

Amy: Right?  OK.  I’ll get on my routine.  Thanks.

The next time we spoke and she reported she was feeling a lot better, I asked her a little more about how she reacted to her cold challenge. I wanted to know what tripped her up in following her own advice.

What she said was interesting

Amy: I hate getting sick.  When I do I feel like I let down my clients by being a bad role model. It’s actually kind of depressing. I’m not supposed to get sick.  Made me feel down and then I didn’t feel motivated to do anything.  It’s good we talked and you reminded me of what I know.  When I’m disappointed in myself, I tend not to take the best care of myself, even though I tell my clients how important it is to treat themselves well when they don’t feel well.

Sharon: How might you intervene with yourself when that happens.

Amy:I guess the first thing is be aware that I’m feeling blue.  Then I have a choice. Take better care of myself or just feel bad. I can remind myself of my favorite remedies, and make sure I have some on hand and prescribe caring to myself as if I were my own client.

Sharon: Good!  And maybe call Mom and get some virtual Tea, honey and Lemon over the phone?

Amy: [giggles] Yes.  That would be great.  I hate to tell her I don’t feel well, because she worries. But it would really help to get some special Mom TLC.

There’s considerable research on how challenges create stress and stress impairs our ability to know what we know.

Under stress, our brains and body are hard wired to react to the emotional aspects of the situation.  It’s part of the fight or flight instinct.  We can’t as readily consider the facts.

That’s why it’s important to remind ourselves that we do have internal resources that have worked in the past; to open our mental cabinet, see the choices we’ve previously used well, and consider which of those to call into action.

In addition, what worked with one challenge might have relevance for another. Think about the example above with Amy.  Another challenge she might have is in a relationship with a colleague at work.

There was a misunderstanding. Amy’s feelings are hurt.  She’s been thrown into an emotional field that makes it hard for her to remember how she and her colleague work well together.

She needs to stop, acknowledge to herself that she’s upset and stressed and then remind herself of what’s worked positively with with her coworker in the past. It would also be helpful to consider what created the uncomfortable communication.

What happened that led to the upset?

How might she avoid that in the future, creating a better work space for both of them?

Key takeaways:

  • Under challenge we experience stress which makes it hard to focus on the facts.
  • Take the time to remind yourself of what’s worked previously.
  • Which steps can you borrow from your previous successes and apply to this situation?
  • Assess the triggers that precipitated the challenge and consider how you might avoid them moving forward.

Make sense?

Next tip coming tomorrow

Thinking about getting certified as a Professional Coach? Want to talk about it? Or any questions you have about professional coaching? Let’s talk and see whether or not it makes sense for you to become a certified professional coach.

Click below

To Learn About Our Upcoming Fast Track Certification Workshop This March in New York City

The cost of $75 for the 30 minute consultation can be applied to the TLC Professional Coach Training program if you decide to join.Warmest regards,

Sharon 🙂

Dr. Sharon Livingston

Best Practices Culture Entrepreneurship Health and Wellness Human Resources Management

Begin with the End in Mind


As I was learning about psychology, research, and training, I read Stephen Covey’s highly successful bestseller, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

What he said made so much sense to me.  It was inspiring and challenging.  And it helped me understand the importance of goals. I wanted to talk with him, learn more from him. But, I didn’t know him.  I had no contacts connected to him.  What to do . . .

I’d learned that working with corporate clients was a way to learn from them as well as help them with their projects. What if I could do that here too?

I created an experiment.  The goal was finding a way to actually work with Dr. Covey.

I’m sure you know what must have happened or I wouldn’t be telling this story.

After 6 months of reaching out to his admin on a consistent schedule, I finally got to speak with Dr. Covey.  It was so exciting. My heart was pounding at first. Really?  I was actually speaking with one of my idols.

He calmed me down with his soothing voice and we had a great talk. One result was an in-depth research project where I interviewed his clients and prospects on his Brand in comparison to that of none other than – Tony Robbins. Stephen Covey was often compared to Tony Robbins.  Yet, the two were viewed as opposites in many ways. Both were well regarded, but spoke to different audiences who had their own unique needs for inspiration and growth.

More importantly, I accomplished my goal of working with Dr. Covey and putting into action what I learned.  I now train coaches on the specifics of helping their clients clarify their goal and creating a plan to get there.  And I received a wonderful testimonial.  So exciting, rewarding and satisfying . . .

“I was totally impressed by both the character and competence of Dr. Livingston.  Her ability to draw people out in unique and creative ways and apply the gathered data to complicated analyses made my experience working with her highly memorable and rewarding.”  
Stephen Covey. NY Time Best Selling Author. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Back to you.

What do you hope to accomplish with a potential career change to Coaching? How might that bring you more satisfaction in your life?

A great coach helps clients stay on track to their goal in a timely manner and be accountable. We train you to do that with others as well as help you do that for yourself.

Thinking about getting certified as a Professional Coach? Want to talk about it? Or any questions you have about professional coaching? Let’s talk and see whether or not it makes sense for you to become a certified professional coach.

To Learn About Our Upcoming Fast Track Certification Workshop This March in New York City

The cost of $75 for the 30 minute consultation can be applied to the TLC Professional Coach Training program if you decide to join.

Next tip will be along tomorrow.

Warmest regards,

Sharon 🙂

Dr. Sharon Livingston


603 505 5000 cell


Best Practices Growth Human Resources Management Personal Development Women In Business

How to Listen to Engage in a Win-Win Business Relationship

Listen, listen, listen and then reflect

One of the best secrets of great coaching [and all good relationships for that matter] is the ability to listen attentively. You demonstrate to your client that you are engaged and responsive while avoiding expressing your opinion or giving advice or instructing.

We call this Active Listening.  (Some call it Reflective Listening…)

I personally prefer Active Listening because it suggests involvement and engagement with your client. You’re not just a sounding board who repeats the others words [Reflective Listening] but you’re fully present, responding authentically to what you hear and see and sense.

Active Listening creates a safe environment that allows the client to go deeper, and often come to new realizations. It’s the basis for connection, trust and respect.

Further, when you as coach Actively Listen your clients get to hear their words and tone as you mirror them.  It’s almost like being an outside observer. This perspective helps them to have compassion for themselves and often helps them begin their own problem solving of challenges and paths to their desired goals.

There’s also a major benefit to the coach, particularly for those who are starting out.

Many new coaches and managers feel compelled to provide an answer or give direction.  They think they have to do the heavy lifting telling the client what to do next, or sharing how they did it themselves, or coming up with a brilliant solution for a tough problem.

Listening in an engaged manner keeps the focus outside onto the client.  There’s no need to provide a solution.  All you have to do is be there in real time and play back what you experienced to spark their creative thinking.

Here’s an example.

Lisa rushes into her friend Jodie’s office, closes the door and begins:

Lisa: I’m sorry to dump this on you, but I had a fight with my sister and we haven’t spoken since. I’m upset and don’t know who to talk to.

Jodie: I’m right here.  Go ahead.

Lisa: Well, we were arguing about what to do for our parents’ anniversary. I’m still so angry.

Jodie: You SOUND angry.  Tell me more.

Lisa: Yes, she just makes me so angry. She assumed I would help her plan this elaborate party—I don’t have time! It’s like she couldn’t see things from my perspective at all.

Jodie: She really upset you by not taking you into account?

Lisa: Frustrated. Angry. Maybe a bit guilty that she had all these plans and I was the one holding them back. Finally, I told her to do it without me. But that’s not right either.

Jodie: Sounds really upsetting.  And as if her plans are your problem.

Lisa:  Right?  Now I’m the bad one and I hate that.

Jodie:  It feels bad being the bad one.  So sorry.

Lisa: Yes, Exactly. So frustrating and I do want to be part of it but I’m so overwhelmed with things right now.

Jodie: It sounds overwhelming!

Lisa:  Thanks for listening, I just needed to vent. I’m already beginning to think of how I can talk to her.

Jodie:  That’s great. If you want to tell me more about it . . .

Lisa:   [Sigh] I think I’ve got this.  I do love her and my folks.  Just hate feeling like I’m being pushed around and invisible in what I need.

Jodie: [Smiles] I see you.  I think you’ve got this too.

Lisa:  Yeah, I’m going to call her and see how we can work it out.

Jodie:  Sounds like a plan.  Keep me posted?

Lisa:   Sure.  Thanks so much for listening!

Can you see how this engaged listening environment gave Lisa just the help she needed to express her feelings and thoughts, relax and be accepting of herself so she could rethink what happened and solve her own problem?  That’s a major benefit of the Active Listening technique.

Thinking about getting certified as a Professional Coach? Want to talk about it? Or any questions you have about professional coaching? Let’s talk and see whether or not it makes sense for you to become a certified professional coach.

To Learn About Our Upcoming Fast Track Certification Workshop This March in New York City

The cost of $75 for the 30 minute consultation can be applied to the TLC Professional Coach Training program if you decide to join.

Tip 3 will be along tomorrow.

Warmest regards,

Sharon 🙂

Dr. Sharon Livingston


603 505 5000 cell


Best Practices Growth Human Resources Management Personal Development

Are You Thinking About Becoming a Mentor or a Coach?

Welcome to 10 Tips to Becoming a Successful Coach! 

Over the next 10 days I’ll be sharing a series of things to consider if you’re seriously thinking about Professional Coaching as a career.

Mentor vs. Coach?

There’s an important difference.  They’re both valuable roles.  Coaching focusses on the client.  Mentoring is based on the knowledge and skills of the mentor.

Mentors pass down history, traditions, rules and rituals that are associated with success.

Mentors talk and teach. Mentors are often appointed by a corporation or organization because of their successes in their careers.  It’s an opportunity for them to tell their stories to others in the company who want to climb up the ranks.  They tend to give advice based on what they figured out for themselves in their many years of experiences.  It’s an honor to be appointed a mentor. The unspoken rule is that Mentees are expected to listen and follow.

In contrast, Coaches Listen and Guide.  A coach will assist, challenge and encourage rather than lead, give orders, instruct or advise.  While good coaches do have experience and knowledge in particular areas their role is to understand, motivate and guide rather than train.

As a coach, even though your client came to you for your expertise and reputation; even though they think they want you to solve their challenge and tell them what to do; it’s really not about you and your talents or strengths.

It’s about who they are and their particular journeys.  Clients need help in talking about and clarifying their destination – Why they chose it, what the benefits are, what tools they have to get there.

Great coaches listen intently through the filter or their knowledge and experience. They reflect what they understand from interviewing their clients so the clients can better see, embrace and recognize their strengths. Clients are empowered to see themselves as problem solvers for their wants and needs.

So, for example, as a coach it’s better to avoid asking your client a question and then immediately launching into an explanation and your solution to their problem. It’s about what the client believes and needs; what they want to achieve.

Unless you focus on their goal and not what you think it should be they’ll probably remain stuck, which is most likely the main reason they came for your coaching.

You’re the catalyst to their success, not the driver.  As you help them identify their dreams, goals, strengths, skills and potential gaps, the road map to their goal will start to take shape in a realizable, step by step plan.

Then you can guide them and hold them accountable along the way.

Thinking about getting certified as a Professional Coach? Want to talk about it? Or any questions you have about professional coaching? Let’s talk and see whether or not it makes sense for you to become a certified professional coach.

To Learn About Our Upcoming Fast Track Certification Workshop This March in New York City

The cost of $75 for the 30 minute consultation can be applied to the TLC Professional Coach Training program if you decide to join.

Tip 2 will be along tomorrow.

Warmest regards,

Sharon 🙂

Dr. Sharon Livingston


603 505 5000 cell


Best Practices Body Language Culture Health and Wellness Human Resources Management Women In Business

What to do When Whatever Can Happen Suddenly Does and Tries to Destroy Your Meeting – Part 2

You’ve just been attacked verbally by a super-irate member of your meeting.  Your heart is pounding.  Your eyes are wide.  The rest of the group is focused on you for help.  What the heck?!  Who signed me up for this???!!!!

Here’s one technique to feel more centered and apart from your own emotional reactions when aggression is expressed.  Experience yourself observing while simultaneously leading.  You can take an emotional step back from involvement in the group by imagining that you’re watching a movie; the story is unfolding before your eyes and you can watch and think about the characters, the plot and the implications from a slightly removed vantage point. We thereby spare ourselves the stress and high emotions that can distort perceptions of the findings as well as jeopardize our ability to lead.

By the way, in marketing research focus groups, this is excellent advice for the observers in the backroom. As we’ve all experienced, it’s often difficult for clients to hear negative and emotionally charged feedback about their brain children. And, who could blame them? Their jobs are on the line.  Their self-esteem about their own creative process which brought the test ideas into being are being challenged and shot down in a moment, while they may have spent months or even years coming to the point where they are brave enough to expose them to their audiences. It’s natural that clients are likely to take any attacks on their products and advertising personally making it difficult to listen with an open mind.

It is therefore a wise idea for clients to have the safety of the movie metaphor. And it works well with the focus group set up. Watching the “movie” through the glass is a logical extension of the physical environment.  The window is like a large screen. The seats are lined up in tiers. It’s dark like a movie theatre. Many facilities even serve popcorn to encourage the sense of more passive viewing and listening.

However, it’s a totally different situation in the front room as the leader. The facilitator might pretend that she/he is the focusing lens of the camera, but… the problem occurs when the monster in the movie slowly turns its head, catches the camera’s eye and focuses his fury right into the audience’s face. We all know how frightening that is when that character seems to come off the big screen and become aware of you as viewer.  Our safe seat in the auditorium is now confronted by the scary beast. An icy chill streaks up our spine. Our hearts begin to race. Our eyes widen. Some will utter a frightened, HUH!! If the change
in the monster’s demeanor and attention comes out of the blue, the intensity of our reactions is greater.

Imagine how much worse that is when an angry group member captures the moderator’s eye and blasts him/her with a tirade of emotion intended for God knows what, his boss,  his father/mother, or anyone else who has made them angry. While we can sit safely in the movie theatre just having our momentary feeling of fright, in the leader’s seat we must have strategies in place for dealing with these people.

Art Shulman, a friend of mine who has attended our training and learned about our Snow White Theory for dealing with the various types of characters in the group, wrote a comic tongue-in-cheek account of his version of The Hulk appearing in one of his sessions.

Here’s a synopsis and a small excerpt.  Thank you Art!:

Apparently, an already transformed, surly, Hulk-like look-a-like known as “Beast” presented himself in one of Art’s groups (or perhaps hypothetical groups). In the go round he growled and snarled at the group and at Art.  Art, silently, but frantically tried to recall all of the interventions he had learned to employ in dealing with difficult people. He jokingly reflects to himself things like:

  • Slip him a Mickey?
  • Pull out a can of Mace?
  • Use the ejector seat?

Then he tells us that he remembered the seating position behavior he learned about for working with difficult respondents. He invites Beast, AKA Grumpy or Hulk who is sitting in the confrontational, counter-leadership position at the end of the table to switch seats with Happy who is sitting in the compliant seat to the leader’s immediate right. He correctly explains that the chair opposite the leader is likely to be taken by a provoking, challenging character. One way to change behavior is to literally change the person’s seat.

In Art’s Group Thriller, he has this Grumpy Beast switch his seat with Happy, the character most likely to support the leader. Then Art announced to the group that the topic of the session was Christmas stockings, where upon our Grumpy Hulk uttered a thunderous rumbling sound like that of a volcano about to erupt, turned to him and the people in the backroom, and in growing ferocity picked up a chair and flung it at the mirror.

Once our imaginary respondent, Beast, released the pent up frustration that had been growing to a breaking point, he was able to express the softer feelings and reasons why.

In Art’s words:

“Then, as we all looked on, Beast sat back down and became tearful,. .’Every December I apply for jobs as Santa Claus. But I’m always rejected once they find out I’m a professional wrestler’

For the rest of the session he was a pussycat, making all sorts of  useful suggestions to increase sales of my client’s product”

* * *

With just a little luck, nothing this extreme will ever happen to you when you’re leading a group or meeting. Yet there is that nagging old Murphy reminding us that anything can and will. The sheer knowledge of this possibility, no matter how rare, keeps us needing to have an approach to handle the most difficult respondents even though most groups are comprised of amiable, cooperative people.

An important intervention for your consideration:

I would like to suggest a little tactic to have in your back pocket that you can rely on if Murphy and The Hulk show up in your meeting and scare you with a roar and the mighty muscle that looks like he can back it up.  It is a very simple technique that diffuses the raw emotion of this grumpy person. And remember, all of us have the capacity for being quite grumpy at times, when provoked.

The unexpected outburst starts. Allow the participant to vent and finish his/her little tirade. You will be feeling the attack and so will the rest of the group. If you are like most people when confronted with such a strong assault your heart is racing and you probably feel a little frightened yourself not unlike the shock I felt when the computer came crashing down on my head out of seemingly nowhere.

Remind yourself to take a breath. It will be over soon.

You can give yourself time to think and recover from your pounding heart and dazed feeling AND at the same time, help this angry person calm down by saying: “I am sorry could you repeat that…I want to be sure I really understood what you said.”

While it may sound counter intuitive to invite this furious fomentation to be unleashed yet again, it actually has the reverse effect.  It is at once both an extraordinarily simple AND extraordinarily powerful intervention.

Here’s why:

– Asking the person to repeat what was just expressed protects you from attempting to engage in a rational conversation with an irrational person (which is kind of like
trying to get your dog to teach you Calculus … you’ll just irritate him and get him to bark louder).

Our job is to keep the group communication constructive, reasonably logical and goal oriented (despite any needs to recognize emotional motivation.) The overly aggressive attacker is not able to contribute to this in their initial state of anger.

– Second, the meaning and intent of the overly aggressive  communication is usually quite clouded by the intensity of his adrenalin. It’s hard to decipher the meaning and
implications out from underneath the intensity of his emotional outburst.

The tone of your voice should communicate genuine interest in hearing the meaning of his/her words. You are asking so that you can help this person better articulate what they are thinking.

Like the Hulk who requires a build up of energy to fuel his fiery temper, the aggressive participant’s raw emotion has been spent. It will take time, energy and a sense of annoyance and irritation to rebuild for there to be another volcanic eruption.  When the participant repeats what was originally spat out in a rage, he/she will now express it far more calmly with far less feeling and agitation. This will give you an opportunity to:

* Recuperate, calm down, collect your thoughts and think of your next question

* Invite the group to react to the content of his message rather than the inappropriate emotion.

Then, in order to further help Grumpy respond in a way which will help him be more cooperative, ask “object oriented[4], easy questions with regard to the content. Examples would be:

– When did this happen?
– Where were you?
– How did you get there?
– Who was there?

People calm down when given the opportunity to answer simple factual question which have definite answers, having nothing to do with their opinions. (The reason is, opinions reside INSIDE a person’s head … they are ideas one has to ‘defend’, whereas facts are things that are usually more objectively verifiable, thus carrying less of a need for personal

In contrast, asking a very upset person “why?” (to which they may or may not know the answer, and which certainly puts them on the spot to defend their position) may create more anxiety and refuel their upset.

You might also, (at some point after the problem person has re-verbalized their aggression and been helped to calm down with these simple factual questions), acknowledge the problem or concern he has, then repeat it to the person to make sure you (and the rest
of the group) understands the issue.

What works about this approach?

You demonstrated that you have respect for her/him [as well as the others in the group] by accepting his reaction and wanting to hear more.

You remained apparently calm and avoided counter attacking and dismissing him. (That’s hard to do when someone is attacking you. During an aggressive confrontation, it’s natural to want to fight fire with fire.)

You indicated interest in finding out what he is really thinking and validated him by letting him know that you believe there is an important message beyond the fireworks.

You treated the issue as important to her/him, even though it might not be so for others, showing your interest in his and everyone’s reactions.

You demonstrated acceptance of his feelings to make it possible for him to talk without having to use intense emotional outbursts to get your attention.

You used the window of calm after the storm to reestablish your leadership in the group and take control

At the same time, you gave the other group members a moment to catch their breath too and calm down from the onslaught so you could all return to the task at hand.

Incidentally, Art was right about seating position. It’s much easier for an angry meeting participant to assert dominance and attempt to steal the floor if they can make eye contact with the leader. Acknowledging via eye contact invites the other to talk and interact. [You know how they
say to avoid eye contact with a crazy looking person when you’re walking the streets of Manhattan.] So either change his seat or change the balance of power by getting up, moving around the room and making it difficult for him/her to look you in the eye until this person has demonstrated that she/he can be cooperative.

When all else fails, from another fairy tale, keep a pitcher of water handy to melt the wicked witch. [Just kidding of course, but it’s only fair to note that Super-Grumpies come in both genders].

And remember, Murphy’s law is very unlikely to come to pass. Most meetings are comprised of people who want to be there and share their ideas rather than hitting you on the head with a heavy metal black box.

Hmmmm.  Maybe Dennis the flight attendant was the Incredible Hulk?

Wishing you great meetings!

Want to learn more about leading groups?  Contact me http://www.DrSharonLivingsto.com to find out about our upcoming training sessions or email me directly at DrSharonLivingston@gmail.com

[1] Wasn’t sure if he was just annoyed with me for invading his space or if he saw my strange behavior as a function of menopausal madness.  If he had only known the secrets for assuaging potentially aggressive reactions, we might have had a pleasant flight..

[2] After sharing my experience with other QRC’s I heard a story that topped this one.  A moderator was sitting in First Class.  During take off, a bottle of wine flew out of the galley, hit her in the head and knocked her unconscious!  We really have a high risk occupation, friends.

[3]  Grumpy is an icon for one of the 7 characters that show up in any group. Anyone unfamiliar with my metaphor that respondents in a focus group tend to assume the role of one of the seven dwarves from the classic 1800’s tale can visit http://www.snowwhitetheory.com/ for a description of all the postures people take in a group meeting and suggestions for how to handle them

[4] An object oriented question is just a factual question that has an easily identifiable right answer. An opinion might be judged, making the respondent anxious, but factual queries are experienced as safe.


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Please Pass The Puppy

Up until a couple of years ago, anyone who knew me fairly well, knew that I had a wonderful little mascot, Stewie the Shih Tzu. We’d been hanging out together for 13 years and he accompanied me to many places: to work every day when I was in my home office, on the road whenever I could, to my hairdresser, and he sat on my lap in the dentist office.

What you may not know is that Stewie has participated in a number of marketing research, training and creativity events.

It started when he was a two month old puppy. At that time, I had a facility on Long Island. My partner and I were running a creativity session with a pharma company and it’s agency. There were 16 people sitting around the table for many hours, coming up with new ideas for several categories of products. Since Stewie was still so little, I brought him along.  After getting permission from the group, we set up a make shift puppy playpen in the corner just behind my chair.

Not surprisingly, early in the session Stewie started whining a little, so I picked him up and held him in one hand while I continued conducting with my pen in the other.  [Later one of the participants told me that Stewie’s little head kept bobbing up and down following the pen as it drew invisible lines and circles, mirroring the movements of my improvised baton.  Can you tell this puppy was my child?!  I thought everything he did was adorable.]

This was a fairly typical brainstorming session – the group was charged with identifying areas we wanted to develop, getting spontaneous downloads of ideas, using creative excursions to move away from the problem at hand to make new associations, generating possible ideas from the new input and then doing it all over again.  While much of the time was spent in spontaneous talk mode, there was some head down writing involving focused concentration.

For some people that part is tense.  At one point during a writing exercise, a woman lifted her head, turned to me, arm extended and commanded, “Please pass the puppy”  — which of course I did without a blink.  Stewie continued to travel around the room at various times throughout the day providing comedic and warm fuzzy relief when people needed a break or wanted to lessen stress.

Stewie continued his apprenticeship over the years, listening in while providing licks and entertainment to my clients.  Most of the people I work with were thrilled to have him attend and several actually requested him. Why? Because he brought “love” and innocence into the session. He’s spontaneously silly, engaging in hilarious antics that are entertaining. He cuddled, invited petting and patting, gave licks, asked for what he wanted, and was genuinely and obviously appreciative of any attention given to him.

One of my clients, James, loved to have Stewie along. In addition to just enjoying Stewie’s presence and clowning around, he also relished the opportunity to take the pup “out for a walk” – a euphemism for grabbing a smoke.

On one occasion, we were conducting a series of one-on-ones with MD’s on a set of concepts for a new medication.  It was suburban Philly.  We were interviewing 15 docs per market. After interview #10, James said, “Hey, I have an idea. We pretty much know how we’re doing here. [This was the final of three markets.] What would you think of bringing Stewie into the front room to see what happens.  It would be research on research!”

I asked if he was sure he wanted to take the chance of forfeiting the interview results, and he replied with an enthusiastic “YES!”  So, I greeted the psychiatrist in the waiting room and told him that I had my dog with me.  How did he feel about dogs? How might he feel about allowing the dog into the interview room?  The doctor said it was fine with him.

Imagine the set up. My back is to the mirror.  The doctor is facing the mirror.  I have two tables set up in an L with stacks of materials as well as discarded papers in a pile under the table ready to be shredded.  We start the interview with the purpose of the talk and an introduction of the doctor; medications he currently writes for his patients, etc.

Then we switched to concept exposure.

Stewie started out laying at my feet.  That lasted for about 10 minutes before he started exploring.  The first thing he found was the pile of papers on the floor. Stewie saw an opportunity to earn his keep and started aggressively shredding the paper. Meanwhile the doctor continued to talk as if oblivious to the noise and distraction, while I’m thinking to myself, “oh well, I guess this isn’t going to work.”

I picked up Stewie and got him to settle down on my lap while we progressed in the interview, showing more ideas for the doctor’s feedback. I don’t know what you know about Shih Tzu’s, but because of their short snouts, they have a propensity to snort and snore. In fact Stewie can snore louder than my Grandmother who was queen of sawing wood, honking and whinnying while she slept.

Internally, my virtual eyes were rolling, but I stayed with the process, asking questions, probing, clarifying, moving onto the next set until we finished. Surprisingly, after a couple of giggles of acknowledgement of Stewie’s off key concerto, we got through the entire interview covering all the materials.

As were winding down, I asked the doctor what it was like to have the pup in the room. His answer was very interesting. He said that he’d done interviews before and that even though he knew he was being asked for his honest response, he generally found himself trying to give the answers he imagined the interviewer wanted to hear. But this was different. He allowed himself to be authentic and say what was really on his mind.

In classic interviewer style, I said, “interesting, what might have contributed to the difference in your response.”

He said there were two things. Having the dog in the room gave him the sense that his own playfulness and creativity were encouraged. To him this translated to allowing himself to be relaxed and open. In addition, my accepting of Stewie without punishing his behaviors said that I would be accepting of whatever he had to say. The result was he was comfortable taking the risk of telling me how he really felt about the product concepts.

James, who had been laughing his head off in the backroom, sobered up and took notice. James was in charge of the internal research training program. His company holds a bi-monthly Lunch and Learn event that is offered to all in the research department of his company. The doctor’s reaction was so intriguing, that he actually wrote it up and distributed it to the VP of Research as well as his peers for future consideration.

There is a dynamic relationship between people and animals. Each influences both the physiological and psychological state of the other. In the presence of animals, people seem healthier and happier and actually experience improved health benefits: lower blood pressure, less anxiety and a general sense of feeling good about themselves. In fact, pets can add to longevity. Grieving elderly widows and widowers left with pets survive years longer than their counterparts without pets.

Animals are a natural source of genuine affection. They create an emotionally safe, non-threatening environment that can encourage people to open up. In the presence of friendly pets, people relax and calm down. They forget about their worries, loneliness, sadness, pain and fear. They laugh and feel moments of unselfconscious joy.

Did you know that 20% of American businesses allow their staff to bring companion animals along with them to work?

The value of a cute pup or pet in work situations has been researched. Results of a survey sponsored by The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association indicated positive outcomes as a result of bringing pets to work.

Participants agreed that bringing their pets to work led to:

  • An increased willingness to work longer
  • A decrease in absenteeism
  • Improved relationships with co-workers
  • An environment that fosters creativity
  • Higher productivity

So, do you have a pet that might like to give back? Maybe become an assistant researcher or facilitator?  Just be sure to protect anyone who might have fear of fur and get their permission before introducing your pup.

To learn more interesting tips on making work less like work and encouraging employee engagement click http://www.future-proof-your-career.com